"He came to us through an advertisement that I had in desperation put in the newspaper. It began captivatingly for those days: 'Two American ladies wish...'" It was these lines in The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book that inspired The Book of Salt, a brilliant first novel by acclaimed Vietnamese American writer Monique Truong.
In Paris, in 1934, Binh has accompanied his employers, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, to the train station for their departure to America. His own destination is unclear: will he go with "the Steins," stay in France, or return to his native Vietnam? Binh has fled his homeland in disgrace, leaving behind his malevolent charlatan of a father and his self-sacrificing mother. For five years, he has been the live-in cook at the famous apartment at 27 rue de Fleurus. Before Binh's decision is revealed, his mesmerizing narrative catapults us back to his youth in French-colonized Vietnam, his years as a galley hand at sea, and his days turning out fragrant repasts for the doyennes of the Lost Generation.
Binh knows far more than the contents of the Steins' pantry: he knows their routines and intimacies, their manipulations and follies. With wry insight, he views Stein and Toklas ensconced in blissful domesticity. But is Binh's account reliable? A lost soul, he is a late-night habitue of the Paris demimonde, an exile and an alien, a man of musings and memories, and, possibly, lies. Love is the prize that has eluded him, from his family to the men he has sought out in his far-flung journeys, often at his peril. Intricate, compelling, and witty, the novel weaves in historical characters, from Stein and Toklas to Paul Robeson and Ho Chi Minh, with remarkable originality. Flavors, seas, sweat, tears -- The Book of Salt is an inspired feast of storytelling riches.
St. Elizabeth's is a home for unwed mothers in the 1960s. Life there is not unpleasant, and for most, it is temporary. Not so for Rose, a beautiful, mysterious woman who comes to the home pregnant but not unwed. She plans to give up her baby because she knows she cannot be the mother it needs. But St. Elizabeth's is near a healing spring, and when Rose's time draws near, she cannot go through with her plans, not all of them. And she cannot remain forever untouched by what she has left behind...and who she has become in the leaving.
Finus Bates has loved chatty, elegant Birdie Wells ever since he saw her cartwheel naked through the woods near the backwater town of Mercury, Mississippi, in 1917. He's loved her for some eighty years: through their marriages to other people, through the mysterious early death of Birdie's womanizing husband, Earl, and through all the poisonous accusations against Birdie by Earl's no-good relatives. With "graceful, patient, insightful and hilarious" prose (USA Today), Brad Watson chronicles Finus's steadfast devotion and Mercury's evolution from a sleepy backwater to a small city. With this "tragicomic story of missed opportunities and unjust necessities" (Fred Chappell), "Southern storytelling is alive and well in Watson's capable hands" (Kirkus Reviews, starred). "His work may remind readers of William Faulkner, Toni Morrison, or Flannery O'Connor, but has a power--and a charm--all its own, more pellucid than the first, gentler than the second, and kinder than the third" (Baltimore Sun).
A powerful novel of love, murder, and redemption, of politics and justice, The King Is Dead combines the resonance of a 19th-century epic with the surprise and intimacy of 21st-century story-telling. In the late 1950s, Walter Selby, aide to the governor of Tennessee, meets Nicole Lattimore. They fall in love, marry, have two children, and lead a charmed life in the circles of Walter's political connections. But when the government's eviction of a homesteading black family ends in tragedy, Walter resigns his post. He returns home only to receive another, more devastating blow: his wife has been unfaithful. The virtuous man snaps. He takes Nicole down to the river and kills her. Their son, Frank--orphaned by his father's crime and conviction--becomes an actor in today's New York City; part two takes up his story. Frank's career has stalled, but when a mysterious European grande dame approaches him about a new and puzzling film, he sets out on a journey to uncover the truth about his father's life and his mother's death. The King Is Dead is a story of origins, a tale of fathers and sons across America and across time. Told in gorgeous prose, it brings the mythic compellingly to life.
An earlier book from Joan Didion, Play It As It Lays is one of my all-time favourites, and this novel holds that same tension of language; to quote: From John Weir - The New Yorker, "Didion's fiction is no less indispensable than her five books of essays and reportage are....There's an animating tension in Didion's fiction between her achingly sure control as storyteller and stylist and the numbing vagueness of the people she depicts....Didion's novels are thus simultaneously lucid and surreal." She's both the only current novelist engaged enough to capture the language and manners of our government-by-espionage and the only one capable of sentences as shimmeringly seductive and mysterious as "The best story I ever told was a reef dream." You want to spin that sentence in the air and admire how cleanly it falls.