"[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, ...Read More"[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 follies. With wry insight, we see 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 demi-monde, an exile and an alien, a man of musings, memories, and possibly lies, susceptible to drink and occasional self-mutilation with a kitchen knife...Love is the prize that has eluded him, from his family to the men he has sought out in his farflung journeys, often at his peril and more recently with risk to Stein's manuscript notebooks. Intricate, compelling, and witty, the novel weaves in historical characters, from Stein and Toklas to Paul Robeson and Ho Chi Minh, with remarkable originality. Tastes, oceans, sweat, tears -- The Book of Salt is an inspired novel about food and exile, love and betrayal.Read Less
I found the idea of the book intriguing (story of an Asian chef's hard life till he gets hired in Paris by Alice B. Toklas and Gertrude Stein) but did not enjoy the way it unfolded. Ultimately, I got bored. I do recall that it received a good review.
May 11, 2007
sad and moving
I couldn?t care less about Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, but I cared very much about their Vietnamese cook, Binh, who narrates this fictional story. While the author?s time-shifting is a little confusing at times, you reach a point where it all begins to make sense. Binh?s story is bittersweet, and while the bitter predominates much of the time, the reader quickly develops empathy for his sufferings and comes to admire the way he plods on in spite of each tragic episode he faces. Truong?s style is lyrical and there is much understated humor. Binh is homosexual, which adds to his troubles, yet he makes no apologies and never forsakes his dignity.
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