Monday, February 25, 2008

The Book of Salt

NO, NOT THAT KIND OF BOOK OF SALT. Years ago I did find somewhere a book in French called Le livre du sel; it's around here somewhere -- a fragile, old, small book; I think it's in an envelope somewhere -- and I mean to read it when it turns up. And in the meantime there have been books by Mark Kurlansky, whose Cod I found interesting, and Pierre Laszlo; both of them look worth digging into.

But The Book of Salt that I read last week was the novel by Monique Truong, which appeared five years or so ago. An acquaintance (the sister of a daughter's husband, if you want to know) brought it, along with a number of other books, to Christmas dinner -- apparently a habit she's developed over the years, and an ingratiating one: get rid of accumulating books you've read and don't particularly want hanging around by trading them around to your acquaintances. (I'm not likely to get rid of books, though, unfortunately.)

I hadn't been terribly interested in Truong's novel when it appeared, even though it is connected to a subject in which I am interested. The novel's in the first person, narrated by a Vietnamese cook who goes to work for Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas in the late 1920s and stays with them for an unspecified but lengthy number of years; certainly up to their 1934 departure for the United States. The book's not in fact "about" the Stein-Toklas ménage, though that subject is treated sympathetically and interestingly; it's about Binh, his formative years in Saigon, the desires he seeks to satisfy on his Sundays off.

And it's especially about a rich confusion of Paris and the colonies, the Nineteen-Twenties and 'Thirties, households stable and fleeting. Virtually nothing here about cooking, alas; this isn't a book for foodies, any more than it's one for Stein adepts. A small, quiet, pensive kind of book, perhaps a woman's book, it reminds me irrelevantly of Tracy Chevalier's Girl with a Pearl Earring; perhaps it will one day make, as that novel did, a movie with a lingering impression of modest truth and beauty.

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