Dusty's Reviews > The Book of Salt

The Book of Salt by Monique Truong
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's review
Sep 07, 2010

it was amazing
bookshelves: read-in-2010
Recommended to Dusty by: Julia Lee
Read from November 07 to 08, 2010

The first truly excellent novel I have read in months, Monique Truong's Book of Salt takes as its starting point a (real?) photograph of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, the notorious early 20th-Century lesbian couple, departing from Paris, their Vietnamese servant on his knees, mending Stein's shoe. If you read the book's publicity -- my copy has a quote from the New York Times Book Review about its insights into the world of Stein and Toklas -- you may be led to think Truong's story deals mostly with the two women. Fortunately, you'd be dead wrong. This is a book about their Vietnamese servant, Binh, who is in fact not a shoe-mender but an accomplished master of French cuisine. That is, he's a cook.

Apparently there's much joy to be had in reading The Book of Salt if you've read much Stein, in particular her famous Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. "Apparently", I say, because I am wholly unfamiliar with Stein and still enjoyed myself immensely. Like Binh, who spends his time in the kitchen rather than the parlor room, I didn't realize the famous artist who visited the Steins must have been Pablo Picasso. Or that one of the men who circulated Stein -- just one in a crowd of handsome young men who came to worship at the shrine of Stein -- must have been a fledgling Ernest Hemingway. Silly me. And to think I earned a Bachelor's in English!

For me the book's strength lay not so much in its promise of exposé as in its, well, queer depiction of history. Who isn't at least homosocial? Stein and Toklas thinly veil their unofficial matrimony. Binh has trysts with several men, including a young Ho Chi Minh, the "man on the bridge" in Paris. Binh's father is fixated on Jesus Christ -- and what is it, anyway, about Christianity's worship for the long-haired naked man on the cross? For Truong no place is holy. Church? Queer. Seminaries? Abbeys? Queer and queer. Did I mention that I loved this book?

With everyplace queered, what is left is not a question of who is gay? but who is able to express their gayness?. And that's an interesting question. What ethnic and social privilege does a person need, in the early 20th Century, to openly express their identity? Why do issues of race and class seem to trump those of sexual preference? Why in five years as Binh's employers do Stein and Toklas never ask, not even once, about his romantic relationships? The tragedy in this book isn't the crash of the stock market or the French oppression of the Vietnamese -- it's the simple inability of people to actually see each other when they're standing only inches apart. How much support we could all provide each other if only we focused on real rather than petty differences.

Like I said: An excellent book. Give it a read.

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Reading Progress

11/07/2010 page 100
11/08/2010 page 215
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