Litquake Palo Alto: JCC to host 2nd annual festival of books, ideas and community

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San Francisco has long been known for its thriving literary scene, but Litquake, the annual festival that draws thousands of book lovers to the City by the Bay, may well have cinched its status as the City of the Book.

Founded 14 years ago by two Bay Area writers, Litquake has grown from a small, upstart festival into a nine-day smorgasbord of readings, panels and poetry slams featuring more than 800 writers at 150 venues across the city. The event culminates with its famous Lit Crawl, when thousands of festivalgoers take to the streets of the Mission District.

 While book afficionados can look forward to this year’s Litquake in October, they can get their first author fix on Aug. 18 at the Oshman Family Jewish Community Center in Palo Alto. The Litquake Foundation is partnering with the JCC to present a one-day satellite event known as Litquake Palo Alto. The second annual free “festival of books, ideas and community” features a dozen salons and several dozen authors, both local and from across the country.

 “Palo Alto is not a Lit Crawl,” said Jane Ganahl, Litquake’s co-founder and artistic director. “It’s more centralized to one campus so that people don’t have to walk long distances down streets. It’s really the only one of its kind that we do.”

 Litquake Palo Alto begins at 2 p.m. with “fireside readings.” Followed by a Jewish Women’s Theatre presentation, it culminates with an adults-only after-party called “Blues, Booze & Schmooze,” from 6:30 to 8 p.m.


Jason Friedman

 But Litquake’s epicenter is the written word: Books and authors dominate the scene. “Literary salons” are ongoing, with such topics as “Food Revolutionaries: New Thinking on Farming, Eating and Dieting” (moderated by j. editor Sue Fishkoff); “Memoir: Women’s Passages”; “Crossing Cultural Borders”; and “What’s Love Got to Do With It: Finding Your Way in the New Sex and Romance Landscape.” On the more Jewish end of the spectrum are “Thrilling Tales With Jewish Characters” and “Jewish Humor and Wisdom.”


 For the first time, Litquake Palo Alto also will include a special performance by the Jewish Women’s Theatre, a storytelling collective based in Los Angeles.

 Other highlights include conversations with local authors Jane Smiley (“Thousand Acres,” “The Age of Grief”) and Ellen Sussman (“The Paradise Guest House”); San Francisco’s Daniel Handler, aka Lemony Snicket, with Andrew Sean Greer (“The Story of a Marriage”); and local author Deborah Piscione (“Secrets of Silicon Valley”). In a nod to the area’s émigré population, there’s a panel featuring authors who write in Russian.

 The Peninsula’s newest celebration of books was the brainchild of the late Kathi Kamen Goldmark, a former Litquake board member and director of arts and culture at the Oshman JCC. “Kathi was why we got involved,” Ganahl said. “She got us together with the JCC folks and said, ‘Let’s do something. The Peninsula is hungry for literary stimulation.’ ”


Nina Schuyler

Kaymen Goldmark’s hunch proved right, as more than 2,000 people attended last year’s inaugural event. Sadly, Kaymen Goldmark did not live long enough to see Litquake Palo Alto become a reality.


 This year’s festival features more than 40 Bay Area writers, including Jason K. Friedman, whose first short story collection, “Fire Year,” will be published in November. Friedman, who lives in Noe Valley with his filmmaker husband, said that his break came when “Blue,” a short story about a zealous Southern bar mitzvah boy on the cusp of sexual awakening, was published two years ago in Moment magazine. Last year, Friedman won the prestigious Mary McCarthy Prize for short fiction.

 Friedman, 50, first started writing short fiction as a sophomore at Yale. After college, he earned an M.A. from Johns Hopkins University’s writing seminars program, taught creative writing in Seattle, and moved to San Francisco in 1997, where he landed a job as a technical writer in the early days of Oracle.

 Friedman, who now works for Wells Fargo Bank, said this background in English has served him well in his day job. “Learning how to read poetry and write about it has really helped me.” Like technology, he explained, “you don’t understand a poem when you first read it.”

 Growing up in Savannah, Ga., Friedman attended Jewish day school and became religious at a young age. While he no longer considers himself Orthodox, he maintains a strong connection to the ideas and texts that informed him as a kid. “I’m not so religious anymore,” he said, “but it’s very important to me, because I keep coming back to it in my writing.”


Amy Franklin Willis

Friedman will participate in a panel entitled “The Beauty of Brevity: Short Fiction” — an irony, he said, considering that his short stories tend to run long.


 Nina Schuyler, author of “The Painting,” a historical novel set outside of Tokyo in the late 19th century (and named a San Francisco Chronicle “Best Book of the Year”), will be featured on the “Emerging Authors” panel. Schuyler’s newest book, “The Translator,” was published in July. Set in contemporary Japan, the novel follows the trajectory of a translator who loses the ability to speak her native tongue after a bad fall down the stairs, and is left speaking only Japanese.

 “This is a real condition that can happen,” Schuyler, 49, explained in a phone interview from her home in Fairfax. While writing the novel over the past four and half years, Schuyler researched the brain and its relationship to language. A Stanford University study, she said, found that the language a person speaks influences both their thoughts and perception. “Time, space, relationships all seem to be related to what language you speak,” she said.

 Joining Schuyler and San Francisco writer Tracy Guzeman (“The Gravity of Birds”) on the panel will be Amy Franklin-Willis, whose debut novel “The Lost Saints of Tennessee” was published last year. Franklin-Willis, 42, worked on her novel for eight years before it sold. Set in a fictional rural town in Tennessee, the novel traces three generations of a Southern family and centers around a middle-age man who can’t seem to get past the death of his twin brother.

 Franklin-Willis took her inspiration from her father’s stories of growing up in a small town in rural Tennessee. Her father, she said, was the first in his family to graduate from college, and went on to become a successful academic. “The story is about a guy who was like my dad, in that he was a bright kid,” said Franklin-Willis, now a Bay Area resident. “But what became more interesting to me was, what if he hadn’t gotten out.”

 Monica Wesolowska, author of “Holding Silvan: A Brief Life,” will appear on the women’s memoir panel. Wesolowska, 42, wrote the book eight years after the death of her first child, who suffered a severe brain injury during labor and died not long after.


Monica Wesolowska

Wesolowska and her husband made the heart-wrenching decision to let Silvan die, and for years she tried to write about the experience through the lens of fiction. “I couldn’t quite make it sad enough for my characters, or I would make it even more awful,” she said. “And then one day I realized that I needed to go into it as my story.”


 During her son’s brief life, Wesolowska, who teaches writing at U.C. Berkeley Extension, kept a diary. She returned to the diary when she began writing the memoir, and within three months produced a solid first draft. “It’s helped me to recover,” Wesolowska said of writing the book. “It’s almost as if the telling of the story itself changed my journey.”

 With so many provocative topics to choose from, attendees might want to do their homework first to decide which panels they want to attend. At the end of the day, they can unwind, mix and mingle with the writers themselves — and continue the conversations.

 Litquake Palo Alto, 2-8 p.m. Aug. 18, Oshman JCC, 3921 Fabian Way, Palo Alto. Free.

cover design: cathleen maclearie

Rebecca Spence
Rebecca Spence

Rebecca Spence is a freelance writer and editor. She is currently at work on her first novel.