Shoshana, May 24, 2008 (view all comments by Shoshana)
A lyrical and evocative reflection on colonialism, but reported as a story about desire and wholeness. The narrator, Binh, is Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas's Vietnamese cook at 27 rue des Fleurus in Paris. Some reviewers have critiqued it for not being enough about Stein and Toklas; this is like criticizing A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court for not focusing on King Arthur. While Stein and Toklas provide a foil and a context, this is Binh's narrative. While Vietnam and France are the backdrop, he is a young man both literally and figuratively at sea.
Though I occasionally tripped over a bit of Truong's prose, overall the novel flows well, is a joy to read, and mixes sweet, sour, bitter, and salt as exactingly as any cook could wish.
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salliforth1, March 29, 2006 (view all comments by salliforth1)
This was favorite read of 2005. Beautiful language, inexorable sadness -- a compelling story of Gertrude Stein's and Alice B. Toklas' Vietnamese cook. Binh doesn't fit anywhere; not in Vietnam, not in Paris, not in the countryside. He is invisible. He cooks. He loves and is loved (as much as an invisible person can). He searches for a life that is always out of reach. And his story is told in salt: Salt in tears, salt in food, salt in sweat, salt in the sea. Lovely and haunting.
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I enjoyed this book for its quirky story line — a young Vietnamese cook, who is also gay, comes to live in Paris with his brother who is an aspiring chef. After a brief stint working alongside his sibling he loses the job and comes to inquire for a position as a live-in cook for Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. What ensues is the combination of pressures he must balance in order to explore his individuality and to come to terms with the very exacting demands of the famous couple he now works for.
by Joy Press, Village Voice,
"Truong weaves a sumptuous tale of gastronomy, language, cravings, and cruelty....The Book of Salt doesn't lay its secrets bare but coils itself around them."
"A debut novel of pungent sensousness and intricate, inspired imagination."
by Publishers Weekly,
"A mesmerizing narrative voice, an insider's view of a fabled literary household and the slow revelation of heartbreaking secrets contribute to the visceral impact of this first novel....If Truong sometimes stretches the range of Bonh's understanding and powers of observation...the narrative rings with emotional authenticity."
by Kirkus Reviews,
"[A] dazzling if sometimes daunting debut....Truong caresses each image and each shifting sensation, forming whole scenes around a taste, color, or touch, language being her other second theme....A tour de force. Truong should take literate America by storm."
by Jacques Pepin,
"A fascinating, original, and sharply written story with vivid insight into the world of cooking."
by Jessica Hagedorn, author of Dogeaters,
"Elegant, witty, intricate, and richly imagined, Monique Truong's Book of Salt is — dare I say it? — a delicious and deeply satisfying novel."
The Book of Salt serves up a wholly original take on Paris in the 1930s through the eyes of Binh, the Vietnamese cook employed by Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. Viewing his famous mesdames and their entourage from the kitchen of their rue de Fleurus home, Binh observes their domestic entanglements while seeking his own place in the world. In a mesmerizing tale of yearning and betrayal, Monique Truong explores Paris from the salons of its artists to the dark nightlife of its outsiders and exiles. She takes us back to Binh's youthful servitude in Saigon under colonial rule, to his life as a galley hand at sea, to his brief, fateful encounters in Paris with Paul Robeson and the young Ho Chi Minh.
by Houghton Mifflin,
"[He] came to us through an advertisement that I had in desperation put in the newspaper. It began captivatingly for those days: 'Two American ladies wish to hire . . .' " It was these lines in The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book that inspired The Book of Salt, a brilliant first novel by an acclaimed Vietnamese American writer.
In Paris, 1934, Binh has accompanied his employers, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, to the train station for their departure to America. His own destination is unclear: will he go with "the Steins," stay in France, or return to his native Vietnam? Binh has fled his homeland in disgrace, leaving behind his malevolent charlatan of a father and his self-sacrificing mother. For five years, he has been the live-in cook at the famous apartment at 27 rue de Fleurus.
Before Binh's decision is revealed, his mesmerizing narrative catapults us back to his youth in French-colonized Vietnam, his years as a galley hand at sea, and his days turning out fragrant repasts for the doyennes of the Lost Generation. Binh knows far more than the contents of the Steins' pantry: he knows their routines and intimacies, their manipulations and follies. With wry insight, he views Stein and Toklas ensconced in rueful domesticity.
But is Binh's account reliable? A lost soul, he is a late-night habitue of the Paris demimonde, an exile and an alien, a man of musings and memories, and, possibly, lies. Love is the prize that has eluded him, from his family to the men he has sought out in his far-flung journeys, often at his peril.
Intricate, compelling, and witty, the novel weaves in historical characters, from Stein and Toklas to Paul Robeson and Ho Chi Minh, with remarkable originality. Flavors, seas, sweat, tears — The Book of Salt is an inspired feast of storytelling riches.
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