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Bay Area Books
Issue #290: "Sourdough" by Robin Sloan & "Uncanny Valley" by Anna Weiner
Happy Friday, readers!
Our family is on vacation this week in the Bay Area, so I’m re-publishing reviews of two of the most memorable San Fran books I’ve read.
It’s been such a pleasure introducing our kids to one of our very favorite places to visit. Of course, it helps that my vacation reading has been stellar: in a preview of next year’s Big Read selections, I started Dune for the first time and am loving it.
To the topic at hand: are a lot of books featuring this great region — including all-time classics like On the Road and Slouching Towards Bethlehem — but I didn’t want to make just another list of Bay Area books. So I figured I’d share two titles that don’t get quite as much attention as I think they should.
The first is perhaps one of the most delightful novels I’ve ever read; the second is on my short list of favorite memoirs. Both have vividly stayed with me in the years since I first read them.
Let’s jump in!
Sourdough by Robin Sloan
Published: 2018 | Pages: 259 | Genre: Fiction (Contemporary)
(Review originally published in December 2018.) Sloan's first novel, Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore, is about a guy who's laid off from his tech job, only to find himself working at a dusty, low-trafficked bookstore. It's a fun and somewhat magical story that offers a meditation on the nature of balancing technology with "real" stuff.
His second novel, Sourdough, is about a woman who works at a robotics factory and takes up baking sourdough bread in her spare time.
Books and bread. Sloan’s novels really speak my language.
Sourdough stars Lois — our eager but overworked programmer in San Fran. After a local restaurant closes, she inherits its unique sourdough starter. Only she's never baked before. Also, the starter needs to listen to music each night or it gets fussy. Lois finds a way to make a great loaf of bread and is then invited to sell it at a quirky new farmer's market. Drama ensues. Ultimately, Lois figures out what she wants out of life.
Sourdough was such a fun novel to read, especially for someone who loves baking and the Bay Area. Blue Bottle Coffee and Alice Waters make fictionalized appearances (under different names), and Sloan satirizes foodie culture (and its markets) while also showing an obvious love for it. I laughed and smiled throughout most of this book. And it inspired me to get my dormant (probably dead) sourdough culture reignited. Or maybe I'll start from scratch.
If you consider yourself a foodie at all, this is your kind of book. It's a little weird and fantastical, but I can almost guarantee you won't regret giving it a few hours. Perfect for a plane ride.
Uncanny Valley by Anna Weiner
Published: 2020 | Pages: 275 | Genre: Non-Fiction (Memoir)
“Tech, for the most part, wasn’t progress. It was just business.”
(Review originally published in February 2020.) I’ve long been a sucker for a good Silicon Valley story. Most of what I’ve read in that realm, however, has been penned by journalists. Weiner, on the other hand, is coming right from the belly of the beast. For five years, she worked at a couple of different startups in the Bay Area, and came away with an uncommonly keen understanding of both the allure of the culture as well as its “brogrammer,” infantilized DNA.
It’s a truly great memoir that is joining my ranks of must-read books about tech, Silicon Valley, and internet culture in general.
Tech giants, as she observes, try to mix work and lifestyle into one unrecognizable blob. Companies plan group outings and offer catering for meals, mostly with the hope of making work “fun” so that nobody leads a meaningful life outside of that work.
Weiner also astutely and humorously conveys day-to-day life in startup culture: “I would open a new browser window and begin the day’s true work: toggling between tabs.”
Silicon Valley is usually disconnected from real life and real people, and Wiener does a superb job showing us exactly how. What most moved me personally were her observations about the internet in general and our society’s obsessiveness with efficiency and productivity:
“This fetishized life without friction: What was it like? An unending shuttle between meetings and bodily needs? A continuous, productive loop? Charts and data sets. It wasn’t, to me, an aspiration. It was not a prize.”
What ultimately sets Uncanny Valley apart from the pack of tech industry books is the superb writing. For a number of good reasons, this is a book that I’ll happily recommend to just about everyone.
Thanks so much for reading! I deeply appreciate the time and inbox space.