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What I'm Reading (No. 49): an epic bike ride + a doughy novel
This week I finished To Shake the Sleeping Self — Jedidiah Jenkins' memoir of his bike ride from Oregon to Patagonia, as well as Sourdough by Robin Sloan, a fun, fast-reading novel about a sourdough starter that has a personality of its own. I enjoyed them both immensely, and was in fact inspired by both too. Let's get to it.
To Shake the Sleeping Self by Jedidiah Jenkins
From Oregon to Patagonia is well over 10,000 miles. It would be a painstakingly long plane ride, let alone biking the whole way. But that's what debut author and novice bike rider Jedidiah Jenkins does, providing soulful anecdotes and philosophical/religious meanderings along the way (almost seems like a requirement for a travel memoir, doesn't it?).
I'll start with my complaint, as it sort of frames the way you read the story. I listened to a podcast interview after finishing the book, and Jenkins let it slip that the impetus behind the bike ride was that he wanted to write a book. He didn't really have anything to write about though, and decided he needed some sort of grand experience or adventure to provide fodder. Thus, he ended up on a long bike ride. I wish I wouldn't have known that. To me, that means that as he's biking, he's thinking of how he can turn stories into text; he might take detours or do things he otherwise wouldn't have for the sake of the book. Seems a little inauthentic (though I do get it, and it's something that happens frequently).
That said, it seems like the experiences he had did profoundly affect him. He wasn't a bike rider at all before embarking, and could've easily given up well before reaching his goal. And along the way we get meaningful insights into his growing up as a gay Christian in a pretty conservative home. Even knowing that the motives for the ride weren't necessarily pure, I was still a little bit inspired to hop on a bike and put in a few miles around town. That's saying something for a guy who hasn't ridden a bike in years.
Jenkins' travel memoir had elements of a lot of other books I've read in the genre:
A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson — a through-hike of the Appalachian Trail; so so good and just plain fun
Wild by Cheryl Strayed — a hike of the Pacific Crest Trail; hated her writing voice in this one and couldn't bring myself to finish it
Lands of Lost Borders by Kate Harris — a bike ride across the Silk Road; a beautiful meditation on exploration
The Great Railway Bazaar by Paul Theroux — riding the rails across all of Asia in the '70s; considered a classic of the travel genre, but didn't do anything for me
I'd ultimately rank To Shake the Sleeping Self right in the middle of all those. It's above average as a travel memoir, and certainly a fun read for bikers and adventurers of all sorts.
Sourdough by Robin Sloan
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 eccentric story with some magic-ish elements, and offers a few meditations on the nature of balancing technology with "real" stuff.
His second novel, released this year, is about a woman who works at a robotics factory and takes up baking sourdough bread in her spare time.
Books and bread. This dude's novels 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 figures it out though, finds a way to make a great loaf of bread, and is invited to sell at a quirky new farmer's market. Drama ensues, and ultimately Lois figures out what she wants out of life.
Sourdough was just such a fun novel to read, especially for someone like me who loves baking (specifically bread) 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 obviously also showing a deep love for it. A lot of fiction these days is just depressing, but 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 certainly quirky, but I can almost guarantee you won't regret giving it a few hours. Perfect for a plane ride (which is how I read it).
That's it for me this week. Merry Christmas everyone! May your holiday be filled with family, food, friends . . . and of course some good reading! Next week, I'll unveil my favorite reads of 2018. I'm already having trouble narrowing it down.