I was getting ready to find a new book to read and I was kind of trolling around. Then, I was reading the weekly email from the Paris Review (and I realize you cannot sound more assholey and douchey than that) and they talked about a book called Sourdough by Robin Sloan. So I grabbed it and I read it.
It is completely delightful. First, there are early references to Michigan in it and it turns out that Sloan is from Michigan, which is where I lived until recently. Beyond that, the book is a compelling read with a strong first-person character and a well-developed plot, though certainly it is more character-heavy than plot heavy.
Basically, the upshot is that this computer programmer at a robotics company is given sourdough starter by some weird ethnic guys as they close their restaurant and move from the neighborhood. The starter turns out to have some magical, life force like qualities–but in an understated way. It isn’t like the starter fights crime or anything. (Spoiler alert).
Anyway, that’s all the plot summary you are going to get here.
So, I liked the book because of all the reasons I listed above. I also liked it because it was really very smart and engaging on an intellectual level, where it works at several levels.
You have the premise, which is the main character, who works in robotics and gets interested in baking by hand. Now, just on its own, that’s a relatively banal way to go and probably couldn’t sustain an entire book.
But the starter is alive. And that opens up a whole other line of inquiry, one which calls on us to question how unaware we generally are of the microscopic world that is around us, in a Horton Hears a Who kind of way.
Here’s an excerpt in which a man describes what happens with the bacteria in a cave where he makes cheese.
“In that cave, empires are rising and falling. There are battles under way. 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.”
That’s a very interesting perspective, isn’t it? Of course, that’s in a world where her job had been to simulate natural actions with a robot.
A second really interesting element of the book asks a basic question: “what is food?” Is it mere nutrition–can you just blend it up, call it “Slurry” and live on it? Or, it is nothing but a collection of chemicals and microbes…to the point where you could literally engineer it–rearrange the molecules and the bacteria and create something else entirely…and it would be edible but would it still be food?
Contrast those concoctions with a loaf of sourdough bread, as traditional and tactilely rewarding as anything we would think of as food. It tastes, it smells, it crunches, it chews. It’s a really nice contrast for the whole line of thinking.
And, because I know you want to know, I’ve never baked a loaf of bread in my life.
I found Sourdough an entertaining and thought-provoking read, and I give it a very high grade. It was an unexpected pleasure.