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The Book of Salt (2003)

by Monique Truong

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1,2043415,343 (3.49)48
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)
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Showing 1-5 of 32 (next | show all)
Set in the 1920s and 1930s, protagonist and narrator Binh is a young gay Vietnamese cook living in Paris and working as personal chef for Gertrude Stein and her partner, Alice B. Toklas. He had to leave French Indochina due to a failed relationship and his father’s disapproval. He tells of his life and loves in Saigon and Paris, as he observes the interactions between Stein and Toklas.

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.
( )
1 vote Castlelass | Oct 30, 2022 |
Really fascinating and beautifully written book. Highly recommended. ( )
1 vote elenaj | Jul 31, 2020 |
A clear-eyed, complicated, well voiced novel. Grand and simple, the book fits a full, beautiful world in briefly, managing to make terrible things palatable without losing the truth. The tone is remarkably rich while remaining direct, though it does occationally run to purple. A lovely book. Worth it for the food alone. ( )
1 vote Eoin | Jun 3, 2019 |
1930's Paris, Viet cook of Gertrude Stein + Alice B. Toklas
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?
1 vote christinejoseph | May 16, 2018 |
When I picked up this book it was on the premise that it focused on Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas during their time living in France. It was through the eyes of their Vietnamese cook, Binh. I found that that was the backdrop for the story and that the main focus was the cook and his finding who he was.

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. ( )
  ChazziFrazz | Jun 23, 2016 |
Showing 1-5 of 32 (next | show all)
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We had certainly luck in finding good cooks, though they had their weaknesses in other ways. Gertrude Stein liked to remind me that if they did not have such faults, they would not be working for us. -Alice B. Toklas
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On that day I have two photographs and, of course, my memories.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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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.

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