The Book of Salt, by Monique Truong

photo by Simon Pride, flickr

What a gem. People all over the world are clamoring for J.K. Rowling to write another in the Harry Potter series; I am waiting for another book by Monique Truong. I don't care what it's about, either. I will happily read anything she writes, simply for the joy of seeing how she puts words together with such beautiful facility.

This book should sit on a shelf right next to Like Water for Chocolate, for those readers trying to eat their fill of words. It is for those of us who love the blending of cultures like spices, who yearn for the extra-ordinary love story flavored with a pinch of the exotic. Most of all, it is a book that defies the boundaries of genre and of expectation. It is a book about Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, and their cook "Thin Binh," as they call him, but ultimately, it is about the ways in which we are all isolated and wish so hard not to be.

It is not presented as a love story - let me state this right now, because I don't want to frighten anyone away! Here is the passage that hooked me:

I wanted that afternoon to ask Miss Toklas whether the household budget would allow for the purchase of two pineapples for a dinner to which my Mesdames had invited two guests. I wanted to tell her that I would cut the first pineapple into paper-thin rounds and saute them with shallots and slices of beef; that the sugar in the pineapple would carmelize during cooking, imparting a faint smokiness that is addictive; that the dish is a refined variation on my mother's favorite. I wanted to tell her that I would cut the second pineapple into bite-sized pieces, soak them in kirsch, make them into a drunken bed for spoonfuls of tangerine sorbet; that I would pipe unsweetened cream around the edges, a ring of ivory-colored rosettes. And because I am vain and want nothing more than to hear the eruption of praises that I can provoke, I wanted to tell her that I would scatter on top the petals of candied violets, their sugar crystals sparkling.
"Madame, I want to buy a pear . . . not a pear."
Miss Toklas looked at me, recognition absent from her eyes.
I, yes, lost the French word for "pineapple" the moment I had opened my mouth. Departing at their will, the words of this language mock me with their impromptu absences. When I am alone, they offer themselves to me, loose change in a shallow pocket, but as soon as I reach for one I spill the others. This has happened to me many times before. At least I now know what to do, I thought. I repeated my question, but this time I had my hands on top of my head, with only the bottom of my palms touching my hair. My fingers were spread like two erect, partially opened fans. Complete with my crown, I stood in front of my new Madame and Madame the embodiment of "a-pear-not-a-pear." I remember seeing GertrudeStein smile. Already, my Madam was amusing herself with my French. She was wrapping my words around her tongue, saving them for a later, more careful study of their mutations.

~Monique Truong, The Book of Salt, pp. 34-35. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 2003.

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