Litquake shakes the Peninsula: Popular literary festival comes to Palo Alto JCC

Last October, on a mild fall evening, San Francisco’s Mission District was buzzing. Groups of friends huddled in the doorways of packed bars and cafés, where drinks flowed freely and laughter, cheerful catcalls and applause echoed into the street. People of all ages — seniors, young couples with toddlers — traipsed from venue to venue, up and down Valencia Street, occasionally pausing to consult a schedule of the night’s events.

The words “literary festival” don’t usually conjure such scenes of revelry — unless one previously has attended Lit Crawl, San Francisco’s bookish take on a bar crawl.

Lit Crawl, now held in five cities nationwide, is just one of the programs run throughout the year by the Litquake Foundation. Another is its signature event, Litquake, a huge, nine-day celebration of the written word that has all but smashed the stereotype of the shy, stay-at-home bookworm. This year’s Litquake in San Francisco is slated for mid-October.

But before that, Litquake is coming for the first time to the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto for what co-founder and co-director Jack Boulware called a “mini-festival” — a one-day Litquake set for Aug. 26.

The event, from 3 to 8 p.m., is free and open to book lovers young and old, and with more than 35 authors in eight salon-style panels on topics ranging from sex writing to technology, from multicultural identity issues to food journalism — plus a full-day lineup of kids’ and young adult authors — there’s likely to be something for just about everyone.

The evening will be capped by a grownups-only “Blues, Booze & Schmooze” party at 7 p.m., followed by “An Evening of Jewish Humor with Michael Krasny” (the only part of the event that’s not free) at 8 p.m.

Litquake originally started out as a single-day event in 1999 called Litstock. It ran for two years, took a year off, and then re-emerged in 2002 as Litquake, which has grown into an entity that holds a variety of events around the Bay Area — and the country — in addition to its main event in San Francisco.

Jane Ganahl

“It’s our 13th year, our bar mitzvah,” explained Litquake co-founder Jane Ganahl with a laugh, “so it’s only natural that we would expand to the JCC.”

The real driving force behind Litquake’s decision to hold a one-day festival in Palo Alto, sadly, won’t be on hand for the celebration. Kathi Kamen Goldmark, a well-loved San Francisco author, musician, producer and Litquake board member, became the OFJCC’s arts and culture director in November 2011. A few months later she was diagnosed with breast cancer; she died this past May.

Bringing Litquake to the JCC was one of the creative maven’s last big projects — she spearheaded the planning stages in February and March of this year. When she died “sooner than we had been expecting,” said Ganahl (a close friend), Litquake organizers and Goldmark’s colleagues decided unanimously that the show must go on.

Matt Richtel

“There was a moment where we went ‘Should we still do this?’ and the answer was, of course we should: We’re going to do this for Kathy,” said Ganahl.

Mimi Sells, the JCC’s marketing director, added that the event is “absolutely in Kathy’s memory and in her honor.”

The day is shaping up to be a true reflection of the South Bay, said Sells — all the verve and excitement of Litquake, with an eye to what makes the Peninsula unique.

“Obviously it’s a celebration of books, of the people who write them and people who love to read them,” Sells said. “But beyond that it’s about this community, which is really very diverse. We loved the idea of highlighting multiculturalism, and we’re really proud to present salons that are specific to the Russian community and our Hebrew speakers.”

The technology-writing salon is a nod to the culture of Silicon Valley. Matt Richtel, a San Francisco–based, Pulitzer Prize–winning technology reporter for The New York Times, will be discussing his third work of fiction. He described “Floodgate,” a political thriller novella set in Silicon Valley, as “Watergate on servers.”

“It’s both a dreamlike, fantastical political conspiracy and also one that is not at all fantastical, given the technology before us,” said Richtel, who previously published the tech-centric thrillers “Hooked” and “Devil’s Plaything.”

Richtel, 45, says technology plays a major role in his fiction work in part because he’s been immersed in it as a reporter for so long.

“I’m a huge fan of the adage ‘Write what you know,’ ” he said. “And this is my world. Technology is often the context and backdrop, and plays a role in the plot, but what I’m ultimately writing about is emotion and relationships and love and loss … things we’re all consistently dealing with.”

On another level, “I think we go through waves as a society where we have built-in enemies — it was the Nazis, then the Russians, then the aliens, then al Qaida,” he said. “And I wouldn’t say by any stretch that technology belongs in that pantheon, but it is sort of this umbrella for our existence right now. It colors everything we do.”

Richtel will be joined by writers Keith Raffel and Ellen Ullman for a discussion moderated by Leslie Berlin, project historian for the Silicon Valley Archives at Stanford University, in a panel called “Silicon Valley: A Thrilling Sense of Place.”

Ellen Sussman

Among the seven authors, artists and performers who will be entertaining younger audiences throughout the day, Marissa Moss is truly a local favorite: She grew up in Palo Alto, attended Gunn High School, and her parents still live in the Peninsula area.

Her prolific career as an author-illustrator of children’s books includes the acclaimed “Amelia” series, Jewish-themed picture books such as “The Ugly Menorah,” and a series of historical fiction journals featuring young protagonists living in the Great Depression, Imperial Rome, a Russian shtetl and more.

At Litquake, Moss will be announcing a new series centered on Mira, a young Jewish girl who time-travels to late 19th-century Paris, where she meets Impressionist painters and unwittingly becomes entangled in the Dreyfus Affair. Young readers will get a helping of art history — the illustrations are an homage to the artists Mira encounters — as well as an introduction to the landmark political scandal in which French anti-Semitism came to a head.

“[The Dreyfus Affair] was a really pivotal event not just for Jewish identity but for individual human rights. It was a real sea change in how people looked at the rights and responsibilities of a government toward its people,” said Moss, who now lives in Berkeley with her husband and three sons. “I think kids have such a keen sense of justice, for right and wrong, that this is something they can absolutely latch onto.

“And it’s an adventure,” added Moss. “You have all this spy stuff, the ridiculous military disguises. Truth is often stranger than fiction.” Moss’ signature playful illustrations color the story at every turn.

“Mira’s Diary: Lost in Paris,” isn’t due to be released until Sept. 4, but Moss will have advance copies on hand for sale at Litquake.

Other activities for younger folks include music and stories from Jonathan Bayer, a talk by acclaimed children’s author Tim Myers and an appearance by young-adult author/Berkeley punk musician Frank Portman.

On the more-adult end of the spectrum, the sex-writing salon will feature local authors discussing their racier work. Ellen Sussman, a Los Altos–based writer and editor who most recently penned the New York Times bestseller “French Lessons” in 2011, has participated in Litquake in years past. But she was pleasantly surprised to hear that the JCC would be hosting a sex-writing panel.

“I think it’s pretty bold of them. It’s great,” said the author, who will host a benefit for Litquake on Sunday, Aug. 19 at her home, featuring authors Jane Smiley and Katie Crouch (visit www.litquake.

org for details). With the record-breaking “Fifty Shades of Grey” topping bestseller lists, Sussman says she feels taboos about reading and writing about sex are “slowly breaking down,” though she feels her work is a bit more polished than that novel.

Marrisa Moss

“My work is serious and literary, but I don’t skip the sex scenes, which a lot of writers do,” she said. “My feeling is that what happens in the bedroom is very much connected to love, it’s a big part of relationships, and it matters when you’re telling a story. People might be surprised, but I can’t imagine doing it any other way.”

Sussman will be joined by fellow authors Marianna Cherry and Elizabeth Rosner for a talk moderated by Rachel Kramer Bussel, the editor of more than 40 anthologies, including “The Best Sex Writing.”




Other salons include “Eat to Live or Live to Eat? Perspectives on Food,” featuring, among others, j. editor Sue Fishkoff discussing her 2010 book, “Kosher Nation: Why More and More of America’s Food Answers to a Higher Authority”; “Writing From A Jewish Perspective,” featuring San Francisco memoirist Alan Kaufman; “A View from Abroad: Writing Hebrew in the U.S.,” a panel (in English) featuring writers Maya Arad and Renana Keydar; “Readings by Russian Authors” (in Russian), featuring Nikolay Sundeyev, editor of San Francisco’s Russian newspaper “Ktsati”; “Writing Past Your Comfort Zone: Memoirs and More,” featuring Meredith Maran, an Oakland-based author of 10 nonfiction books; and “What’s In a Name? American Identity in Multicultural Fiction,” featuring San Francisco’s Daniel Alarcón, a Peru native named one of the New Yorker’s “20 Under Forty” for his writing and storytelling podcast.

Michael Krasny, host of KQED radio’s “Forum” and an English professor at San Francisco State University, will close out the evening with a talk that traces Jewish humor “from the Marx Brothers to Seinfeld.”

Recruiting partners from the community has been easy, organizers said. The Jewish Coalition for Literacy will be on hand to collect new or “gently used” books for readers in kindergarten through third grade, which will go directly to the JCL’s local tutoring program. Dropoff stations will be located throughout the JCC’s campus, so attendees can stop by to deliver books even if they don’t want to stay for a panel.

The Palo Alto City Library will have a table with activities and prizes, as will PJ Library. There will be food vendors, rotating musicians and interactive games for kids throughout the day. J. will also have a booth featuring an on-the-spot Jewish haiku contest.

Books Inc. is the festival’s official bookstore partner. But the day will feel far from a book sale, promised Sells. She is expecting at least a couple thousand attendees.

“It’s a celebration of this community,” she said. “We tried to capture some of that party atmosphere, that irreverent feel that makes Litquake so special.”


Litquake: A Festival of Books, Ideas and Community, 3-8 p.m. Aug. 26, Oshman Family JCC, 3921 Fabian Way, Palo Alto. Free. An Evening of Jewish Humor with Michael Krasny, 8 p.m., $23-$35. www.paloaltojcc.org/litquake

Emma Silvers

Emma Silvers is a former J. staff writer.