Sourdough by Robin Sloan

Robin Sloan’s Sourdough is a short, charming book that’s just the sort of thing to cheer you up on a bad day.

Lois is a software engineer who’s recently moved to San Francisco to work in a high-end, high-tech robotics company. The lifestyle the company demands of her is stressful and the only thing that keeps Lois sane is her favourite sandwich shop. Then the owners run into visa problems and the shop closes up. But before the owners leave, they give her their starter to make her own delicious sourdough bread (a starter being the combo of flour, water, and wild yeast; you use small bits of it to “start” making bread). As Lois slowly switches her attention to baking, she realises there’s a lot more to her starter than meets the eye…

This book is a cross between magic realism, low-key sci-fi, and slice-of-life. There’s a mystery to the sourdough (for one, upon baking the dough a face is formed on the crust of the bread). There’s a mystery to the shop owners’ culture (the ever-wandering Mazg). And there’s a mystery to the underground farmer’s market that Lois becomes involved in (who are heavily involved in technologically-augmented food).

But at the heart of it all is just Lois, fresh out of college, overwhelmed and craving that tiny bit of old-fashioned in her hyper modern life. Sourdough definitely has some interesting things to say about the (perhaps inevitable?) combination of food and technology. But it’s the connection to something traditional that stuck out to me. Maybe because it’s something that’s helped me too, although I picked up crocheting instead. Lois’ discovery of a whole new “subculture” revolving around baking reminded me of finding about “Stitch ‘n’ Bitch” knitting/crocheting meet-ups, and her feelings of satisfaction at producing something tangible echoed my own. The book ended up feeling almost painfully real for me. (This also really helps ground the pretty crazy “slightly shady, intense, sci-fi farmer’s market” plot.)

Altogether, whether you’ve ever felt the urge to pick up an old-fashioned craft or not, Sourdough is a book I’d recommend to anyone who just wants to read something quiet and hopeful.

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