Litquake Palo Alto took the Oshman Family JCC by storm March 13, drawing an estimated 700 participants to a plethora of bookish activities — author salons, readings, book signings and schmoozing — from 3 p.m. until way past sunset.
The event began with authors Joyce Maynard (“At Home in the World”), Nayomi Munaweera (“Island of a Thousand Mirrors”), Keith Raffel (“Dot Dead”) and Dianne Jacob (“Will Write for Food”) reading selections from recent books.
Author salons and panels ranged from such topics as the nuances of Jewish Buddhism, to the emerging field of “men-moirs,” stories from the male point of view.
Addressing “The Future of Food,” authors J. Kenji Lopez-Alt (“The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science”) and Margo True (“The One-Block Feast”) unearthed the falsehoods of mythical cooking tips. A crowd favorite: Despite standard advice to cook pasta in a large pot of boiling water, at-home cooks should use as little water as possible, in order to encourage the noodles to retain a creamy, starchy texture.
“I don’t think there was anyone in the audience that didn’t learn something,” said Amy Snell, OFJCC senior communications manager.
Drawing crowds in another salon, San Francisco author Daniel Handler, aka Lemony Snicket, and memoirist Sarah Manguso (“The Two Kinds of Decay”) engaged in conversation. Rather than interview each other the old-fashioned way, the two quirky authors decided to write questions down on index cards, and pulled them out of a hat at random. Among the topics: reading habits, bad advice and terrible jobs.
Handler sat in the culture hall signing books after the salon, and a long line of people snaked across the room, waiting to get their moments with him. He could be heard giving one aspiring writer
advice on the writing process, describing it as “a long spiral of despair.”
Discussing his experience at Litquake Palo Alto, he said, “This is a really nice space, and a full-family feeling. It’s not like a lot of other events where it feels like it’s just for kids — you can tell the parents are enjoying it as well.”
The event was produced in partnership with San Francisco’s Litquake Foundation, which runs a weeklong literary festival in October in San Francisco and is affiliated with Lit Crawls in various metropolitan cities across the country.
In a panel on women in politics, Nancy L. Cohen (“Breakthrough: The Making of America’s First Female President”) and Stanford visiting scholar Margaret O’Mara (“Pivotal Tuesdays: Four Elections that Shaped the Twentieth Century”) debated the impacts of sexism in the political sphere. Cohen argued that sexist obstacles are exaggerated by the media, and that the reason for the gender imbalances within American political life is the result of a historical lack of access, not contemporary sexism or bias.
Cohen also cited the transformational quality of women’s leadership, stating that a female commander-in-chief would provide “style, symbolism and substance.” She added that according to her research, women put a higher value than men on health, equality and collaboration when they are in charge.
Cohen and O’Mara “asked interesting questions about the hurdles for women as they enter politics, and it was encouraging to hear that it may not be quite as vitriolic as I had previously thought,” said Leah Russin, who attended the salon. She brought her 16-year-old stepdaughter, who is interested in writing.
“I went to the panel on young-adult novel writing, which was really great, because I think that’s the kind of fiction I want to write,” said Katie Montgomery, holding a book she had just bought tightly under her arm.
Another session, “Evil Lurks in Silicon Valley,” featured three local techno-thriller writers in conversation about technological concerns, a writer’s internal struggle and social commentary.
Though the panelists disagreed on writing habits, they agreed on one point: the problematic and rampant ageism of the tech industry.
“Gender ageism in tech is real,” said Ellen Ullman, author of “The Bug.” “There is a need to broadcast cool if you’re over 26. But having a bald head, if you’re a guy, helps.”
Meanwhile, addressing a roomful of eager children and parents, local author-illustrator Lisa Brown discussed her newest book, “Mummy Cat,” and taught viewers how to draw a cartoon cat wrapped in bandages. She devoted the last 10 minutes of her salon to an Egyptian tableau — a performance that included kids from the crowd dressing up as ancient Egyptian characters who mummify and mourn each other.
After the panels had concluded, participants and authors milled around the JCC’s Culture Hall for an hour of “Blues, Booze and Schmooze,” noshing on complimentary hamantaschen and burritos while a harpist played and authors signed their books.
The capstone event of the day was a conversation between Joyce Carol Oates, who has penned more than 70 books, and local author Raffel. The two writers took to the stage in armchairs and discussed Oates’ writing process, her thoughts on Philip Roth’s decision to stop writing and what it was like to find out that her grandmother, Ruth Morgenstern, was secretly Jewish.
“It was a great treasure to do this satellite event,” said Jane Ganahl, co-founder of Litquake in San Francisco, “and to host a day filled with such great authors, such great books and such an engaged community.”