Number One Eater Succeeds in "Sourdough", by Robin Sloan - Book Review

Sourdough is Robin Sloan’s second novel, but my first read of his. Before finishing this one, I’d already ordered his first, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. Having just returned from my first trip to San Francisco, I was immediately charmed by the setting of Sourdough which is strictly in the Bay Area.

Lois, the main character, is a geeky computer type who works for a robotics company that intends to revolutionize commerce in a way that will likely make humans obsolete. Lois is well paid and unfulfilled. Her apartment is sparse, like her life, until she finds the best take-out food ever. Two brothers deliver to her a daily elixir of dishes with sourdough to die for. The brothers nickname her their “Number One Eater.” She relishes the title.

Then, as quickly as they came into her life, the brothers close up shop and leave the country because of immigration issues. In honor of her best customer status, they pass along their mysterious sourdough “starter” for safe keeping. Unbeknownst to me prior to reading this book, sourdough “starters,” a type of yeast different from the standard used in, say, regular white bread, can be fed, grown and reused for years and years. Lois’ newly inherited starter has a mysterious and not entirely pure history, and, as Lois comes to learn, a dark side.

Lois makes her first loaves of sourdough in her sterile kitchen but realizes for both the sake of quality and quantity, she’ll need something bigger. She constructs a non-code compliant brick oven in her backyard and buys her landlord’s silence through the promise of regular bread delivery. Deciding to expand her bread business, she signs on to be part of the enigmatic Marrow Fair, a new market that hopes to be the underground competitor to the Ferry Market, a long-established mecca of commerce right on the Bay. Intrigue ensues.

Reminiscent of Tom Robbins, Sloan is a master of language and turning phrases. Example: “My face burned hot, but through force of will, I cooled my gaze to absolute zero kelvin.” Similarly, he can make a fantastical story believable. He also takes the complex and reduces it to basic. In the end, Lois finds the answers she’s looking for through simplifying everything: robotic coding, bread making, relationships.

This is a delightful reprieve if you’re weary from the world at large. It reads quick and delivers wit and quirk with a touch of sentimentality. I look forward to reading Sloan’s other published novel and the ones that will hopefully ensue.

Published:  2017
Publisher: MCD

Elizabeth's rating: 4 stars

True Food Porn in "Sweetbitter", by Stephanie Danler - Book Review

Sweetbitter started off like a lightning bolt and ended more like a summer drizzle.

Danler’s insight into the world of high-end restauranting is razor sharp. Only a former wait staffer could have written this book. Her precise writing on the inner workings of an upscale New York eatery and the camaraderie of the staff ring completely true.

Sweetbitter: A novel
By Stephanie Danler

Her food analogies are more luxurious than her descriptions of sex - and usually more arousing. You can taste the food on your tongue, feel the drink on your lips, and see the setting in your mind. Her take on fresh figs: “There was a teardrop at one end, and I put it on my tongue. I felt undressed. I tore them apart. They were soft, the pink interior lazily revealing itself.”

Another trick Danler mastered was not divulging the main character’s name until half way through the book. I was stunned at the revelation, but as soon as I saw her name written across the page, I realized it was the first time I had seen it.

Her characters are almost caricatures of themselves but in a way that works. Take Sasha, the Russian bar back who calls the main character Baby Monster. He speaks fluent English, but doesn’t bother to “adhere to its rules.” He is simultaneously endearing and biting with his blunt truisms that you can somehow forgive because of his foreignness.

Inevitably, there is a love triangle, and that is where the story loses its punch. Danler should have kept the focus on the dining, drinking, and escapades of the employees because the love story is overwrought and plays out too slowly. By the end, I cared less about who ended up with whom, I just wanted it over.  

Danler’s success is her descriptive writing. She pens a five-page description of a hangover so bone crushing that it is enough to make even the mildest of partiers want to go to rehab.

For a first novel, her metaphoric turns and use of words to evoke image is beyond reproach. And her story telling will invariably improve. I can’t wait to read whatever she chooses to educate us on next.

Published: 2016
Publisher: Knopf

Elizabeth's rating: 3 ½