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Well Red: Anchee Min discusses 'Empress Orchid,' her new book about China's longest-reigning empress, Feb. 25 at the Capitola Book Cafe.

Hallmark Pass

Take time to crib your valentines from the best while you're hanging out in local bookstores

By Jessica Neuman Beck

While we scurry to procure flowers and candy in preparation for February's most popular holiday, it's easy to entertain suspicions that the whole heart-shaped ordeal is nothing more than a plot by the postal service to boost sales. It's true that somewhere around a billion Valentine's Day cards are sent every year, but Valentine's Day predates even the post office.

Legends about the origins of Valentine's Day are as varied and as murky as the history of St. Valentine himself. Some say that the first valentine was a billet-doux from the imprisoned future saint to his jailer's daughter. Others point to the much earlier Roman Lupercalia festival, a celebration of eroticism honoring the goddess of feverish love, which was watered down and reinterpreted by the Catholic church to represent romance instead of a more corporeal sort of love.

Either way, Feb. 14 is coming, and we'd all better be ready. The oldest known valentine in existence is a poem by the Duke of Orleans, sent to his wife while he was imprisoned in the Tower of London in 1415. People have been sending valentines ever since, although today's mass-produced Hallmarks could really benefit from the inclusion of a hastily scribbled poem. Maybe some author events will get us all in the writing mood, or at least put us near enough to the poetry section to crib some verses out of an old copy of Shakespeare's sonnets.

* On Monday, Feb. 9, at 7:30pm at the Capitola Book Cafe, Lawrence R. Smith will be reading from his novel Annie's Soup Kitchen, a magical, funny story about a group of soup kitchen regulars who take on the federal government.

* At Bookshop Santa Cruz on Tuesday, Feb. 10, at 7:30pm, celebrate the release of Julia Alter's first book of poetry, Walking the Hot Coal of the Heart. Also on Feb. 10, 7:30pm, at the Capitola Book Cafe, Ana Mendez will read from Loving Che, an intimate portrait of revolutionary Cuba.

* At the Capitola Book Cafe on Wednesday, Feb. 11, 7:30pm, come see T.C. Boyle present his ninth novel, Drop City. A fictional look at the ideals of 1970, Drop City follows a hippie commune as they relocate from California to Alaska in a bid to go back to the land.

* On Thursday, Feb. 12, at 7:30pm in true Lupercalian fashion, Susie Bright will be at Bookshop Santa Cruz celebrating the release of The Best American Erotica 2004. A local writer and editor, Bright is also the author of the recently published book Mommy's Little Girl: On Sex, Motherhood, Porn and Cherry Pie. Also on Feb. 12, 7:30pm, at the Capitola Book Cafe, Pulitzer Prize winner Charlie LeDuff gives his take on New York City with Work and Other Sins.

* Tuesday, Feb. 17, 7:30pm, at the Book Cafe, Andrew Sean Greer will be appearing with his book The Confessions of Max Tivoli, a strange love story in three acts.

* Friday, Feb. 20, 7:30pm at Bookshop Santa Cruz, Jacob Levenson will be reading from The Secret Epidemic: The Story of AIDS and Black America. Levenson, a journalist, presents accounts of the lives of patients, families, medical researchers and AIDS workers.

* Wednesday, Feb. 25, at the Capitola Book Cafe sees the World Affairs Book Club at 7pm discussing David Rieff's A Bed for the Night: Humanitarianism in Crisis. Following that, at 7:30pm, Anchee Min presents her newest book, Empress Orchid. Best known for her memoir Red Azalea, Min brings us a portrait of China's longest-reigning empress.

* At the Book Cafe on Thursday, Feb. 26, 7:30pm, Kate Christensen, author of Jeremy Thrane and In the Drink, reads from her newest novel, The Epicure's Lament. The darkly funny, dysfunctional tale follows a strangely charming antihero as he tries to seek an early death by smoking.

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From the February 4-11, 2004 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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