Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction, Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel, Post Colonial Asian Fiction, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality Historical Novels are Among my Interests

Monday, July 22, 2019

The Book of Salt by Monique Truong - 2003

Works Read so for Paris in July 2019

  1. At the Existentialist Cafe:Freedom, Being and Apricot  Cocktails by Sarah Blackwell.  2016 - An exploration of the Parisian origins of French post World War Two Existentialism 
  2. Suzanne's Children: A Daring Rescue in Nazi Paris by Anne Nelson. 2017- an important addition to French Holocaust Literature
  3. Journey to the Edge of the Night by Louis-Ferdinand Celine -1932
  4. Death on The Installment Plan by Louis-Ferdinand Celine - 1936
  5. "Luc and his Father" - a set in Paris short story by Mavis Gallant - 1982
  6. The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer - 2010
  7. Paris Vagabond by Jean-Paul Clebert - 1952, translated 2016
  8. Cheri by Colette- 1920
  9. The Paris Wife by Paula McLain - 2011 - Hemingway’s first marriage 
  10. The Bath of Madame Mauriac- A Short Story by Andre de Mandiargues,first published in translation from the French by Albert Herzing, in The Paris Review, Issue 76,  a very weird delightful surrealist story
  11. The Neighbor- A Short Story by Goli Taraghi - 2006. - translated from Farsi by Azizeh Axadi - A Marvelous story about a Family from Tehran adjusting to Life in Paris
  12. The Book of Salt by Monique Truong - 2003 - Paris in the 1930s through the experiences of the Vietnamese cook of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Tolkas, a masterpiece

For Paris in July 2016 I posted on a very good biography of Gertrude Stein, Favored Strangers- Gertrude Stein and her Family by Linda Wagner-Martin.  (Gertrude Stein was born in Alleghaney, Pennsylvania, USA 1874, she died in Neuilly-sur-Seine, France in 1946.)

In 1903 she and her brothers moved to Paris.  France, mostly Paris, was to be her home for the rest of her life.  (There is a bit more bio data in my post linked above and some images of Stein and Alice B. Tolkas.  There are also pictures of their home in Paris, where much of The Book of Salt by Monique Truong is set.)

When I began planning for July in Paris I was unaware of the work of Monique Truong until she was mentioned in a tweet buy a writer I am very high on Chaya Bhuvaneswar, author of White Dancing Elephants, endorsed her strongly in a Tweet.  I discovered she has a soon forthcoming novel about women in the life of Lacadio Hearn, a childhood literary interest of mine. Her publicist very kindly sent me a digital review book.  After reading and loving the first twenty percent I stopped to check Truong's  web site and found her 2003 debut novel The Book of Salt was told from the point of view of the gay Vietnamese cook for Gertrude Stein (I learned in The Book of Salt that pretty much nobody but maybe Alice ever called her Gertrude) and was set   in Paris in the 1930s.  I at once acquired The Book of Salt, wanting to share this book with participates in Paris in July 2019.  (I will post on The Sweetest Fruit, the work on Lafcadio Hearn in August.)

Bein left Saigon, then part of French Indo-China, in 1929 to get away from his verbally abusive father, he calls him "the old man", who could not accept his sexual orientation.  He took a job as a galley hand on a ship.  After three years, now an experienced cook and in Paris, he answers an advertisement saying "two American Ladies Want a Live in Cook."   I smiled when their door man told Bein not to act surprised when you meet them.  At first he is confused but when he meets the women he will from then on call  "my Mesdames" he quickly figures thing out.

Bein does not really understand the cultural import of his two Mesdames but through his growing understanding of the comings and goings at their residence at 27 Rue de Fleures we slow learn about their lives.  Alice is very much the wife, educating Bein in cooking their favorites as well as elegant dishes for their salons.  Their house was a center for artistic and literary American expats.  Bein learned to tell who they liked and who bored them.

It was traditional that live in servants are on holiday on  Sunday.  Bein walks all over Paris and knows the city.  He meets a Vietnamese man on a bridge who turns out to be Ho Chi Min, then in exile in Paris. He develops a relationship with him. He calls him "the man on the bridge". Bein retells his life in Saigon.
(I loved it when Ho Chi Min says all Vietnamese were conceived when it was raining.). The life history of Bein  is not related in a linear fashion.  By doing this Truang helps drive us deeper into Bein's consciousness.  We see the depths of the impact of his father's contempt for his sexuality.  In a way it as almost as if the father was French colonial Vietnamese idelogy forcing itself not just on Bein but the country.  It maybe, as I have seen extensively in Irish literature the weaking of paternal authority due to colonialism produces a social climate in which men compensate by becoming abusive to the wives and children.  Bein expresses great sadness over abandoning his mother.

There are lots of wonderful food scenes.  It was so much fun to sit in as Alice was instructing Bein in the Kitchen.  Over several years Bein becomes very much a part of the house hold.  In 1934 his Mesdames are thinking about moving back to the USA. Bein is faced with a decision, does he go with or stay in France.

The narrative is wonderfully done.  The prose style elegant.

There are lots of other interesting threads in The Book of Salt.  It can be seen as a study in the sexual attitudes toward gay men and lesbians in Psris.  Bein learns his Mesdames have an active, and noisy, sex life.  Colonialism, expat living are deeply themed.

From the author's website

Born in Saigon, South Vietnam, Monique Truong came to the U.S. as a refugee in 1975. She is a writer based now in Brooklyn, New York.
Her first novel, The Book of Salt (Houghton Mifflin, 2003), was a national bestseller and the recipient of the New York Public Library Young Lions Fiction Award, Bard Fiction Prize, PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize, Stonewall Book Award-Barbara Gittings Literature Award, PEN Oakland/Josephine Miles National Literary Award, Association for Asian American Studies Poetry/Prose Award, and an Asian American Literary Award. In 2003, The Book of Salt was honored as a New York Times Notable Fiction Book, a Chicago Tribune Favorite Fiction Books, a Village Voice’s 25 Favorite Books, and a Miami Herald’s Top 10 Books, among other citations.
Her second novel, Bitter in the Mouth (Random House, 2010), received the American Academy of Arts and Letters’ Rosenthal Family Foundation Awardand was named in 2010 as a 25 Best Fiction Books  by Barnes & Noble, a 10 Best Fiction Books by Hudson Booksellers, and the adult fiction Honor Book by the Asian Pacific American Librarians Association.
Her third novel, The Sweetest Fruits, will be published by Viking Books on September 3, 2019.
Truong is the editor of Vom Lasterleben am Kai(C.H. Beck, 2017), a collection of reportage by Lafcadio Hearn, a.k.a. Koizumi Yakumo, the subject of her novel-in-progress. She is also a contributing co-editor of Watermark: An Anthology of Vietnamese American Poetry & Prose (Asian American Writers’ Workshop, 1998).
Truong contributes essays, often about food or memory or both, to O Magazine, Real Simple, Marie Claire, Town & Country, Condé Nast Traveler, Allure, Saveur, Food & Wine, Gourmet, the New York Times and its T Magazine for which she wrote “Ravenous,” a monthly online food column, the Times of London (Saturday Magazine), Time Magazine (Asia edition), and other publications.
In collaboration with the composer/performer/soundartist Joan La Barbara, Truong has written the lyrics for a choral work, a song cycle, and is at work on a libretto for an opera inspired by Joseph Cornell and Virginia Woolf.
A Guggenheim Fellow, U.S.-Japan Creative Artists Fellow in Tokyo, Princeton University’s Hodder Fellow, and a Visiting Writer at the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies, Truong was most recently the Sidney Harman Writer-in-Residence at Baruch College in the Fall of 2016.
She has been in residence at Djerassi, Akrai Residency, Civitella Ranieri Foundation, Lannan Foundation, Yaddo, MacDowell Colony, Hedgebrook, Ucross Foundation, Sea Change Residency, Liguria Study Center for the Arts and Humanities (Bogliasco), Fundacion Valparaiso, Ledig House International Writers’ Residency, and Santa Maddalena Foundation.
Truong serves on the Board of Directors of the Authors Guild as a vice president, the Creative Advisory Council for Hedgebrook, the Bogliasco Fellowship Advisory Committee, and the Advisory Committee of the Diasporic Vietnamese Artists Network. For PEN America, she was the Chair of the Literary Awards Committee (2014-2017) and a member of the Advisory Council.
Truong is also an intellectual property attorney, but she hopes that you will not hold that against her. When she is not writing, which is most of the time, she cooks and takes naps. She lacks many basic life skills such as knowing how to drive a car, ride a bicycle, and has only recently learned how to read a map. She has been known to walk long distances, especially if there is a very good bakery located at the end of that walk. The only thing that she really likes to exercise is her right to vote, and she hopes that her fellow Americans will make a better, kinder, more intelligent decision in 2020.

Her website has links to several interesting articles.  YouTube contains interviews and symposiums with Truong.

Foodies will find much of interest in The Book of Salt.

I give my total endorsement to this beautiful very thought provoking novel.  I hope to reread it during Paris in July 2020.

I look forward to finishing The Sweetest Fruit then Bitter in the Mouth.

Mel u


Suko said...

The Book of Salt by Monique Truong sounds fascinating in several ways, including the food portions (pun intended). I had not heard of this book before my visit here. Wonderful review, Mel!

Mystica said...

The author and book both new to me so I really appreciated the post. Thanks for the review.

Deb Nance at Readerbuzz said...

It might be a good read for me, now that I have just finished The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas.

Brona said...

You've just reminded me that I had The Book of Salt on my TBR a number of years ago & even started reading this book for an earlier Paris in July, but now I don't know where it is. I do remember struggling to get into the book though, so perhaps it got given away...?

Mel u said...

Suko. Thd book is. foocies dekight. On her website thd aufhor hax several aricles on food. Thanks for your comments

Mel u said...

Mystica. I love learning about new writers. Thanks for your comments

Mel u said...

Deb Nance at Reader Buzz. I have only read short selections by Stein. I must try your idea one day. Thanks for your comments

Mel u said...

Brona. It maybe starts slow. Thanks for visiting my blog. Happy Reading

Tamara said...

Mel U, you know I dont read alot, and if i could read more, I'd like to read this one. I saw it on your list at the begining of the month, and have waited for your review. Thank you. I really like the gyst of the novel. I also like your research on Truong - sounds like an amazing person.