"Books on Review" is like a ginormous female literary posse.
The Stanford Women's Club of the East Bay's once-a-year book club get-together is loaded with top-tier presentations from a quartet of primarily Stanford alumni authors, and attended by a book-rabid audience of the university's graduates and their cohorts.
And it provides a real financial boost for the East Bay group, and for the undergraduate women from the area who will attend Stanford with scholarship help from the that group.
The 39th annual event, held this year at Walnut Creek's Shadelands Art Center on Jan. 30, is a main fundraiser for that scholarship fund.
"For the past eight years, we've raised between $10,000 and $15,000 at this event, said Linda Landau of Orinda, a 1974 MBA graduate of Stanford's graduate business program and current presidentof the Stanford Women's Club of the East Bay.
A large percentage of Stanford'scholarship students are the first in their families to go to college, she said, "And this is done by all volunteers."
Authors Karen Joy Fowler ("We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves"), Ryan McIlvain (Stegner Fellow, "Elders"), Adrian Miller (Stanford Class of '91, "Soul Food; The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time") and Linda Peterson ('71, "The Devil's Interval") were the invited speakers. Margaret Garms (Class of '72), the event co-chair with Peterson, took on moderator duties after a sudden illness prevented Kelly Corrigan ("The Middle Place," "Lift," "Glitter and Glue") from attending.
Garms praised the collected panel, and in introductory comments suggested Fowler's imagination, Miller's rating of a plate of ribs based on the number of napkins used, Ryan's "ambivalence turned into fascinating story" and Peterson's creation of a sleuthing protagonist who "knows there's heart's truth in both marriage and murder," demonstrated the literary firepower emanating from the Palo Alto campus.
But it's not just prolific writers -- and events celebrating them -- that draw more than 300 members to the Stanford Women's Club of the East Bay. Landau said there's an intangible, hard-to-articulate welcoming quality shared by Stanford grads.
"I don't know how they do it, but everyone at Stanford is friendly and welcoming," she said. "That energy doesn't stop when you graduate."
And women's club membership, unlike college tuition, doesn't cost an arm and a leg. At $25, annual dues allow alumni -- and friends of alumni, who are welcome to join -- to participate in any one of nine special interest groups. The local chapter offers book, bridge, photography and foodies groups. The community service club works with BayArea nonprofit The First Place, assisting foster youth to obtain independence in short or long-term projects. Culture, travel and hiking groups explore local, national and international frontiers and a professional women's group addresses subjects including technology, finances and career transitions.
During a welcoming social hour prior to the Jan. 30 author presentations, Landau tried unsuccessfully to find a scholarship recipient in the crowd. It was a good news/bad news scenario when she came up empty and said, "They can't usually attend. They're either current recipients who are in class, or they're past ones who all have jobs."
The job of Fowler, Miller, McIlvain and Peterson on that day was to entertain, challenge and "preach to the book-loving choir."
Fowler, causing laughter, said her new book had a carefully hidden secret," meaning marketers, reviewers and the author herself "couldn't talk about the book." Even so, she carried on her chattery childhood tradition.
"I talked so much my parents would tell me to pick one of the three subjects on my mind -- and start in the middle of the story," she confessed.
Miller picked up the admit-your-weakness thread, apologizing for writing about soul food from Denver, not a vast enclave of the cuisine. "The fact that I'm African American is the only thing holding me up," he said. His 15-minute oratory on the cuisine's history and the wonders of fried chicken, chittlins, greens, black-eyed peas, mac and cheese, candied yams, mouth-watering deserts and red drinks ("Red Kool Aid is the official soul food drink," he said) left little doubt of his expertise.
Books -- and Stanford Women's Club of the East Bay membership -- allow ordinary people to learn about and experience extraordinary things, a fact made most evident by McIlvain and Peterson. How else, one might ask, would average East Bay citizens find themselves listening to a John Updike poem, "Home Movies," recited from memory by an award-winning author? Or imagining a Sergie Rachmaninoff/John Doyle soundtrack while reading a story about two Mormon missionaries? Or consider hanging out at the BART station in Lafayette, where inspiration for complex, troubled characters can be discovered?