Thursday, August 24, 2017

Book Review: "Sourdough" by Robin Sloan

Well, now that we've gotten that out of the way...

The above GIF probably clues you in on one of the reasons I requested this book from NetGalley the minute I saw it. (My obsessive love of carbs aside, I was a huge fan of Robin Sloan's last book, Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstoresee my original review—so that had something to do with it, too!)

Lois Clary is a software engineer who moves her life from Michigan to San Francisco after receiving a job offer from General Dexterity, a prestigious robotics company with the ambition of replacing the actual workforce with robots. She and her fellow Dextrous spend days, nights, every waking minute coding and rewriting lines of code to make the company's robotic arms function in a more human way.

Even though she's surrounded by people, and sometimes finds herself sleeping at work, Lois still leads a fairly lonely existence. The only person she sees outside of the office is one of the two brothers who run Clement Street Soup and Sourdough, the hole-in-the-wall takeout place from where she orders dinner nearly every night. She orders the same thing all the time, too—a "double spicy"—a combo of Spicy Soup and Spicy Sandwich.

"If Vietnamese pho's healing powers, physical and psychic, make traditional chicken noodle soup seem like dishwater—and they do—then this spicy soup, in turn, dishwatered pho. It was an elixir. The sandwich was spicier still, thin-sliced vegetables slathered with a fluorescent red sauce, the burn buffered by thick slabs of bread artfully toasted. First my stomach unclenched, and then my brain."

Lois quickly becomes the brothers' "Number one eater," but her dependence on them isn't enough to keep them in San Francisco, as visa issues force them to leave the country. But they don't leave Lois empty-handed. Beoreg, the creator of the double spicy, gifts Lois their culture—err, the sourdough starter they use to make their bread. He gives Lois explicit instructions on how to feed and care for it so it stays alive, which includes playing it music.

It's not long before Lois, who has never cooked a thing in her life, starts baking sourdough, and she quickly becomes immersed in the baking community, particularly the sourdough community, which is a pretty passionate one. Not only is her bread good, but each loaf somehow bakes with a face forming on the top. Her bread becomes a favorite of her colleagues, neighbors, and friends, until the demand starts increasing beyond what someone with an intense full-time job can handle.

Lois also quickly realizes that the starter Beoreg gave her isn't just your run-of-the-mill starter. It has distinct behavior patterns and enjoys different types of music. What has she gotten herself into?

The General Dexterity chef convinces Lois to take her bread to the "auditions" for the Bay Area's farmers market community, and Lois finds herself connecting with a mysterious underground market in the developmental stages. The people in this market are at the fringes of the culinary world, and they are increasingly dependent on technology to produce their wares. For the first time in her life, Lois discovers her true passion and a fascinating group of people who are passionate about food and technology.

"Food is history of the deepest kind. Everything we eat tells a tale of ingenuity and creation, domination and injustice—and does so more vividly than any other artifact, any other media."

Sourdough is quirky, compelling, thought-provoking, and tremendously enjoyable, even if you have to suspend your disbelief a bit, particularly as the book reaches its conclusion. The book has a fascinating cast of characters and a terrific premise. Who among us hasn't wished we could be in a position to pursue what we feel most passionate about? How many of us have dreamed of being part of a community of people that truly "gets" us? And how many of us have really stopped to consider just what fuels the production of sourdough?

As I discovered when I read Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore, I love the way Robin Sloan writes. Food is the source of different types of passion for so many people, and if you throw in a sourdough starter of mysterious provenance and a bunch of people striving to change the culinary world, how can you go wrong? At times the book may be a little too zany for its own good, but I was hooked from the very start.

If you're afraid of carbs, you may want to steer clear of this book, because I definitely have been craving big slabs of sourdough since I read this!!

NetGalley and Farrar, Straus and Giroux provided me an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making this available!

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