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...' It was these lines in The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook that inspired The Book of Salt, a brilliant first novel by a talented young Vietnamese American writer about the taste of exile. Paris, 1934, 'Thin Bin', as they call him, has accompanied his employers, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, to the 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 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 personal cook at the famous apartment on the rue de Fleurus. Before Binh's decision is revealed, we are catapulted back to his youth in French-colonized Indo China, where he learned to cook in the embassy kitchens, 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 what the Steins eat: he knows their routines and intimacies, their food and foll
When I was twelve, I wrote a short story about a witch in the desert for my combined English/History class (yes it was one of those New Age-y things with a funny course name*). It was not a particularly good short story, though I was somewhat proud of the slowly unwinding suspense and the female-centric focus**, if only because after I’d gone about two pages over the page length suggestion and realized I’d need another ten pages to really make a plot arc and so instead ended it rather open-ended on the next page because hey, I’d already demonstrated sufficiently*** that I’d at least retained some knowledge of the rise of Islam during the Middle Ages, Bedouins, and Islamic culture.
Reading The Book of Salt reminded me of this long-forgotten assignment, because, well, The Book of Salt reads a lot like Monique Truong’s college-educated version of said assignment, demonstrating sufficiently her knowledge of the Lost Generation. Troung clearly knows Gertrude Stein’s salon and its visitors well, and observes it with equal measures art hanger-on-ism and pot-shot-taking. My own pet issue shoehorned into my desert setting was young female empowerment, but Truong’s is colonialism and homosexuality, as evidenced my her main character—Binh the Vietnamese cook of Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas.
Admittedly Monique Truong is a much better writer than I was at twelve (or now), but there’s still a overall perfunctory and rambly nature that the results share. The narrative doesn’t really go anywhere beyond its place setting or 20s Vietnam and Paris, and particularly Binh’s journey is less goes anywhere than simply gives context for more historical figures to show up… even when Truong makes obvious attempts at making his story Literary (as with the food descriptions, which disappointingly felt rather sterile and self-conscious rather than the food-porn I was looking forward to).
As a history assignment, an A for The Book of Salt, as literature, a D.
*I mean, why not combine the two most boring subjects into a 3 hour block of drudgery, right? Besides I happen to think Math and History would be a better combination. Or Physics and PE. Or Foreign Language and English.Yeah, I love reading and grammar and hate English classes. Go figure.
** though in retrospect, I could have just been unconsciously aping The Witch of Blackbird Pond
***And hey I got an A-. It was certainly better than my previous year’s “Public Speaking as Mary Queen of Scots” had turned out, (but not as good as my humorous play on feudalism’s labor exploitation starring puppets and human actors).
The relationship between Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas was obviously well -researched by the author and is presented in an intimately realistic way, yet in a muted enough fashion to reflect the language and cultural barrier of the narrator. While it is clear that the focus of the book is on Bin the Vietnamese chef, and not on Gertrude Stein and Alice, I do think that aspects of their relationship and lives that were so essential were in some respects not touched on very deeply. For example, the art that they displayed on their walls is of a caliber to be the envy of any modern art museum - Cezanne, Gauguin, Renoir, etc. but was not discussed by the narrator although he is a person of deep artistic sensibilities (numerous times he monologues about the meaning of different colors). While cultural barriers may have meant he would not have known the artists, how could he not comment on their artwork until late in the book? This is by no means a fatal flaw though and the beauty of the rest of the book is enough to overcome that for me.
It is the prose that gets me. Give me a good prose writer and I will keep coming back. Prose about food, love, France, travels etc. I eat that stuff for dinner.
Scenes of his young life and early work life in Viet Nam. A harsh upbringing with a demanding father and a submissive mother. The voice of his father making comments on Binh's life choices and how much his father felt Binh had failed. Binh was to become a cook and follow in his older brother's footsteps...but Binh made other choices and wound up going to sea and winding up in Paris. Here he goes to work for two American ladies, Stein and Toklas.
Written in a mix of current time frame and flashback, the reader moves between different times in Binh's life, while he examines then and how they influenced his current situation.
Truong is a beautiful writer and her style and word usage draws you along to continue reading. For me the subject wasn't to my preference. But her work is easy and pleasing to read and made me want to finish the book out of respect for her quality of writing.
Is salt — Kitchen, Sweat, Tears, or Sea
beautiful words — transition from Viet. to Paris — "gay" — fitting in own life Excellent
Binh, a Vietnamese cook, flees Saigon in 1929, disgracing his family to serve as a galley hand at sea. The taunts of his now-deceased father ringing in his ears, Binh answers an ad for a live-in cook at a Parisian household, and soon finds himself employed by Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas.
Toklas and Stein hold court in their literary salon, for which the devoted yet acerbic Binh serves as chef, and as a keen observer of his "Mesdames" and their distinguished guests. But when the enigmatic literary ladies decide to journey back to America, Binh is faced with a monumental choice: will he, the self-imposed "exile," accompany them to yet another new country, return to his native Vietnam, or make Paris his home?