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The Book of Salt

3.51  ·  Rating details ·  4,523 ratings  ·  666 reviews
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 a
Paperback, 261 pages
Published June 15th 2004 by Mariner Books (first published 2003)
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3.51  · 
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 ·  4,523 ratings  ·  666 reviews

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An epic failure of research and imagination.

The reviewers on GR who have rated this novel highly have generally praised its poetic evocation of love and loss. Okay, I can get that. The novel is an extended dirge of a life spent in unrequited longing as a result of a loveless childhood and an equally loveless adulthood. All of it told in prose like this:
I am at sea again. I am at sea again. Not the choppy, churning body that bashes open a ship's hull like a newborn's soft skull. Yes, a sapphire
A novel full of distinct ideas and images that never quite came together. Monique Truong's debut book centers on Binh, a gay Vietnamese cook who flees Saigon in 1929 to work as a galley hand at sea. He narrates his journey while later employed as a live-in cook for Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas, two esteemed women who operate a literary salon in Paris. When the two women plan a return trip to America, Binh must confront the ghosts of his family and his exile.

The Book of Salt included a lot of
Phillip Smith
Oct 19, 2007 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: EVERYONE
I read this book for a course on queer historical fiction. The story is told by a gay Vietnamese cook who works for Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas in Paris during the late '20s/early '30s. There's not too much plot, but what's there is dispensed slowly, with another piece being added to several timelines with each chapter. The story is drawn from a brief mention in The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book about their actual Vietnamese cook, and it is satisfying to read this novel from the latter perspe ...more
Sep 25, 2007 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: buibooks2006
A beautiful find. This gem of a novel by first time writer Truong shows great promise. A lyrical meditation on love, sex, food, and post colonial identity, this novel about a Vietnamese chef who works for Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas in Paris, is so comfortable in its dreamy imagination and adaptation that is feels ceaseless. It lingers like an ocean voyage.
Nov 02, 2007 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
what can i say...this is the only novel where i rediscover the novel every time i read it. not only are the plot and the characters SO very well developed, but the research into gertrude stein & alice b toklas' lives were extremely well done -- not to mention all the social issues addressed and all the boundaries crossed. who could ask for more? monique truong, you are a genius!
Drew Jameson
Apr 26, 2010 marked it as to-read
This book is driving me crazy. The premise is very interesting; Gertrude Stein and Alice B Toklas hire a gay Vietnamese cook and the story is his view of his own life and their's in Paris. But beyond the premise, and layer after layer of pretty language, there's nothing. There is absolutely no story, whatsoever. There are virtually no scenes whatsoever, just page after page of densely written summary filled with figurative language and aimless musings on life and love and so on and so on. There ...more
Jul 23, 2008 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: fiction
It's told from the point of view of a Vietnamese cook who works for Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. The cook is the narrator, and we learn throughout the story his compelling, and devastating, family history and why he left Vietnam.

I was only a few pages into the book when I realized that I don't have the voice yet for my historical novel I'm writing. Truong has captured a rich, unique voice in her book that is addictive and haunting. I only have ideas and notes, not that voice that will dri
Jun 30, 2015 rated it it was ok
I would like to say that I liked it more, but I just can't. I feel pretty well read, but this story is a mystery of wandering thoughts. Some parts flowed nicely and others were very disjointed and felt completely chopped up.

I still do not understand the title, even at the end. There were many observations of GertrudeStein and Miss Toklas that I really liked and one especially was regarding their "waiting kits" that Miss Toklas packed to give them something to do when their car broke down and th
Nov 21, 2008 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: fiction
I expected to like this book a lot - it is set in a place and time that interest me (Paris in the 1930s and colonial Viet Nam) and is populated with real-life characters (Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas) who interest me. So why did I give it only one star?
1. Nothing happens. There is no plot. The main character doesn't grow.
2. I don't care for books where the main character is a victim throughout. The main character is victimized by the French imperialists, by his father, by his lovers, and
Jun 01, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorites
An amazingly beautiful book. Written with poetic and musical notes. The emotions are poignant and bittersweet. A feast that satisfies and drew me in to want more.

If readers like smart, literary and compelling books, this is it. I can't recommend this enough. And I will her other book and others she writes!

Readers will recognize one key theme---of water and its various sources/bodies---how this thread is built and woven throughout the book. Such readers will also relish how the poetry of words wo
Aug 26, 2009 rated it liked it
Shelves: debut-novels
It's distinctly a debut novel. You can tell it's written in a state of transition, whether that's from poetry or from short stories to novels. The writing comes and goes in spurts, and no single story strand ever appears long enough to pick out a delicate pattern. It's just a mass of tangled threads at the end. But somehow the underlying fabric remains steady, and you're pulled through the narrative without meaning to be.

The narrator, supposedly complex, is more a collection of traits than an in
Jul 08, 2011 rated it really liked it
This book became magical for me. In the beginning, the feelings of disjointedness and alienation experienced by our narrator and made real by the style of the narration left me confused and disquieted. As his years of service with Madame and Madame continued, I felt the style becoming less contrived and I was more able to identify with him. I didn't know much about Gertrude Stein really (she's the one with the fish and the bicycle, right?) but this rang true for me in its description of her life ...more
Dec 12, 2007 rated it really liked it
My friend Naomi lent me this book a couple months ago while she was very homesick for Paris. I took advantage of today's awful weather to sit inside and read it. I can see how some could read it and not quite remember much about the book. One seems to glide in and out of scenes (Vietnam, somewhere in the middle of the ocean, Paris) with total ease. It's amazingly sensual. Descriptions of cooking and eating are as visceral as the descriptions of the books' lovers. I have really enjoyed reading th ...more
Sep 10, 2017 rated it really liked it
Genre: Historical Fiction, Queer Fiction

Single Sentence Summary: A gay Vietnamese cook in 1930’s Paris serves two eccentric lesbians and constantly has his heart broken.

Writing Quality: 10/10 S
The syntax and words used in this book are amazingly considered. There are times where it may read as overly elaborate, however I think this is purposeful when considering that the protagonist’s spoken language is broken. Truong’s writing really makes the reader think and consider not just the social imp
Dana Wilk
There are books that I know are too sophisticated for me and this is one of them. This book is so perfect, so full of poetic, gorgeous phrasing, that it's unreadable to me. I read some pages aloud, accompanied by sublime cups of jasmine and oolong paired with lychee fruit in china that matched the color of the book cover, but I couldn't continue reading after the cups were empty, the flesh of the lychee stripped from the nut. My intrigue in the words and the story lasted only a few cups of tea, ...more
Aug 30, 2007 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: fans of strong narrative voice & literate foodies
This book made me want to cook a humongous meal and gorge myself, even though I can't cook my way out of paper bag. Monique Truong's descriptions of food are sensual, but not in the massage kind of way. When she talks about mangoes, it's as though it's a really hot day and you've just plunged your sweaty face into a big bowl of freshly cut mango and shaved ice- that kind of sensual. The book's overarching conceit is also really interesting; its narrator is Anh Binh, a Vietnamese expatriate whose ...more
Jul 22, 2018 rated it really liked it
fictional inside life of Gertrude Stein's & Alice B. Toklas's Vietnamese Cook who is the narrator and closeted gay male--
I was 3/4 of the way through this when I took a phone call from a friend and was trying to explain to her why I didn't like it. "You just don't love the dykes," she said (nice). "Actually," I said, "there's not enough about the dykes in this book for me to know if I like them or not!"

... and I realized the problem -- this book isn't about "GertrudeStein" (LOL!) and Alice Toklas; it's not about the chef; it's not about cooking; it's not about Americans living in Paris; and it's not about an unpub
Adam Calhoun
Sep 22, 2012 rated it did not like it
Rare is the book that makes me put it down with twenty pages. Normally I try to keep going, but sometimes you can just tell. I think this is the passage that did it for me:

"And so, like a courtesan, forced to perform the dance of the seven veils, I grudgingly reveal the names, one by one, of the cities that have carved their names into me, leaving behind the scar tissue that forms the bulk of who I am."

This is not in response to some grueling interrogation; no, employers are interviewing an appl
Beth Jusino
Jan 17, 2013 rated it liked it
Beautiful prose, fascinating setting, no plot.

Yes, the book has strong, thought-provoking elements of what it means to be "other" -- the miserable approach of the narrator, a gay Vietnamese cook in 1920s/30s Paris, or the brave, positive approach of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, the gay American couple who hired him.

Yes, the author can turn a phrase. But there's no story for the pretty words to describe.

It's all flashbacks of relationships real and imagined, mis-directions and lies, and
Dec 09, 2007 rated it it was ok
I feel like two stars is too generous, but one star is too harsh for an author who clearly knows how to write but doesn't know when to stop or edit.
The book for me only really becomes cloyingly annoying at the start of ch. 18 when the narrator begins comparing his mother's strength to a bamboo tree. The rest of the book shoud just not have been written in my opionon. The description on the bird dying as a symbol for his own mother's death is trite. Furthermore Truong does not leave it up to the
May 25, 2016 rated it really liked it
Monique Truong writes an honest book about the relationship of the colonized to the colonizers. Her narrator is a Vietnamese cook for the Mesdames, Gertrudestein (said as one word by all those around her) and Alice B. Toklas while they live in Paris. Understanding well his own circumstances, forced to flee his job at the Governor-General's in Saigon and rejected by his colleague brother and always by his father after an affair he has with the chef is found out.

It takes time to consider who he i
Jun 05, 2008 rated it did not like it
I initially picked this book up because I'd been hearing good things about another title - Salt: A World History - so I kind of had salt on the brain.

This book - The Book of Salt - left me very unsatisfied. I don't have a particularly good recollection of why, as I read it several years ago - I just remember some vague thoughts that the writing was not very good, and for some reason I didn't really warm up to Bin (I believe that's how his name was spelled). Unfortunately, I can't cite any specif
William Dale
Dec 25, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Such a beautifully written book. The words were pure poetry (I found myself rereading full chapters just to retaste such lovely words). The plot is pure genius: A fictionalized account of a Vietnamese cook named Binh who works for Gertrude Stein and Alice B Toklas in the Paris of the 30's. It was clever and sweet and heartbreaking at the same time. The sad life of Binh will stay with me. A new favorite!
Molly Jones
Mar 09, 2007 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: fans of oppressed people
Such a brilliant premise for a book--Truong, based on a few lines from Toklas' real cookbook, imagines what it would be like to be the Vietnamese cook/servant to the famous ex-patriot couple Gertrude Stein & Alice B. Toklas in Paris. The story intertwines the difficult life of Binh (the homosexual Vietnamese servant) with the glamourous & hilarious lives of the Steins. This book revolves around reconciling traditional cultures with that culture's ever-changing future. Painful and wonderf ...more
I'm giving this book 4 stars, knowing that it will mostly likely earn 5 next time I read it, which I hope will be soon. The language is jaw dropping, and I read it a little to fast to savor it appropriately. The story is great and there are a lot of gems of humanity along the way. But truly it is the beautifully sensual language that is the star of the show. Beautiful.
Oct 17, 2007 rated it liked it
I read this while at Hedgebrook. She wrote part of this while staying in the same cottage. I could feel the rhythm of the same environment in the part about the mother (the part she wrote there). The rain fell on the roof, same as it did in the narrative, it was an eerie experience.
I had high hopes for this book (where else am I supposed to find a book about a gay Vietnamese man leaving the country around the 50s to work as a live-in chef for two lesbian American ladies in Paris?)
And the story is good, with its scandalous turns, but honestly, for a book named The Book of Salt, the writing is so unbearably bland. Take too many meandering thoughts, too much melancholy and the story is stretched out like too wet dough, unable to rise to its full potentials. I procrastinated
Mia Ellis-Einhorn
Sep 01, 2017 rated it liked it
In The Book of Salt, Monique Truong portrays a unique view of Paris in the 1920s. The protagonist, Binh, is a Vietnamese chef working for Gertrude Stein. Truong's writing does not stick to one particular timeline and often jumps between different moments in Binh. In this way, the story is told piece by piece, until the whole picture is made. One consistent element throughout the book is Binh's encounter's with men, whether in Paris or in his hometown Saigon. These multiple relationships all affe ...more
Sep 23, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: read-2018
*4.5 stars*
Read for my queer lit class, and wow. This is one of the most well-written books I may have ever read. I was simply enchanted by the writing style, I drowned in its poetic lyricism. I also think it’s exploring so many philosophical concepts, and thematizing many fascinating things. I can see why this may not be for everyone because admittedly, it can be a mess at times, but I really enjoyed it in spite of its stumbling.
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MONIQUE TRUONG, born in Saigon, came to the U.S. as a refugee. She currently lives in New York City. Her first novel, The Book of Salt, was a New York Times Notable Book and a national bestseller. It won the New York Public Library Young Lions Fiction Award, the Bard Fiction Prize, the Stonewall Book Award-Barbara Gittings Literature Award, and the 7th Annual Asian American Literary Award. Her sec ...more
“The irony of acquiring a foreign tongue is that I have amassed just enough cheap, serviceable words to fuel my desires and never, never enough lavish, impudent ones to feed them.” 12 likes
“I was certain t find the familiar sting of salt, but what I needed to know was what kind: kitchen, sweat, tears or the sea.” 8 likes
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