Book Club Gals read The Book of Salt

The Book of SaltThe Book of Salt by Monique Truong promises to serve up “a wholly original take on Paris in the 1930s through the eyes of Binh, the Vietnamese cook employed by Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. Viewing his famous mesdames and their entourage from the kitchen of their rue de Fleurus home, Binh observes their domestic entanglements while seeking his own place in the world. In a mesmerizing tale of yearning and betrayal, Monique Truong explores Paris from the salons of its artists to the dark nightlife of its outsiders and exiles.”

During our initial round-robin of summary thoughts, which is how we always start, last night’s book club gals had the following to say:

  • found the voice monotonous … loved Binh’s voice and being inside his head
  • did not engage me … wonderfully engaging
  • could not decide what this book was really about … it’s about cultural transplantation and being an outsider, about a voyage of courage, about leaving your roots in order to make something of yourself, about exile and the longing for home
  • ending is inconclusive … the author deliberately leaves the ending up to the reader
  • breathtaking observations and descriptions … erotic descriptions of food and food preparation

As you can see, impressions were mixed but the discussion was lively and lengthy, a sure sign of a successful choice.

Having just read Francine Prose‘s Reading Like a Writer, I found Truong’s word choice and sentence structure beautiful.

Paper-white narcissuses, one hundred bulbs in shallow pools of moistened pebbles, their roots exposed, clinging, pale anchors steadying the blooms as the angle toward the sun.

In my ear, anticipation sounds like a strong wind billowing against a taut sail, like a fire when its flames are drunk on a gust of air.

… it slammed shut behind us with such a clash that the sparrows fled from the surrounding trees, a scrap of black lace lifting into the sky, that the butterflies rose from the gladiola spikes, their wings filtering for a moment the strong light of the Saigon sun.

… but the truffle, ah, the truffle is a gift for the nose. Pleasure refined into a singular scent, almost animal, addictive, a lover’s body coming toward yours on a moonless night.

Salt is an ingredient to be considered and carefully weighed like all others. The true taste of salt–the whole of the sea on the tip of the tongue, sorrow’s sting, labor’s smack–has been lost, according to my Madame, to centuries of culinary imprudence.

Winter waited for me on the shores of this country like a vengeful dowager, incensed and cold-shouldered … when she blew the first kiss, I welcomed her with arms opened wide, never suspecting that within days she would make me cry.

Roughly 20% into the novel I had been tempted to give up, for I found myself tangled in dense sentences and a plot line that moved backwards more than it moved forwards. Perseverance was richly rewarded and the key was to lose myself in Binh’s (the protagonist) powerful voice and stop worrying about the plot. Once I did both, The Book of Salt glistened with imagery and poignant longing, and the story revealed itself.

A truly wonderful read.

8 thoughts on “Book Club Gals read The Book of Salt”

  1. Your book sounds a bit like mine, Mary. A wide range of opinions and interests, whiich does make for good discussion. I am someone who reads fast, and writers who compose dense sentence tend to lose me on the first read. That’s why I generally read books twice. Once fast to “find out what happens,” and a second time to enjoy the prose. Marilyn Robinson’s “Gilead” and “Housekeeping” fall into that category. Now I know if I pick up anything by Truong I will be in for a similar ride.

    1. You’ve made my day, Angela. Many thanks for your comment. My life is a little crazy right now too and so my blogging efforts are a tad more sporadic! Wishing you well with your upcoming novel.

  2. My professional editor has referred me to a Goodread’s post about how many people give up on reading books … only 38% read through to the end? Given ones own process of selecting books to read in the first place I would have expected a higher percentage. He says the other 62% think the books they give up on are boring … and wonders what this does to a writer’s heart having worked so hard on their book, … and also because of the dreaded show not tell as well. Having an aversion to this particular mantra I do not accept that!

    One of my five out of five star rating criteria is whether I keep a book to read again. One of my reasons is to pick up on points I think I have missed eg in Garden of the Evening Mists. Trouble is there are just so many books to read in my pile. I am still emotionally numb from reading The Gift of Rain this week which I nearly stopped reading early on.

    Reading is such good fun … even the serious stuff!

    1. It’s interesting, Alexander, to think about my past reading habits compared to today.. In the past, it was all about entertainment, today I am more demanding and yet also have a broader perspective. In the past I would have stopped reading The Book of Salt and been in that 62%. By the way, another perspective on the 38/62 is that publishers are choosing to publish books folks don’t care for. What do you think?

      1. In my reading, I am certainly much more demanding on both fiction and non-fiction since I started to write. Entertainment yes, but the four other ‘E’s as well. Partly because I am reading much more in quantity and more widely per Stephen King’s good advice to do so in his ‘On Writing’ book for new writers.

        I have thought there must be something wrong with me not liking many best selling authors, e.g. Hillary Mantel and Ken Follett. I find when I give an honest and fair, to me, review on Amazon of two or three stars I immediately get several comments about ‘readers did not find this helpful’. This does not seem to happen to my four and five star ratings. These adverse references reduce my personal reviewers ranking, but so what I would much rather be honest.. .

        Publishers are in business to make money and I have been told this is easier to do with writers they know rather than new writers. I am sure there are many self published books such as yours and ‘Never Forget’ by Angela Petch which are the equal of those produced by best selling authors.

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