Sourdough (Sloan)

Robin Sloan, 2017
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
272 pp.

In his much-anticipated new novel, Robin Sloan does for the world of food what he did for the world of books in Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore.

Lois Clary is a software engineer at General Dexterity, a San Francisco robotics company with world-changing ambitions.

She codes all day and collapses at night, her human contact limited to the two brothers who run the neighborhood hole-in-the-wall from which she orders dinner every evening. Then, disaster! Visa issues.

The brothers close up shop, and fast. But they have one last delivery for Lois: their culture, the sourdough starter used to bake their bread. She must keep it alive, they tell her—feed it daily, play it music, and learn to bake with it.

Lois is no baker, but she could use a roommate, even if it is a needy colony of microorganisms. Soon, not only is she eating her own homemade bread, she’s providing loaves daily to the General Dexterity cafeteria. The company chef urges her to take her product to the farmer’s market, and a whole new world opens up.

When Lois comes before the jury that decides who sells what at Bay Area markets, she encounters a close-knit club with no appetite for new members. But then, an alternative emerges: a secret market that aims to fuse food and technology. But who are these people, exactly?

Leavened by the same infectious intelligence that made Robin Sloan’s Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore such a sensation, while taking on even more satisfying challenges, Sourdough marks the triumphant return of a unique and beloved young writer. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Birth—ca. 1980
Raised—Troy, Michigan, USA
Education—B.A., Michigan State University
Currently—lives in Berkeley, California

Robin Sloan is an American novelist and short story writer — the author of the New York Times bestselling novel, Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore (2012), and Sourdough (2017), as well as the novella Annabel Scheme (2009) and an assortment of short stories.

Sloan was raised in Troy, Michigan, and earned a degree in economics from Michigan State University. While still a student, he co-founded a literary magazine called Oats. For 10 years, (2002-2012), he worked at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, Current TV, and Twitter — in various positions, all of which explore the future of media. Currently, Sloan works as a "media inventor" out of the Murray Street Lab in South Berkeley.

In addition to his writing and media work, Sloan and his partner, Kathryn Tomajan, lease three acres in Sunol, California, where they produce extra virgin olive oil. Sloan makes his home in Berkeley, California. (Adapted from the author's website.)

Book Reviews
The magical world Robin Sloan used to such affect in Mr. Penumbra’ 24-Hour Bookstore shows up in his newest, Sourdough. The “magick” here, though, is less Harry Potter and more of the Garden Spells variety: whimsical rather than mystical.… The writing is, in parts, smart and insightful, particularly when describing the tech world. The how-tos of baking, the invisible “empire” of microbes, and the politics of agribusiness are also quite good. Overall, though, while pleasant and occasionally clever, Sourdough feels somewhat lackluster.  READ MORE…
Molly Lundquist - LitLovers

In his novel Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, Sloan unraveled a mystery about a web designer who takes a job in a peculiar all-night Bay area book shop. New technology clashed, then melded, with classic history. Sourdough promises a similar sort of tech and analog mashup, in this case involving the food industry: a software engineer learns to bake bread and uncovers a secret underground market. We’re already hungry for it.
Miami Herald

Delightful…equal measures techie and foodie fodder, a perfect parable for our times.
San Francisco Magazine

As he did in Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore, Robin Sloan will have readers looking for magic in the mundane.
Nora Horvath - Real Simple

Sloan captures contemporary work environments, current reality, and future trends. It’s a busy novel, crammed with some excellent bits…and some bits that are just creative hyperactivity…. [M]uch to savor, but like the starter it proves rich and buoyant at first, then overreaches.
Publishers Weekly

[B]uoyant, touch-of-magic prose.… How many novels can boast an obstreperous sourdough starter as a key character? A delightful and heartfelt read.
Library Journal

(Starred review.) Filled with crisp humor and weird but endearing characters.… At once a parody of startup culture and a foodie romp.… [A] delight, perfect for those who like a little magic with their meals.

A listless coder discovers inspiration—and some unusual corners of the Bay Area—via a batch of sourdough starter.… But the absurdities of the plot twists…ultimately feel less cleverly offbeat than hokey.… Fluffy but overbaked.
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions
We'll add publisher questions if and when they're available; in the meantime, please use our LitLovers talking points to help start a discussion for Sourdough … then take off on your own:

1. Talk about Lois, especially as the book opens. How does she feel about her job, and how has the job affected her outlook on life? What might her experience, as presented in the novel, suggest about contemporary jobs in Silicon Valley?

2. What does Lois mean when she says, "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." Why does that belief or idea inspire her to leave Michigan for San Francisco?

3. Do you find the robotic blue arm just a little creepy ... or funny? Is it the wave of the future? While you're at it, can you understand, even define, proprioception? It is truly a marvel of human ability, isn't it?

4. In what ways does the sour dough starter function as a symbol in the novel? Compare, for instance, the sourdough to both the blue arm and Tetra Pak nutritional gel. Think of the meaning of the word "starter" itself.

5. Follow-up to Question 1: Once Lois has taken up kneading dough and building a brick oven, consider her statement about exhaustion : "When I fell into my bed, I was truly tired; not merely the brain-spent Well, I guess I’ll give up now tiredness of a day at the robot factory, but something deeper, actually muscular." How else does her life change? Better yet, how does she change?

6. What do you think of the innovative Marrow Fair Lois is invited to join — funny, frightening, off-putting, even slightly repulsive? All or none of the above?

7. What is Agrippa's empire of microbes — "This is their world, not ours, and their stories are greater."

8. Robin Sloan seems to be taking on both the farm-to-table movement and giant agribusiness. What is his criticism, and does he offer up a solution for feeding the world's growing population?

9. Why does Alice turn down the job offered to her by the doyenne of the California food world?

(Questions by LitLovers. Please feel free to use them, online or off, with attribution. Thanks.)

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