In Paris, in 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 Vietnam? Binh fled his homeland in disgrace. 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 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. He is a 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, often at his peril.--From publisher description.… (more)
This story is told in stream-of-consciousness in a non-linear timeline with frequent unannounced shifts. There is not much of a plot here, but there are two stories – one of Binh and his travails, and the other of the Stein-Toklas relationship. The writing is evocative and there are several emotionally moving scenes.
The portrayal of Binh as a voice of a marginalized person works particularly well. Binh knows about French cuisine, and this knowledge of food helps him break through some of the traditional stereotypes he often encounters. I liked the elegant writing and storylines, but the structure did not work all that well for me. I think this is a case where the style occasionally gets in the way. Still, I found it well worth reading.
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.
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?
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.
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
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).
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.
The relationship between Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas was obviously well -researched by the author and is