The Book of Salt

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“[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 Cook Book that inspired The Book of Salt.

In Paris, 1934, Bính 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,” ...

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The Book of Salt: A Novel

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“[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 Cook Book that inspired The Book of Salt.

In Paris, 1934, Bính 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?

Bính 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 twenty-seven rue de Fleurus. Before Bính’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.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers
Novelist Monique Truong has also chosen to tackle the lives of the literary in her fiction debut. "Unemployed and Alone" is the phrase the narrator of this highly original novel uses to describe himself. That is, before he met the two women who would employ him for the next five years. Bình, a Vietnamese cook, fled Saigon in 1929, disgracing his family to serve as galley hand at sea. The taunts of his now-deceased father ringing in his ears, Bình answers an ad for a live-in cook at a Parisian household, and soon finds himself employed by Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas.

While America struggles under the dual weights of Prohibition and the Great Depression, Paris has continued to swing, albeit with more than a hint of anti-American sentiment. Toklas and Stein hold court in their literary salon, for which the devoted yet acerbic Bình 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, Bình 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? With its rich blend of culinary delights and literary revelations, The Book of Salt is a much-needed ingredient on every smart reader's book list. (Spring 2003 Selection)

The Village Voice
This sumptuous debut weaves cooking, language, cravings, and cruelty around a pseudo-historical figure: the mysterious Vietnamese chef, Binh, who worked for Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas and recounts his life in deliciously acid tones. For over three years, Binh lives with the Mesdames, viewing them with a queasy mix of awe and resentment. Truong leaps between scenes of Binh's pleasure and humiliation, using the language of gastronomy to communicate the daily indignities of servitude and colonialism.
The Los Angeles Times
Binh is deeply troubled (clearly more so as the novel goes on), yet he is oddly noble, determined to find a life of dignity for himself. That the account of his life story ultimately proves unreliable makes Binh no less memorable or compelling a figure. And it makes Truong's debut seem more impressive and ambitious than most contemporary first works of fiction, which often read like thinly fictionalized memoirs. This novel, however, displays its author's supple imagination on every page. — Carmela Ciuraru
The New York Times
The story of the uprooted basket weaver is a parable for the kind of vessel that Monique Truong has fashioned in The Book of Salt. Against the odds, she has made unsettling art from precisely such exotic cuttings and transplantings. — Christopher Benfey
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. From a few lines in The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book, Truong reimagines the Vietnamese cook who was hired by the famous residents at 27 rue de Fleurus. Bonh, as he calls himself, is an exile from his homeland, where he was denounced because of a homosexual relationship and banished by his brutal father. After three years at sea, Bonh ends up in Paris, where he answers Toklas's ad ("Two American ladies wish...") and enters the household of Gertrude Stein. The story begins in 1934 when the women he calls "my Mesdames" are about to tour America, and B nh fears he'll be cast adrift once again. Flashbacks reveal his loneliness and guilt, his doomed love affairs (he enjoys a brief tryst with Ho Chi Minh, whom he knows only as "the man on the bridge") and his sadness at having abandoned his mother and his native land. The tone throughout is poignant, lightened by B nh's subversive wit; for all his bitterness and resentment, he is a captivating narrator, as adept at describing Stein's literary salon as the contents of Toklas's kitchen. If Truong sometimes stretches the range of Bonh's understanding and powers of observation, interpreting even the thoughts of Stein herself, the narrative rings with emotional authenticity. Truong's supple prose is permeated with sensual detail, reminiscent of A Debt to Pleasure in its evocation of the erotic possibilities of food. But it is her intuitive understanding of the condition of exile-"the pure, sea salt sadness of the outcast"-that infuses her novel with richness and beauty. Author tour; rights sold in U.K. and France. (Apr. 7) Copyright 2003 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Set in Paris during the late 1920s and early 1930s, this uniquely told tale by debut novelist Truong features Binh, the fictionalized Vietnamese cook to literary figures Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, who narrates the tale of his life working for "my Mesdames." Early in the novel, readers are whisked inside 27 rue de Fleurus, the real-life residence of the two women, as Binh judiciously describes the daily nuances of his life as well as his own equally intriguing biography. Truong's novel portrays varying dimensions of love as readers observe the relationships between Stein and Toklas, Binh and his lover Sweet Sunday Man, and the Old Man and Binh's mother. From a culinary perspective, this work is a sensual treat similar to Laura Esquivel's Like Water for Chocolate and Joanne Harris's Chocolat. And like novelist Gail Tsukiyama, Truong is able to create Asian characters and blend them with historical elements to create a work that will appeal to a broad audience. Highly recommended for public and academic libraries with large fiction collections and those serving Vietnamese American populations.-Shirley N. Quan, Orange Cty. P.L., Santa Ana, CA Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
In a dazzling if sometimes daunting debut, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas's Vietnamese cook tells his story-and theirs. By 1934, Binh (it may or may not be his real name) has cooked for Stein and Toklas for five years. As he and his "Mesdames" travel by rail to Le Havre, where the women will depart for America, we learn his history in bits and pieces, often through meandering riffs that may challenge readers' patience. Binh is the fourth son of an authoritarian Vietnamese Catholic (who may or may not be his biological father). His oldest brother, a sous-chef, finds work for Binh in the kitchen of the French Governor General of Vietnam, but Binh's homosexual affair with the chef is revealed, and he's fired. Binh escapes disgrace by going as a cook's assistant aboard a freighter bound for Europe, then works in a number of French kitchens before finding a home with Stein and Toklas. He describes the famous couple from the intimate perspective of hired help verging on family. While he admires the woman he calls GertrudeStein (sic) as a major energy force, his deeper loyalty goes to Toklas, who shares his passion for the sensuality of preparing food-the novel is in fact largely a meditation on the senses and sensuality, and the salt of the title has different sources (table, sea, tears, sweat) that create different sensations and different resonances. Truong caresses each image and each shifting sensation, forming whole scenes around a taste, color, or touch, language being her other second theme. Binh himself writes in Vietnamese, speaks a little French and less English, but comments on the meaning of words as they play against each other in the three languages. Far less important is theplot involving his affair with a mixed-race American for whom he steals one of Stein's notebooks. A tour de force. Truong should take literate America by storm. Author tour. Agent: Elaine Koster
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781620649329
  • Publisher: Blackstone Audio, Inc.
  • Publication date: 8/6/2013
  • Format: CD
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 5.20 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Monique Truong

MONIQUE TRUONG was born and raised in Vietnam, and moved to the US after the fall of Saigon. She was an intellectual property attorney in New York, but now devotes herself full-time to writing. Her short fiction and essays have been taught in universities across America. The Book of Salt is her first novel.

Good To Know

in our interview, Truong shared some fun facts about herself with us:

"I can't drive. I took the written test when I was 16 and passed (of course, I passed; I was a geek and studied). I took the driving test twice when I was in high school and failed miserably both times. I'm mobility-challenged in other ways as well. I can't ride a bike, roller skate, ice skate, or rollerblade. I can walk (short distances) and am very proficient at taking public transportations of all kinds."

"I learned how to cook by watching my mother (who is an amazing cook) and from reading cookbooks. When my family first came to the U.S. as refugees in 1975, we lived in a very small town in North Carolina. I had very few friends (OK, I had one), and I spent a great deal of time reading books of all kinds. I began to read cookbooks because I had this idea that if I ate American food I would become more American (and have more friends). I was six years old and this plan made sense to me. I needed to learn how to make chocolate chip cookies, devil's food cake, meatloaf, etc. During my elementary school years, I read The Betty Crocker Cookbook from cover to cover, even those pages about how to set a festive table (the Mexican theme intrigued me)."

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    1. Also Known As:
      Monique T. D. Truong; Monique Thuy-Dung Truong
    2. Hometown:
      Brooklyn, New York
    1. Date of Birth:
      May 13, 1968
    2. Place of Birth:
      Saigon, South Vietnam
    1. Education:
      B.A. in Literature, Yale University, 1990; J.D., Columbia University School of Law, 1995

Read an Excerpt


Of that day I have two photographs and, of course, my memories.
We had arrived at the Gare du Nord with over three hours to spare. There were, after all, a tremendous number of traveling cases and trunks. It took us two taxi rides from the apartment to the train station before all the pieces could be accounted for. A small group of photographers, who had gathered for the occasion, volunteered to watch over the first load while we returned to the rue de Fleurus for more. My Mesdames accepted their offer without hesitation. They had an almost childlike trust in photographers. Photographers, my Mesdames believed, transformed an occasion into an event. Their presence signaled that importance and fame had arrived, holding each other’s hands. Their flashing cameras, like the brilliant smiles of long-lost friends, had quickly warmed my Mesdames’ collective heart. More like friends too new to trust, I had thought. I had been with my Mesdames for half a decade by then. The photographers had not been there from the very beginning. But once the preparation for the journey began, they swarmed to the entrance of 27 rue de Fleurus like honeybees. I could easily see why my Mesdames cultivated them. Every visit by a photographer would be inevitably followed by a letter enclosing a newspaper or magazine clipping with my Mesdames’ names circled in a halo of red ink. The clippings, each carefully pressed with a heated iron, especially if a crease had thoughtlessly fallen on my Mesdames’ faces, went immediately into an album with a green leather cover. "Green is the color of envy,” my Mesdames told me. At this, knowing looks shot back and forth between them, conveying what can only be described as glee. My Mesdames communicated with each other in cryptic ways, but after all my years in their company I was privy to their keys. "Green” meant that they had waited desperately for this day, had tired of seeing it arriving on the doorsteps of friends and mere acquaintances; that the album had been there from the very beginning, impatient but biding its time; that they were now thrilled to fill it with family photographs of the most public kind. "Green” meant no longer their own but other people’s envy.
I know that it may be difficult to believe, but it took the arrival of the photographers for me to understand that my Mesdames were not, well, really mine; that they belonged to a country larger than any that I had ever been to; that its people had a right to embrace and to reclaim them as one of their own. Of course, 27 rue de Fleurus had always been filled with visitors, but that was different. My Mesdames enjoyed receiving guests, but they also enjoyed seeing them go. Many had arrived hoping for a permanent place around my Mesdames’ tea table, but I always knew that after the third pot they would have to leave. My Mesdames had to pay me to stay around. A delicious bit of irony, I had always thought. The photographers, though, marked the beginning of something new.
This latest crop of admirers was extremely demanding and altogether inconsolable. They, I was stunned to see, were not satisfied with knocking at the door to 27 rue de Fleurus, politely seeking entrance to sip a cup of tea. No, the photographers wanted my Mesdames to go away with them, to leave the rue de Fleurus behind, to lock it up with a key. At the Gare du Nord that day, all I could think about were the flashes of the cameras, how they had never stopped frightening me. They were lights that feigned to illuminate but really intended to blind. Lightning before a driving storm, I had thought. But I suppose that was the sailor’s apprehension in me talking. It had been eleven years since I had made a true ocean crossing. For my Mesdames, it had been over thirty. The ocean for them was only a memory, a calming blue expanse between here and there. For me it was alive and belligerent, a reminder of how distance cannot be measured by the vastness of the open seas, that that was just the beginning.
When my Mesdames first began preparing for the journey, they had wanted to bring Basket and Pépé along with them. The SS Champlain gladly accommodated dogs and assorted pets, just as long as they were accompanied by a first-class owner. The problem, however, was America. No hotels or at least none on their itinerary would accept traveling companions of the four-legged kind. The discussion had been briefly tearful but above all brief. My Mesdames had in recent years become practical. Even the thought of their beloved poodle and Chihuahua laanguishing in Paris, whimpering, or, in the case of the Chihuahua, yapping, for many months if not years to come, even this could not postpone the journey home. There was certainly no love lost between me and those dogs, the poodle Basket especialllllly. My Mesdames bought him in Paris at a dog show in the spring of 1929. Later that same year, I too joined the rue de Fleurus household. I have always suspected that it was the closeness of our arrivals that made this animal behave so badly toward me.
Jealousy is instinctual, after all. Every morning, my Mesdames insisted on washing Basket in a solution of sulfur water. A cleaner dog could not have existed anywhere else. Visitors to the rue de Fleurus often stopped in midsentence to admire Basket’s fur and its raw-veal shade of pink. At first, I thought it was the sulfur water that had altered the color of His Highness’s curly white coat. But then I realized that he was simply losing his hair, that his sausage-casing skin had started to shine through, an embarrassing peep show no doubt produced by his morning baths. My Mesdames soon began "dressing” Basket in little capelike outfits whenever guests were around.
I could wash and dress myself, thank you. Though, like Basket, I too had a number of admirers. Well, maybe only one or two. Pépé the Chihuahua, on the other hand, was small and loathsome. He was hardly a dog, just all eyes and a wet little nose. Pépé should have had no admirers, but he, like Basket, was a fine example of how my Mesdames’ affections were occasionally misplaced. Of course, my Mesdames asked me to accompany them. Imagine them extending an invitation to Basket and Pépé and not me. Never. We, remember, had been together for over half a decade by then. I had traveled with them everywhere, though in truth that only meant from Paris to their summer house in Bilignin. My Mesdames were both in their fifties by the time I found them. They had lost their wanderlust by then. A journey for them had come to mean an uneventful shuttle from one site of comfort to another, an automobile ride through the muted colors of the French countryside.
Ocean travel changed everything. My Mesdames began preparing for it months in advance. They placed orders for new dresses, gloves, and shoes. Nothing was extravagant, but everything was luxurious: waistcoats embroidered with flowers and several kinds of birds, traveling outfits in handsome tweeds with brown velvet trims and buttons, shoes identical except for the heels and the size. The larger pair made only a slight effort at a lift. They were schoolgirlish in their elevation but mannish in their proportion. The smaller pair aspired to greater but hardly dizzying heights. Both my Mesdames, remember, were very concerned about comfort.
"We’ll take a train from Paris to Le Havre, where the SS Champlain will be docked. From there, the Atlantic will be our host for six to seven days, and then New York City will float into view. From New York, we’ll head north to Massachusetts, then south to Maryland and Virginia, then west to Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, Texas, California, all the way to the shores of the Pacific and then, maybe, back again.” As my Mesdames mapped the proposed journey, the name of each city—New York, Boston, Baltimore, Cleveland, Chicago, Houston, San Francisco—was a sharp note of excitement rising from their otherwise atonal flats. Their voices especially quivered at the mention of the airplanes. They wanted to see their America from a true twentieth-century point of view, they told the photographers. Imagine, they said to each other, a flight of fancy was no longer just a figure of speech. They wondered about the cost of acquiring one for their very own, a secondhand plane of course. My Mesdames were still practical, after all.
I was somewhat superstitious. I thought that fate must have also been listening in on this reverie about travel and flight. How could I not when the letter arrived at the rue de Fleurus later on that same day? It was quite an event. My Mesdames handed me the envelope on a small silver tray. They said that they had been startled to realize that they had never seen my full name in writing before. What probably startled them more was the realization that during my years in their employment I had never received a piece of correspondence until this one.
I did not have to look at the envelope to know. It was from my oldest brother.
No one else back there would have known where to find me, that 27 rue de Fleurus was my home. I sniffed the envelope before opening it. It smelled of a faraway city, pungent with anticipation for rain. If my Mesdames had not been in the room, I would have tasted it with my tongue. I was certain to find the familiar sting of salt, but what I needed to know was what kind: kitchen, sweat, tears or the sea. I wanted this paper-shrouded thing to divulge itself to me, to tell me even before the words emerged why it had taken my brother almost five years to respond to my first and only letter home.
I had written to him at the end of 1929. I was drunk, sitting alone in a crowded café. That December was a terrible month to be in Paris. All my favorite establishments were either overly crowded or pathetically empty. People either sipped fine vintages in celebration or gulped intoxicants of who cares what kind, drowning themselves in a lack of moderation, raising a glass to lower inhibitions, imbibing spirits to raise their own. The expressions abounded, but that December the talk everywhere was the same: "The Americans are going home.” Better yet, those who had not were no longer so cocky, so overweening with pride.
Money, everyone was saying, is required to keep such things alive. It was true, the Americans were going home, and that, depending on who you were, was a cause to rejoice or a cause to mourn.
The city’s le mont-de-piété, for instance, were doing a booming business. "Mountains of mercy,” indeed.
So French, so snide to use such a heaping load of poetic words to refer to pawnshops, places filled with everything of value but never with poetry. The pawnshops in Paris were swamped, I had heard, with well-made American suits. At the end of October when it all began, there were seersuckers, cotton broadcloths, linens. Hardly a sacrifice at that time of the year, I thought. Paris was already too cool for such garb. I have always thought it best to pawn my lightweight suits when the weather changed. It provided protection from hungry moths and a saving on mothballs. My own hunger also played a somewhat deciding role. But by the beginning of that winter it became clear. The Americans were pawning corduroys, three-ply wools, flannel-lined tweeds. Seasonal clothing could only mean one thing. Desperation was demanding more closet space. Desperation was extending its stay. The end of 1929 also brought with it frustration, heard in and around all the cafés, about the months’ worth of unpaid bar tabs, not to mention the skipped-out hotel bills or the overdue rents. "The funds from home never made it across the Atlantic,” the departing Americans had claimed. The funds from home were never sent or, worse, no longer enough, everyone in Paris by then knew. Americans, not just here but in America, had lost their fortunes. An evil little wish had come true. The Parisians missed the money all right, but no one missed the Americans. Though I heard that in the beginning there had been sympathy. When the Americans first began arriving, the Parisians had even felt charitable toward them. These lost souls, after all, had taken flight from a country where a bottle of wine was of all things contraband, a flute of champagne a criminal offense. But when it became clear that the Americans had no intention of leaving and no intention of ever becoming sober, the Parisians wanted their city back. But it was already too late. The pattern of behavior had become comically clear.
Americans traveled here in order to indulge in the "vices” of home. First, they had invaded the bordellos and then it was the cafés. Parisians could more than understand the whoring and the drinking, but in the end it was the hypocrisy that did not translate well.
"But there are still the Russians, Hungarians, Spaniards . . . not nearly as well endowed but in other ways so charmingly equipped.” The laughter that immediately followed this observation told me that the table next to mine was commenting on more than just money. When gathered in their cafés, Parisians rarely spoke of money for very long. They exhausted the topic with one or two words. Sex, though, was an entirely different story, an epic really. I always got my gossip and my world news for that matter from the cafés. It would certainly take me awhile, but the longer I stayed the more I was able to comprehend. Alcohol, I had learned, was an eloquent if somewhat inaccurate interpreter. I had placed my trust that December night in glass after glass of it, eager not for drink but for a bit of talk. I also had that night no other place I had to be, so I sat and stared at the cigarette- stained walls of the café until my wallet was empty, my bladder was full, and until I was very drunk. Worse, the alcohol had deceived me, made me promises and then refused to follow through. In the past the little glasses had blurred the jagged seams between the French words, but that night they magnified and sharpened them. They threatened to rip and to tear. They bullied me with questions, sneering at how I could sit there stealing laughter, lifting conversations, when it was now common knowledge that "the Americans are going home.” Panic then abruptly took over the line of questioning: "Would my new Mesdames go with them?” Or, maybe, the question was just a matter of "When?” I did not remember asking the waiter for pencil and paper, but I must have, as I never carry such items in my pockets. The cafés used to give them out for free. So French to sell water and to give such luxuries away. The content of my letter was dull, crammed with details only my oldest brother would be interested in: my health, the cost of underwear and shoes, the price of a métro ticket, my weekly wage, the menu of my last meal, rain bouncing off the face of Notre-Dame, Paris covered by a thin sheet of snow. I had forgotten how different my language looks on paper, that its letters have so little resemblance to how they actually sound. Words, most I had not spoken for years, generously gave themselves to me. Fluency, after all, is relative. On that sheet of paper, on another side of the globe, I am fluent. The scratching of the pen, the writhing of the paper, I did not want it to stop, but I was running out of room. So I wrote it in the margin: "My Mesdames may be going home. I do not want to start all over again, scanning the help-wanteds, knocking on doors, walking away alone. I am afraid.” I had meant to place a comma between "alone” and "I am afraid.” But on paper, a period instead of a comma had turned a dangling token of regret into a plainly worded confession. I could have fixed it with a quick flick of lead, but then I read the sentences over again and thought, That is true as well.
The first line of my brother’s response startled me, made me wonder whether he wrote it at all. "It is time for you to come home to Viet- Nam,” he declared in a breathtaking evocation of the Old Man’s voice, complete with his spine-snapping ability to stifle and to control. But the lines that followed made it clear who had held the pen: "You are my brother and that is all. I do not offer you my forgiveness because you never had to apologize to me. I think of you often, especially at the Lunar New Year. I hope to see you home for the next. A good meal and a red packet await you. So do I.” The letter was dated January 27, 1934. It had taken only a month for his letter to arrive at the rue de Fleurus. He offered no explanation for his delay in writing except to say that everything at home had changed. He wrote that it would have been better for me to hear it all in person. What he meant was that paper was not strong enough to bear the weight of what he had to say but that he would have to test its strength anyway.
At the edge of that sheet of paper, on the other side of the globe, my brother signed his name. And then, as if it were an afterthought, he wrote the words "safe journey” where the end should have been.
I folded my brother’s letter and kept it in the pocket of my only and, therefore, my finest cold-weather suit. I wore them both to the Gare du Nord that day. The suit was neatly pressed, if a bit worn. The letter was worse off. The oils on my fingertips, the heat of my body, had altered its physical composition. The pages had grown translucent from the repeated handling, repetitive rereading. The ink had faded to purple. It was becoming difficult to read. Though in truth, my memory had already made that act obsolete.
The first photograph of the journey was taken there at the station. It shows my Mesdames sitting side by side and looking straight ahead. They are waiting for the train to Le Havre, chitchatting with the photographers, looking wide-eyed into the lens. They wear the same expression as when they put on a new pair of shoes. They never immediately get up and walk around. They prefer to sit and let their toes slowly explore where the leather gives and where it binds. A pleasurable exercise for them, I am certain, as they always share a somewhat delinquent little smile. I am over there on the bench, behind them, on the left-hand side. I am the one with my head lowered, my eyes closed. I am not asleep, just thinking, and that for me is sometimes aided by the dark. I am a man unused to choices, so the months leading up to that day at the Gare du Nord had subjected me to an agony, sharp and new, self-inflicted and self-prolonged. I had forgotten that discretion can feel this way.
I sometimes now look at this photograph and wonder whether it was taken before or after. Pure speculation at this point, I know. Though I seem to remember that once I had made up my mind, I looked up instinctually, as if someone had called out my name. If that is true, then the photograph must have been taken during the moments before, when my heart was beating a hard, syncopated rhythm, like those of the approaching trains, and all I could hear in the darkness was a simple refrain:

I do not want to start all over again.
Scanning the help-wanteds.
Knocking on doors.
Walking away alone.
And, yes, I am afraid.

Copyright © 2003 by Monique T. D.
Truong. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.

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Interviews & Essays

A Conversation with Monique Truong
Q) How did you get the idea to write about the Vietnamese cook who worked for Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas in Paris?

A) When I was in college, I bought a copy of the Alice B. Toklas Cook Book because I was curious about Toklas's hash brownie recipe. It turned out that the famous recipe was not a Toklas recipe at all, but one submitted by the artist Brion Gysin in a chapter called "Recipes from Friends." Gysin's recipe was actually for a "haschich fudge" and was for a sort of dried fruit bar concoction "dusted" with a bunch of pulverized "cannabis sativa." It didn't sound tasty to me, but I read the rest of the book anyway and found that it was less of a cookbook and more of a memoir. In a chapter called "Servants in France," Toklas wrote about two "Indochinese" men who cooked for Toklas and Stein at 27 rue de Fleurus and at their summer house in Bilignin. One of these cooks responded to an ad placed by Toklas in the newspaper that began "Two Americans ladies wish — " By this point in the book, I had already fallen for these two women and for their ability to create an idiosyncratic, idyllic life. When I got to the pages about these cooks, I was, to say the least, surprised and touched to see a Vietnamese presence and such an intimate one at that in the lives of these two women. These cooks must have seen everything, I thought. But in the official history of the Lost Generation, the Paris of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, these "Indo-Chinese" cooks were just a minor footnote. There could be a personal epic embedded in that footnote.

Q) Food and flavors and recipes play an important role in The Book of Salt. Do you like to cook yourself?

A) I cook for pleasure. I cook to experience something new. I cook, like the characters in my novel, to remind me of where I have been. I always cook or rather I always "taste" the food first in my mind. I approach a recipe like a story. I imagine it, sometimes I have a dream about it, then I go about crafting it.

Q) Like a dream, Bính's story isn't revealed chonologically. Tell us about the novel's structure, which has a kind of fractured "cubist" quality.

A) The Book of Salt opens in Paris in October of 1934. Bính, the Vietnamese cook, has accompanied his employers, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, to the train station. He seems to be faced with a decision. Will he go to the United States with his mesdames? Will he return to his family in Vietnam, or will he continue his life in France, or will he travel to some other place of his choosing? Before Bính discloses his current "choice," he takes the reader back in time to his own past choices and those of the women he works for. What led each of them to live far from the land of their birth? What, if anything, could bring them back home again? The answers to these questions are found in Bính's memories, musings, observations, and possibly lies — all of which are continuously asserting and interrupting one another.

Q) What role does language play in this novel of Americans and Asians in France?

A) Bính's stories are told via his internal voice, one which is far richer, far more agile — in fact, it is a stark contrast to the voice that comes out of his mouth. Bính is a man living in a land, working for employers whose languages are foreign to him. He struggles with their words, and they win the confrontation every time. Limited and silenced, Bính has only his memory and his imagination to keep him company. In the last chapter of the novel, the story returns to the train station, where the reader is in essence asked to make the same decision as Bính. Whether they would emerge from Bính's life triumphant or in despair; whether they would be pulled together or asunder by the competing stories of Bính's past, present, and future?

Q) You were born in Vietnam and came to the United States in 1975 as a refugee. Did that experience play a role in shaping this novel?

A) I was six years old when my mother and I left Vietnam in April of 1975. It was supposed to be just a precautionary measure, a temporary solution to keep us safe from the nightly bombings. My father, who was a high-level executive for an international oil company, stayed behind at their behest. Later that month, when Saigon fell to the communist forces, my father left on a boat for the South China Sea, the same sea that my mother and I were lucky enough to have flown over in an airplane just weeks before. The departure, the loss of home, that act of refuge-seeking, have everything to do with the themes playing themselves out in The Book of Salt. There are no military conflicts in my novel, there are no soldiers, there are no weapons. I suppose it is no coincidence that the first long-distance flight of my imagination as a writer would take me to a time in history when Vietnam was more or less at peace. When you are a child of wartime, peace is the all-consuming fantasy. Also, I think as a child of wartime, one of the questions that stays with me and that I've tried to answer for myself by writing this novel is what if there was not a war, what then would make a person leave the land of their birth behind?

Q) You have a degree from Columbia Law School and you practiced at a big New York firm, specializing in intellectual property. Are you still practicing law?

A) Thankfully, no.

Q) What made you decide to write full-time?

A) The Book of Salt began as a short story called "Seeds," which I wrote in 1997. I had graduated from college, worked for two years as a paralegal, gone to law school, and was practicing intellectual property law in New York City by then. I had written fiction in college and still thought of myself as a writer, even though I hadn't written any fiction since graduating in 1990. I began to write again because I was coediting Watermark: An Anthology of Vietnamese American Poetry and Prose.

Q) Why had you gone into law when you always thought of yourself as a writer?

A) I was a coward. My grandfather was a writer back in Vietnam, but besides him I didn't know any other writers. I didn't know how to go about creating a writing life for myself. I had no road maps, and I had a bad sense of direction to begin with. I thought that if I went down that path, I would end up at the welfare office.

Q) Why did you choose the title The Book of Salt?

A) Salt — in food, sweat, tears, and the sea — is found throughout the novel. The word "salary" comes from the word salt, so salt is another way of saying labor, worth, value. For me, the title is also a nod toward the biblical connotation of salt, in particular to the turning of Lot's wife into a pillar of salt for "looking back" at her home, the city of Sodom. That story says to me that the Catholic God, whom the cook is so wary of, not only disapproves of the activities of the Sodomites but also of nostalgia. Bính is a practitioner of both. In the novel, there is an unpublished manuscript by Gertrude Stein with the same name, which plays a significant role in Bính's relationship with his American lover, Sweet Sunday Man.

Q) Is there really a manuscript by Stein entitled "The Book of Salt"?

A) No, I made that up. In the novel, Bính claims that Stein's "The Book of Salt" is about him. Stein has certainly written about cooks and servants. In Portraits and Prayers, for instance, there is a piece called "B. B. or the Birthplace of Bonnes" about all the women from Brittany who had worked in the Stein and Toklas household. Also, two of the "lives" in Stein's Three Lives were servant's. So, it does not seem improbable to me that Stein could have devoted a few words to a cook like Bính.

Q) There is a character in the novel that Bính refers to as "the man on the bridge" until he finds out that his name is Nguyen Ai Quoc. Isn't that one of Ho Chi Minh's pseudonyms?

A) Yes. Someone told me that he had been a cook in France. It turned out that he was an assistant cook at the pie bakery of London's Carlton Hotel, whose kitchen at that time was under the supervision of the legendary French chef Auguste Escoffier. As a young man, he had left Vietnam by working as a "mess boy" on a French ocean liner going from Saigon to Marseilles. I decided that my cook, Bính, would take a similar route. Many of Bính's experiences on the fictional freighter Niobe were based on or inspired by the more well-documented experiences of Ba, as he called himself then, on the Latouche Treville. Nguyen Ai Quoc's travels out of Vietnam began in 1911, and they took him to Dakar, Brooklyn, London, Paris, and many other port cities around the world. From 1917 to 1923 he lived in Paris. Sometime in the summer of 1923, he left Paris for Moscow to begin his full-time education and activity as a "revolutionary."

Q) Why include Ho Chi Minh in your novel?

A) I think of the character in The Book of Salt as a fictional Nguyen Ai Quoc as opposed to a fictional Ho Chi Minh. As Nguyen Ai Quoc, he was a young man living in Paris who read Shakespeare and Dickens in the original English, who wrote plays and newspaper articles, who earned money as a painter of fake Chinese souvenirs, a photographer's assistant.

Bính meets him on a bridge over the Seine. They share a meal, their longing for a home, their thoughts about the French, among a number of other significant things, all in the course of a few short hours. But a question that "the man on the bridge" asks of Bính stays with him for much longer: "What keeps you here?"
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Reading Group Guide

An Introduction from the Publisher
"A lush, fascinating, expansive first novel about exile." — New York Times

"An irresistible, scrupulously engineered confection that weaves together history, art and human nature . . . Truong has, after much deliberation, cultivated a veritable feast." — Los Angeles Times

"[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 Cook Book that inspired The Book of Salt, a brilliant first novel by acclaimed Vietnamese American writer Monique Truong.

In Paris, in 1934, Bính 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? Bính 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 Bính'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.

Bính 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 blissful domesticity. But is Bính's account reliable? A lost soul, he is a late-night habitué 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.

Questions for Discussion
We hope the following questions will stimulate discussion for reading groups and provide a deeper understanding of The Book of Salt for every reader.

1. "Gertrude Stein thinks it is unfathomably erotic that the food she is about to eat has been washed, pared, kneaded, touched, by the hands of her lover." How is food — and cooking — used as seduction in The Book of Salt? Compare the meals between Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas with the meals Bính shares with Sweet Sunday Man and the man on the bridge. How is the reader also seduced or persuaded by these meals? Have you ever wooed someone with what you fed them?

2. Bính says, "All my employers provide me with a new moniker, whether they know it or not . . . Their mispronunciations are endless, an epic poem all their own." How is Bính "lost in translation" in The Book of Salt? His interior monologue is lush and eloquent, but he can speak only a few words in French and English — what is the reader privy to that the other characters are not? Have you ever lived in a place where you weren't able to fully speak your mind?

3. O Magazine said, "Salt, whether from 'kitchen, sweat, tears, or the sea' — is the secret of this perfectly rendered book." How is salt used as an ingredient in Bính's story?

4. What does Gertrude Stein's (invented) manuscript, "The Book of Salt," have to do with The Book of Salt? Sweet Sunday Man tells Bính that Gertrude Stein's version "captured you perfectly." Could that be true? How do you imagine it reads?

5. The Book of Salt begins with Bính waiting for the train that will lead the Steins to America. He seems to be facing a choice: "I thought that fate might have been listening in . . ." How did you expect the story to end? Did you think that Bính would leave Paris? Where would he go? How did the ending of the novel surprise you?

6. Bính says, "Love is not a bowl of quinces yellowing in a blue and white china bowl, seen but untouched." Is love what Bính is looking for in Paris? He does finally get his much-desired photograph of Sweet Sunday Man, and Sweet Sunday Man also takes a rare item. How is love given and taken throughout the story? What are the characters left with? Have you kept (or stolen) artifacts of a past love?

7. Bính says, "When I am telling the truth, why does it so often sound like a lie?" Do you believe Bính's stories? What is the importance of truth in The Book of Salt, and what are the consequences of lies? Do you ever tell stories differently than others remember them?

8. When the Steins vacation outside Paris with Bính, he says, "What you probably do not know, Gertrude Stein, is that in Bilignin you and Miss Toklas are the only circus act in town. And me, I am the asiatique, the sideshow freak." How are the Steins and Bính aligned as outsiders? And how are they not? What is revealed in the Steins' response to Lattimore and Paul Robeson — how is it different from the Bilignin villagers' response to Bính?

9. ". . . the Old Man's anger has no respect for geography…even here, he finds me." Does Bính seem "shamed" by his exile? Does he seem freed? How do we carry the judgment of our parents? What "voices" followed you when you first left your family home?

10. Bính uses the color red often when describing his mother: "Red is luck that she had somehow saved, stored, and squandered on her youngest son." What other meanings does he give to red? Why does he cut his fingertips? Did Bính's vision of the gray pigeon in the park change your understanding of his mother, and of what Bính left behind in Vietnam?

11. Bính says of the Steins' apartment, "This is a temple, not a home." Do you agree? Are you familiar with the works of Gertrude Stein or Alice B. Toklas? Has The Book of Salt changed the way you think of them?

12. Who is the scholar-prince? Do you think Bính ever finds his? Did his mother find hers? How much do folk and fairy tales shape what we expect from romantic love? Do you have a certain myth in mind when you think of "ever after"? (Houghton Mifflin)

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 18 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 18 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted May 29, 2003


    Debut novelist Monique Truong appears blessed with a delightfully fecund imagination. Of her cooking the Saigon born author says, 'I cook for pleasure. I cook to experience something new.....I always cook or rather I always `taste' the food first in my mind. I approach a recipe like a story. I imagine it. Sometimes I have a dream about it, then I go about crafting it.' From her description most of us would relish joining her at table. Fortunately, all of us can join her through the pages of her poignant and mesmerizing first novel 'The Book Of Salt.' Inspiration for this fictional memoir was found as Truong was reading the Alice B. Toklas Cook Book, and ran across references to Indochinese men who cooked for Toklas and Gertrude Stein. Thus, Binh, Truong's protagonist and narrator was born. The opening scene is the train station in 1934 Paris. While Toklas and Stein are going to America Binh's choice of destinations is not revealed. Will he go to America with the two formidable mesdames, stay on in Paris or return to his native Vietnam? As these possibilities are considered, Binh recalls his younger years, his ostracism for his sexual orientation, his nights in Parisian haunts, and his unhappy love affairs. Weaving her tale between Binh's life and the fascinating goings-on in the Toklas/Stein household the author allows readers to savor numerous sumptuous meals and meet celebrities, including Paul Robeson and Ho Chi Mihn. Sensuous, mouth-watering details enrich this artful examination of fascinating lives.. We await with eager anticipation the next offering from this uniquely gifted author.

    3 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 26, 2004


    THE BOOK OF SALT is a brooding, disturbing, yet beautiful novel about a strangely sympathetic chef, totally enigmatic. Binh is a literary original, and so is the author, Monique Truong, who is clearly writing from her own experiences as a Vietnamese exile. They say that an author's first book is usually autobiographical, and this one succeeds, as far as I can see, because it is. In fact, the autobiographical novel is my favorite kind of book to read. You can sense the truth in every detail, and the writing is not as cumbersome as in many of the memoirs, which too often are straight historical accounts. No, there is music in the language and epic life in the telling of the story. I highly recommend this novel.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 7, 2003

    A novel to read and re-read and read yet again

    This novel is a must read for anyone who has been a traveler looking for a home. The prose is efficient, but requires a careful reading to discover the intrigue waiting below the surface, just as Miss Toklas' lamb reserves its flavor until after the taste. The pages turn themselves, and compel the reader to explore not only the mysteries of the narrator, but the myseries of the reader's own heart and mind. Bihn's troubled 'secrets', such as his habit of cutting, are exposed gently and with artful verbiage. For any of us, this genteel revelation is exquisite and contemplative. I must read it again.

    2 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 14, 2007


    Will this ever end? Ms Truong writes a long boring stream of consciousness....(I almost lost mine!) Her descriptions of Stein & Tolkas in Paris and French occupied Vietnam are wonderful, but between those 2 places the interior world of the narrator is one long boring ramble.

    1 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 1, 2007

    Not what it pretends

    Anyone who buys this book believing it is about food, feasting, cooking or sitting in on any of Gertrude Stein's parties at a time when her Paris salon was visited by so many influential artists, writers and other creatives is going to be EXTREMELY DISAPPOINTED. Book manages to demean both Stein and Toklas's work and lives as only an envious out-sider can. More of a self-pitying romance novel than historical fiction. I gave it one star but deserves a black spot. Back cover blurb completely misleading.

    1 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 19, 2005

    I Had No Attachment to ANY Character!!

    My book club chose this title for one of our Summer reads. I read it to the very end and believe me, it took all I had in me to finish it! The writing was very 'pretty', but the characters left little to be desired. The only character I felt connected to or any attachment to was the boy's mother, and she wasn't even hardly mentioned in the book. The constant drinking and mentions of gay sex were a real turn off for me!! If I had have known they were in the book I never would have read it in the first place! Spend your time reading something else!

    1 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 3, 2004

    Okay But Not Great

    I really wanted to like this book, but I couldn't get through it. I felt that it went on and on. The narrative voice annoyed me somewhat and I just couldn't get into the story.

    0 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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