Sourdough: A Novel

Robin Sloan
In his much-anticipated new novel, Robin Sloan does for the world of food what he did for the world of books in Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour BookstoreLois Clary is a software engineer at General Dexterity, a San Francisco robotics company with world-changing ambitions. She codes all day and collapses at night, her human contact limited to the two brothers who run the neighborhood hole-in-the-wall from which she orders dinner every evening. Then, disaster! Visa issues. The brothers close up shop, and fast. But they have one last delivery for Lois: their culture, the sourdough starter used to bake their bread. She must keep it alive, they tell her―feed it daily, play it music, and learn to bake with it. Lois is no baker, but she could use a roommate, even if it is a needy colony of microorganisms. Soon, not only is she eating her own homemade bread, she’s providing loaves daily to the General Dexterity cafeteria. The company chef urges her to take her product to the farmer’s market, and a whole new world opens up. When Lois comes before the jury that decides who sells what at Bay Area markets, she encounters a close-knit club with no appetite for new members. But then, an alternative emerges: a secret market that aims to fuse food and technology. But who are these people, exactly? Leavened by the same infectious intelligence that made Robin Sloan’s Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore such a sensation, while taking on even more satisfying challenges, Sourdough marks the triumphant return of a unique and beloved young writer.


Reviewed: 2018-01-06
Robin Sloan won my heart with his Penumbra stories, a pair of gently humorous fantasies about books, and readers, and mysterious doings.  When Sourdough popped up in my Book of the Month Club queue I really didn't know what to think or expect, but I trusted him enough to take the chance, and he didn't let me down.  I was hooked by the end of the first chapter.

Sourdough explores the idea of food as a spiritual and intellectual pursuit.  Food rescues Lois from the hellish sterility of her high tech job, soothing her rebellious stomach, and providing warmth and a touch of humanity to her day.  But when the restaurant which arguably saved her sanity, has to close, Lois is given a precious crock of sourdough culture to care for.

We watch as she moves from caretaker to active user of the starter, and from there to professional baker, all the while coming to know the starter as a mysterious, moody partner in this process.  She learns who she is and begins to understand her niche in the world.  Along the way we meet the Lois club of San Francisco (and Sloan assures us that there are Lois clubs all over the world) filled with wise Loises who enjoy our Lois' bread, and give her good advice.  And for a brief, wondrous stretch of the novel, Sloan gives us a deliciously funny horror story about out-of-control bread, and heroic goats.

Yes, it's kind of crazy, but in the same delightful way Penumbra was.  And I found myself looking at food differently after reading it.  Today I went shopping and spent a lot of time just staring at the produce, thinking about how remarkable it all was.  My concentration apparently provoked a gentleman to come up to me as I stared at a mountain of fat, shining, deeply green jalapenos, and say, "Yes, this is the good stuff." 

It made me want to cook.  It made me want to start baking bread again.  It made me happy that bread and cheese exist, that crickets sing and goats love to eat, that Robin Sloan is a nerd (Lembas bread!) and microbes work tirelessly to give our world flavor and scent. There's a love story, too.  You won't catch it immediately, but it's there, hidden beneath talk of cooking, spicy soup, and the history of a completely mythical people called the Mazg who sing to their sourdough culture.

Sourdough is the sort of book that should make your heart happy. This one goes on my Keep Forever shelf.
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