I really loved Robin Sloan’s Sourdough (2017), but not everyone will. You probably will if you’re a foodie (I am), an introvert (I am), and a bit geeky (I am). If you love sourdough bread (I do) and magical realism (I do), you’ve just got to read Sourdough. And you must try the audio version. It’s amazing.
Lois is new to San Francisco. She moved from Michigan, where she grew up, and she’s starting a job as a programmer of robotic arms at a tech company where everyone works so hard that they basically have no other life. Most of them just eat a nutritive slurry rather than bothering to plan, shop, and prepare meals.
Most nights Lois orders her dinner from a food delivery service that she saw an advertisement for. Their spicy soup and delicious sourdough bread soothe her lonely and empty soul. When the brothers who cook and deliver the food have to go back to Europe, Lois, their “number one eater,” is devastated. So, they give her some of their sourdough starter.
As Lois cares for the starter and teaches herself to bake bread (she’s never cooked before, so she’s jumping right into the deep end), she starts to make friends, gain confidence, expand her horizons, and actually become interesting. She discovers that her bread is magical, in more ways than one, and that there are other magical things happening in San Francisco.
Sourdough is bizarre and wonderful. I loved every sentence of Robin Sloan’s beautifully written novel that celebrates the appreciation of excellent food — not just its taste and the physical and mental nourishment it provides, but also its importance in human history and evolution, as well as the way it defines world cultures:
I have come to believe that food is history of the deepest kind. Everything we eat tells a tale of ingenuity and creation, domination, and injustice…
Sourdough also extols the processes of creating good food, and not just by humans. Here’s a passionate tribute to the microorganisms that are responsible for fermentation:
This is the key to my cheese, to that beer, to your sourdough, to anything and everything… In that cave, empires are rising and falling, there are battles underway, wars, more soldiers on both sides than in all the wars of human history combined. And they are struggling, they are taking territory, making it safe, building fortresses.” He lifted the wheel he’d chosen out of his basket and hefted it. “There is a saga in here to put our whole history to shame… in every wheel of cheese, there’s revolution, alliance, betrayal. Can you feel it?
Readers will want to know that Sourdough is best described as magical realism — it’s got only a few magical elements in a novel that would otherwise be classified as literary fiction.
I listened to the audiobook version of Sourdough produced by Macmillan Audio. It’s narrated by Therese Plummer who is absolutely incredible in this performance. She is fabulous. If you are not an audiobook reader, I challenge you to listen to this one. I think Therese Plummer might convert you.
I loved so many things about Sourdough, Robin Sloan’s second novel. Certainly I loved the strange, magical story of a sourdough bread starter that is something more. I loved the setting (the San Francisco Bay Area) and the quirky characters, especially those who inhabit the Underground Market, where protagonist Lois ends up with her strange and wonderful bread recipe. I loved the theme of nourishment, all kinds, and I loved Sloan’s quirky, witty style.
The setting was fun for me because I have been to many of the places included, and Sourdough let me see them with fresh eyes. I loved the Lois Club, an international group made up of clubs of women with the name Lois. Without being overly preachy, Sloan’s book explores the nature of nourishment. There is a “nutritive gel” that just might become the future of eating (ick), nourishment as fuel, at its most utilitarian. There is the delicious and homey “double spicy” soup and sandwich from the two mysterious brothers, with its delicious bread, food that nurtures a soul as well as a body. There is snooty food, represented by a powerful chef clearly modeled after Berkeley’s famous Alice Waters, and there are the crazy food-loving adventurers of the underground market, who offer things like laser-roasted coffee beans.
Without being heavy-handed, Sloan points out the downsides of the Bay Area, too; the cost of housing, for instance, is elegantly dealt with in one paragraph. The single-mindedness and competition of the tech-boys; the silliness of food fads, and the joy of real food is all addressed here. Sourdough is a breezy read that delivers enjoyment and leaves you thinking afterward.