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“Snowflakes are one of nature's most fragile things, but just look what they can do when they stick together.”
– Vesta M. Kelly  
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  Volume No. 15 Issue No. 12 December 2018  

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  “Sourdough”
  By Robin Widmar

   Bakers and bread fans know that good sourdough begins with a good starter (a fermented culture of microbes developed from yeast, flour, and water). The same can be said for novels, in which the opening pages are essential ingredients in a good story.
   
   So it is with “Sourdough” by Robin Sloan. The book begins with its 20-something protagonist, Lois Clary, opting to try a food delivery service following yet another crushing day at work. This is not an earth-shattering event. After all, millions of tired workers around the world face the “What’s for dinner?” dilemma every day. But just around the corner on Page 2, it becomes clear that Lois’s seemingly innocuous decision will have a far-reaching effect on her life. And just like that, riding a current of not-so-subtle foreshadowing and witty prose, the reader is sucked into the story like a dust bunny into a vacuum.
   
   Lois is a robotics software programmer in San Francisco. With a workload that leaves little time and no energy for cooking, she becomes a regular customer of Clement Street Soup and Sourdough. The “double spicy” soup and sandwich combo soothes her stressed-out soul and stomach, but the accompanying slab of fresh sourdough for soup-dunking? “That bread was life,” she said.
   
   Sadly, Lois’s gastronomic bliss ends when Beoreg and Chaiman, the brothers who operate the business from their apartment, are forced by visa issues to close shop and move away. Beoreg leaves Lois with a ceramic crock of the starter he used in his scrumptious sourdough. It is a gift with conditions, though. The starter must be fed daily, kept happy by playing certain music, and used to make bread.
   
   Lois has already put a cactus through a near-death experience. And she has never baked bread in her life. Despite her misgivings, Lois decides she will learn to make bread. Her inaugural attempt leaves her kitchen in shambles but produces a satisfactory sourdough loaf that tastes just like Beoreg’s. Oddly, though, the crust bears a face that is more Edvard Munch than a serene religious icon.
   
   Lois tries again. Less mess, more finesse, and this time her loaves come out of the oven with happy faces. The starter seems content (it even starts to sing). The bread is apparently content. And Lois is proud that she created something “that did not come out of a box with instructions printed on the side.”
   
   She begins selling her bread to the chef at her workplace cafeteria. Lois applies to sell at Bay Area farmer’s markets but is instead invited to an up-and-coming alternative market called Marrow Fair. Market coordinator Lily Belasco describes Marrow Fair’s technology-meets-food concept as “a place for new ideas. New tools. New food.” If Lois can bake her unusual bread with robots, she can have a space in the literal underground market amid bunker-grown produce, cricket-flour cookies and Chernobyl honey.
   
   Her success at Marrow Fair relies on a robotic arm that cannot yet crack an egg without crushing it and the vaunted, almost sentient Clement Street starter. When the starter loses its mojo, Lois’s attempts to revive it intersect with a scientist’s manmade food project. This results in a mildly horrifying; yet, borderline, hilarious, climactic scene straight out of a science fiction film.
   
   Lois’s first-person narrative is intelligent, laced with humorous pop culture references, and refreshingly original. The sourdough starter that sings and creates its own mini-light show is its own offbeat character. There are underlying commentaries on Silicon Valley corporate culture, the use of technology to create a sustainable food supply, and the gratification that comes from creating something by hand in an increasingly automated world. In the hands of talented writer Robin Sloan, these elements combine for an entertaining novel filled with quirky characters, settings and situations that feel both familiar and futuristic. If the book were edible, it would be right up there with the “double spicy” combo on the satisfaction scale.
   
   A note of caution: People have reported sudden onsets of hunger and a desire to bake sourdough bread while reading this book. Having experienced the same side effects, I will simply advise you to read “Sourdough” at your own risk. You may also want to keep the King Arthur Flour helpline number handy. Just in case.
   
   “Sourdough” landed on multiple lists for the top books of 2017, including Amazon, NPR, Barnes & Noble, the “San Francisco Chronicle” and “Southern Living.” It was also a semifinalist for the Goodreads Choice Awards 2017.
  
 
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