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Sourdough by Robin Sloan


by Robin Sloan
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Quick take

Sourdough is less of a mystery to be solved than a joyful unfurling of its strange and inviting world, one almost like ours, but a bit more zany.


Lois 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.

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Why I love it

Baking has always seemed a form of magic to me. You combine ingredients that you've had sitting in the pantry all along—nothing in my hat, nothing up my sleeve—and by stirring them in the right ratio and plopping in the oven, you've turned inedible, tasteless powders into bread.

This is the realization that San Francisco engineer Lois Clarry has in Sourdough, when she inherits a mysteriously potent sourdough starter from two brothers she orders delivery from every night. Lois, who works at a company that creates industrial robotic arms, quickly discovers how satisfying it is to create something using her own arms, fulfilling some human need she hadn't even realized had gone unfulfilled. And then she discovers something else: This starter, which needs music to bubble happily and creates loaves of bread with strange faces baked into them, isn't like other starters. But Sourdough is less of a mystery to be solved than a joyful unfurling of its strange and inviting world, one almost like ours, but a bit more zany. Like baking bread, the process of reading it is where the true pleasure lies, not the end result. And like baking bread, its quirky details (a secret, experimental farmers' market; a club for only women named Lois; an eccentric culinary librarian who collects stacks and stacks of old menus; a sourdough starter that's a little bit Little Shop of Horrors) work together to create a work that's greater than the sum of their parts.

For days after I finished the book, I found myself looking up from my laptop and towards my sad, New York City kitchen (an oven that only works half the time; no counter space) and wondering what might happen if I could bake bread. Maybe it wouldn't change my life—unlike Lois, I don't see myself having the wherewithal to construct a bread oven in my backyard, or wake up early enough to consider baking as a sustainable career—but after reading Sourdough, I'm convinced my life would become just a little more magical.

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