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For the love of lit

Litquake festival brings notable authors to Palo Alto this week

Bibliophiles, take note: A bevy of writers and readers of all kinds will make their way to town on Sunday, March 13, for the return of Litquake Palo Alto, a free literary festival at the Oshman Family Jewish Community Center (OFJCC).

A spinoff of the long-running San Francisco festival, Litquake Palo Alto will feature more than 35 authors representing a wide variety of genres; salons on a number of literary topics; a no-host social time with refreshments and live music; and activities for kids and teens.

The festival was founded as Litstock back in 1999 and rechristened Litquake in 2002. It has been expanding its reach ever since, with events for youth, book giveaways, "Lit Crawl" pub events and, of course, plenty of author readings, all under the umbrella of the nonprofit Litquake Foundation. Litquake Palo Alto was organized in a partnership between Litquake founder Jane Ganahl and Ronit Widmann-Levy, director of cultural arts at the OFJCC. This will be its fourth year.

"I've attended and participated in a number of Litquake and Lit Crawl events," writer Bich Minh Nguyen said. "They're always wonderful -- fun and lively. They showcase such a great variety of work and voices and provide an atmosphere of support for writers and readers in the Bay Area."

Nguyen, who directs the MFA in Writing Program at the University of San Francisco, is the author of two novels and the memoir "Stealing Buddha's Dinner," about her experiences growing up in predominantly white, conservative Grand Rapids, Michigan, after immigrating from Vietnam with her family in 1975.

"One thing I love is that I hear from a great variety of readers: people who also grew up in the Midwest; people who also grew up in the '80s; people who grew up in immigrant families; people who grew up feeling like outsiders; people who also have a fascination with bad food; and so on," she said. "The '80s and food obsessions seem to cross all boundaries and lines."

She's currently writing another work of nonfiction -- a memoir in essays about high school and pop music of the 1980s and '90s called "Owner of a Lonely Heart."

At Litquake Palo Alto she will be featured in the salon "On the Border: Culture Clashes and Melting Pots," alongside Faith Adiele, Tamim Ansary and Nayomi Munaweera.

"We'll be speaking about writing from various perspectives and some of the joys and challenges involved in doing so," she said. "To me the phrase 'cross-cultural' is like the word 'diversity.' I think our panel will be up for talking about such phrases and what they really do and don't mean."

Her latest novel, "Pioneer Girl," follows a Vietnamese-American woman who suspects Rose Wilder Lane -- daughter of Laura Ingalls Wilder, author of the beloved "Little House" series -- may have frequented her family's cafe back in 1960s Saigon.

"I read the 'Little House' books obsessively when I was a kid. Like most readers, I saw myself in Laura. Later, I realized that probably this was because of all the parallels between the immigrant's journey and the pioneer's journey westward: starting over, trying out a new landscape, the isolation, fear and uncertainty," she said.

Nguyen now lives in the East Bay with her family and has been rereading the Little House series with her 6-year-old.

"There's a lot of violence and racism to navigate and explain. A lot of context is needed," she said, of experiencing the books as an adult and parent.

Other Litquake Palo Alto panels will be "If Not Now, When? A Conversation about Women in Politics;" "Buddhism: Exploring the Jewish/Buddhist Connection"; "Time Travelers: Haunting Historical Fiction"; "The Future of Food"; "Evil Lurks in Silicon Valley"; "Mysteries of the Cairo Codex"; and "MEN-moirs: Life Stories from the Male POV."

Daniel Handler, best known for his wildly popular children's books, written under the name Lemony Snicket, will appear at Litquake in conversation with Sarah Manguso, author of six books, including "Ongoingness: The End of a Diary."

"Litquake is always a terrific time, and I've recently elected myself the new president of the Sarah Manguso Fan Club. I am very much looking forward to sharing a stage with this wondrous writer and stealing her secrets," Handler said.

Handler, who has also written a number of books for adults, is currently working on an adaptation of his "Lemony Snicket's A Series Of Unfortunate Events" for Netflix.

"At the moment, the experience is like watching a brightly colored lizard skitter across the floor and saying, 'Egad! What's that lizard?' and someone says, 'Daniel, that's your lizard,'" he said.

Litquake also has plenty on offer for kids such as a video book-trailer workshop, an improv session, an illustration lesson from Lisa Brown (registration required for the workshops) -- and two sessions aimed at young-adult readers and authors.

Castilleja School senior Nayanika Kapoor, author of two books (2011's "Skye's the Limit," written just after sixth grade, and last year's "The Accidentals," about teens attending a musical festival) will speak at a panel titled "DIY Books! Self-Published by Teen Authors." Nayanika, who is also involved in journalism at her school, said she planned to speak about her creative process, "and how it's really important for young people to keep writing. I know how hard it can be, but it's so valuable to persist through something."

Bestselling author Joyce Carol Oates will serve as headliner, delivering the keynote address. Her novels include the National Book Award-winning "them," "Blonde," "The Gravedigger's Daughter," "The Accursed" and "We Were the Mulvaneys." She was awarded the National Humanities Medal by President Barack Obama in 2010.

A full schedule of events and complete list of authors is available online.

What: Litquake Palo Alto

When: Saturday, March 13, 3-8 p.m., see website for exact schedule.

Where: Oshman Family JCC, Taube Koret Campus, 3921 Fabian Way, Palo Alto

Cost: Free

Info: Go to Palo Alto JCC.

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