Book Club: Sourdough
Sourdough by Robin Sloan
When Jen offered to write today's book review, I knew my readers and I would all be in for a treat! Jen has the best taste in books (which makes sense as she's a librarian) and her reviews are always great. I had never heard of the book Sourdough until she brought it up and upon reading the review, I picked it up on Audible.com. Check it out, guys:
Lois Clary, a software engineer at a San Francisco robotics company, codes all day and collapses at night. When her favourite sandwich shop closes up, the owners leave her with the starter for their mouthwatering sourdough bread.
Lois becomes the unlikely hero tasked to care for it, bake with it and keep this needy colony of microorganisms alive. Soon she is baking loaves daily and taking them to the farmer's market, where an exclusive close-knit club runs the show.
When Lois discovers another, more secret market, aiming to fuse food and technology, a whole other world opens up. But who are these people, exactly?
Sourdough by Robin Sloan is a wonderful book, full of beautiful writing, fascinating characters, and a lot of subtle layers in the plot. I truly found this book to be an engaging read with a lot of interesting depth. However, at first I found it difficult to suspend my disbelief when following the main character’s journey, but after I gave the book a second chance with the audiobook and I found it much easier to identify with the character’s journey and relate more to her.
Be warned for spoilers ahead.
The story centers around Lois Clary, who is a Michigan native, and a computer programer. She is hired to work at General Dexterity, robotics company in San Francisco, CA where they make and program robot arms. As Lois is recruited, one of the most interesting lines in the book is said and it deserves a quote here because its so relatable: “Here's a thing I believe about people my age: We are the children of Hogwarts, and more than anything, we just want to be sorted.”
While there Lois, finds a lack of romance and excitement with her job’s long, stressful hours. At first her job stresses her out so much she develops stomach issues and relegates herself to meals consisting of Slurry, which is comparable to the real word meal replacement drink Soylent. While Slurry doesn’t solve her stomach problems she does find camaraderie at the Slurry table at lunch. It's here she begins to make friends out of work acquaintances.
One day after coming home from work, there is a take-out menu on her door for a place called “Clement Street Soup and Sourdough.” Lois calls and orders their spicy soup and sourdough. She begins to develop a lasting connection with the two bothers who own the restaurant, Chiaman, who delivers the food, and Boereg, who makes the food. Lois describes them as “vaguely Eastern European,” with strong accents and great personalities. The brothers and their food are a part of a mysterious, lost culture called the Mazg. Lois begins to develop a routine of ordering from Clement Street almost everyday and when she does, she finds that her stomach feels better and her mood is drastically improved. She even joins the San Francisco charter of the Lois club, an international name-based club of people named Lois, generally populated with elderly women. Lois is happy with her new routine and seems to finally start feeling at home in San Francisco. However this routine is disrupted brothers stop by to tell Lois they need to leave the US due visa issues, but not before Boereg leaves Lois his sourdough starter and teaches her to make bread.
Side note: A sourdough starter is essentially flour, water, and salt mixed into a paste, which is stored in an air tight container and left in a warm, dark place overnight. This causes a chemical reaction and brings the mixture to rise, bubble, and expand. Everyday flour, water, and salt is added to mixture and it grows. Below is a good video from a YouTuber I follow who conveniently goes over the whole process.
Thus begin’s Lois’s journey in bread making; she begins to bake bread for herself and her Slurry table at work. As she cooks more and more with the starter, she notices that it doesn’t behave like a normal starter - it makes farts, seems to sing/make noises, and when cooked into bread, very strange faces appear on the crust. Regardless the bread is such a big hit the cafeteria chef at General Dexterity, Chef Kate (its a Silicon Valley start-up, so of course they have a 5 star chef on staff) hires Lois to cook sourdough for the employees. While the employees of General Dexterity love the bread, they just aren't buying enough of it for Chef Kate to justify buying out Lois’s bread stock, but recommends Lois try selling the sourdough at the farmer’s market.
Lois is at first hesitant, but after discussing it with the Lois Club gives her advice and motivate her to tryout for the farmers market. At the try out she initially doesn’t get a spot, but one of the judges invites her to participate in a new, highly experimental market place called the Marrow Fair. The Marrow Fair is a hodge podge of different culinary experiments housed in an old nuclear testing facility on the outskirts of San Francisco and is run by a mysterious and wealthy benefactor.
The reason Lois is was chosen for the Marrow Fair was because of her job programming robots. The Fair’s manager Lily Belasco thought the idea of robot-made bread would be intriguing to patrons. However, when Lois states she just programs robots and doesn’t cook with them or own an arm, Lily suggests Lois find a way to get a robot or she’s out of the Marrow Fair. Back a work Lois, realizes that one of the main issues that robot arms have is cracking eggs and then proceeds to convince the company’s CEO to let her use an older model arm to solve the egg problem. Lois then takes the robot arm to the Marrow Fair and begins to use it in her cooking routine.
At this point, I had stopped my initial reading. I got annoyed that Lois learned to bake bread for the first time a few weeks ago and is suddenly good enough to sell her wares to chefs and was recruited to sell her bread at a new experimental market? I finding it difficult to suspend my disbelief, which is saying a lot considering I’m a person who is generally stuck in the Science Fiction genre. I just couldn’t get past my annoyance and I felt terrible for Beoreg, who had been cooking his whole life and struggled have his restaurant in San Francisco, only to start over from the ground up once he got to Berlin. It was all coming too easy to Lois and I was irritated by it.
However, I picked it back up again as I was trying out the Libby app from Overdrive. So I set up the app with my local library and checked out the “Sourdough” audiobook. I checked it out again because I did really enjoy writing and the secondary characters. I just wanted to know everything ended and figured it may be a more enjoyable read with the audiobook. And I was right! The narrator made Lois out to be more sympathetic than she was with my own internal narrator. Additionally, the audiobook was enhanced through the use of multiple narrators and the use of music when it was describing the CD that one of the brothers left Lois. The audiobook made the story more engaging on a different level than the print book and it enabled me to pick up different literary devices the author used to create his story.
Sloan analogized the Farmer’s Market judges to Greek gods and goddesses of food and celebration, but one judge, Lily, stands apart as she dressed like the queen of the dead. Its Lily who temps Lois away from her day job to mysterious Marrow Fair, which used to be a nuclear weapons facility and houses a library staffed by a man named Horace. The Marrow Fair is frequently described as a place where one doesn’t see much sun and is a bit dark. There are so many layers to every person, place, and word in the book.
For example, Lily is not only a person’s name, but its is a flower typically associated with graves and flowers. Not only that, but Lily is compared to Hades, who in mythology captures Persephone and takes to her to the land of the dead, which is similar to Lois’s journey in the Marrow Fair and her later decision in the last chapter of the book in which she finds a new freedom and sense of self.
Likewise, Horace an elderly gentleman who is employed at the Marrow Fair to be the librarian. He collects every book, every menu, and historical reference he can find relating to food. Lois seems very taken with him as he lends her books to improve her skills as a baker and to research the history of her mysterious Mazg starter. As I was listening the book’s description of Horace, I was struck with the realization that Horus is an Egyptian god, whose eye is often associated with Egyptian funerals or protection, sacrifices, and healing. Horace in the story, is often the first to come to someone’s defense in argument or the first to help you find the answer to your problem.
There are many other examples of layered characters and places but the most intriguing to me Lois’s name. The name Lois is Greek in origin (loion) and means "more desirable" or "better," which is all Lois in the book tries to do. She just wants to be her best self and wants to be someone worth knowing. While Lois often reads as an every-person type of character (meaning she’s written so blandly so the reader can use her as a vessel for the plot and relate better to her), her main motivation is to be a better version of herself, which in itself is very relatable.
It's these layers to the characters and the plot that kept me reading the book the second time, despite how unbelievable it continued to be. These layers to the character’s helped drive home one of the key elements on of this book: culture.
Culture is defined in this book many ways. The first time culture is mentioned, Lois is contemplating her family history's lack of culture in comparison to brothers. Then it is redefined by Beoreg as he discusses his sourdough culture (his starter). Later, others define culture by books, music, art, language, or the food associated with people and places. However, most interestingly, the character known as the Microbe Whisper, connects the idea of a social culture to the bacterial culture. Culture is used as a literary device to connects the idea of the bacteria culture in the sourdough starter with the idea of a culture associated with people or places. I kept reading this book because it was such an interesting concept to consider and I began to appreciate it for how smart it was to discuss this concept in a book about food.
Throughout the book Lois and Boereg exchange emails, through which he tells her about the origin of the starter and how the hubris of the ancient Mazg culture was their downfall, which paralleled nicely the Marrow Fair. I won’t describe it here, because I don’t want to spoil much more of the book, but its a very interesting parallel.
Overall, I am glad I gave this book a second chance. The characters and the tone of the book were fantastic. I loved the layers and depth I ended up finding in story. If I had one piece of feedback it would have been regarding Lois’s timeline. I still find it unbelievable that a person with zero cooking experience would be motivated to do all of what she did a 14 months. That being said I will likely read this book again to try to connect more mythology to the character and find more depth to the story.