Robin Sloan’s delightful new novel, Sourdough, the follow-up to his runaway success Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, displays both lightness and a yearning for escape, but only in the best sense. It is that rare thing: a satire that has a love of what it satirizes while also functioning as a modern fairy tale about, of all things, the magic of certain carbohydrates … Despite the proliferation of many interesting Loises in Sloan’s story, though, there is really only one Lois for me: the narrator, Computer Lois, who tells a sure-footed and lovely tale of being gifted with a strange sourdough starter … Once we’re past the setup, Sloan continues the high-wire balancing act of including satire with his fairy tale, all with an astounding conciseness and sure-footedness.
[Sourdough] is a beautiful, small, sweet, quiet book. It knows as much about the strange extremes of food as Mr. Penumbra did about the dark latitudes of the book community ... I love that because Sloan has a pop-culture brain, and he gave it to Lois. Because his voice in her head and her mouth fits so beautifully into the time and place and moment he is writing about. Because he imbues everything about Lois's journey with mythic overtones, with rules and lessons gleaned not from school or church or elders, but from our entertainment. From stories.
Lois’ turnaround is satisfying to watch — who doesn’t want all their problems solved by the simple act of baking? — but it goes down a little too easy, more like artificially flavored candy than a loaf of whole wheat ... But after Lois learns a thing or two about how to really live, Sloan’s story expands into something decidedly, and delightfully, weirder ... sustenance-related tales resonate throughout the story until food itself comes across as a sort of grand, delicious imprint of humanity. What Sourdough isn’t concerned about are topical conflicts in food today — characters touch on the follies of industrialized food production, boutique organic farms and GMOs, but only briefly. Instead, whatever lessons we might draw from Sourdough are more personal, ambiguous and hard to extract: having humility, perhaps, or an open mind. And even then, the novel defies clear-cut analysis. It pushes us to do something simpler, to wonder at the weird beauty, set down in Sloan’s matter-of-fact prose, of life — or at least marvel at the strange sights and tastes of a familiar world embellished by a particularly inventive mind.
...filled with crisp humor and weird but endearing characters. As Lois takes her first tentative steps into the world of baking, her loaves appear to have faces in the crust, and the starter—Is it singing?—takes on a life of its own. Then, after she gains entry into a mysterious underground farmers market on the cutting edge of food technology, demand for her special sourdough begins to rise. At once a parody of startup culture and a foodie romp, Sourdough is an airy delight, perfect for those who like a little magic with their meals, as in Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate.
One of the more cogent novels this year on the fertile tensions that exist between culture and technology … Sloan uses food as the centerpiece of a tricky but intoxicating exchange about authenticity and ownership, and about taking and sharing: What, exactly, is culture? And how should society best appreciate it? It’s no coincidence that Beoreg refers to his sourdough starter in the biological sense: as culture, a collection of cells that must be cultivated to thrive … If in Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, Sloan suggested that books hold the secrets and lessons of a culture, in Sourdough, he decides books serve as maps, while food carries the everlasting stories.
On the crust, Sourdough is a buddy book; it's about the wacky adventures of Lois and the Clement Street Starter, from a backyard oven to a literally underground farmer's market filled with eccentric characters concocting new delicacies...But slice a little deeper, and you will discover, Sourdough is a novel about work. Sloan does a wonderful job of detailing several different workplaces, from a hyperactive, but depressing, San Francisco tech firm, to the kitchen of an upscale restaurant, to a farm that creates Slurry, a nutritive food replacement. Sloan's sense of place is palpable, and his prose is dusted with luxurious lines to be savored ... Not many of the characters in Sourdough are fully baked, including the members of the Lois Club, which was an unnecessary ingredient and the only sour (sorry) note in his entire story. But Sloan's two 'bosses' — a benevolent tech CEO who is 'a walking amphetamine' and the celebrity chef who runs her epicurean empire like a mafia don — deserve books of their own ... Sloan's charming storytelling, a mix of magical realism, and a dash of fabulism, make for a fun read. It's dessert. It's not a seven-course meal, but it's satisfying in its own way.
In his second novel, Sloan serves his audience a culinary delight in Sourdough ... Suddenly Lois must decide between her stable, yet dull, job as a software engineer or a new adventure as a naturally gifted bread maker with an incredibly rare and special sourdough starter ...takes readers on a thought-provoking journey to answer that question and asks them to consider the irony that it takes a living concoction of yeast and microbes to force Lois to consider living her best life.
Sourdough is a soup of skilfully balanced ingredients: there’s satire, a touch of fantasy, a pinch of SF, all bound up with a likeable narrator whose zest for life is infectious. The novel opens a door on a world that’s both comforting and thrillingly odd. Shelve it alongside Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette and your hipster cookbooks, and savour.
Sloan has imagined a funny and curious novel unlike anything else, a perfect combination of self-discovery through all sorts of weird passions. Like truly good sourdough, this namesake is the perfectly tangy, chewy and airy addition to anyone’s reading list—minus the gluten and calories, of course.
...delicious fun ... Add a legendary food activist (think Alice Waters), runaway microbes and a robotic arm, and you get a novel as oddly delectable as its namesake. My only mild disappointment was that I couldn’t eat my copy.
Sloan serves his audience a culinary delight in Sourdough ... Sourdough is the story we all secretly dream about. Could we leave our mundane lives and take a leap of faith in the direction of our newfound passion? Sloan takes readers on a thought-provoking journey to answer that question and asks them to consider the irony that it takes a living concoction of yeast and microbes to force Lois to consider living her best life.
Sloan’s comic but smart tone never flags, and Lois is an easy hero to root for, inquisitive and sensitive as she is. But the absurdities of the plot twists (in part involving her starter’s need to acquire a 'warrior spirit') ultimately feel less cleverly offbeat than hokey. 'I oscillated between finding this vision totally ridiculous and finding it deadly serious,' Lois bemoans at one point. But the story increasingly leans toward the former. Fluffy but overbaked.
Through narrative and email correspondence, Sloan captures contemporary work environments, current reality, and future trends. It’s a busy novel, crammed with some excellent bits (how robotics work, how farmers markets work) and some bits that are just creative hyperactivity (like the biogeneration of lembas). The book offers much to savor, but like the starter it proves rich and buoyant at first, then overreaches.