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Lazy Eye

Summer reading doesn't have to rot your brain

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Satan loves the summertime. The arrival of beach and pool season invites unashamed self-indulgence -- topless sunbathing on foreign sands, margarita-fueled cannonballs from rickety diving boards, anonymous hook-ups in scummy panhandle hotel rooms. But in a larger sense, this is the season of sloth, when we Americans work harder than ever in our pursuit of doing absolutely nothing.Of course, not all summer distractions have to be sinful. The summer reading list, usually dismissed for its stack of banal courtroom yarns or breezy chick-lit, need not be an exercise in mental atrophy.

Here's a peek at new books likely to be seen poolside this summer, along with their ratings on the Sloth Scale. The higher the score, the more brain cells killed in the process.

It's hard enough to offer a synopsis of any Tom Robbins novel without giving away some major plot point, but his latest, Villa Incognito (Doubleday), is particularly tough to classify. It deals with a mythic Japanese Tanuki, a raccoon-like creature that swindles sake from farmers and woos their daughters with his gigantic... personality. Later, the focus shifts to an American MIA who has no desire to return to the States, and yes, the two stories are related. In typical Robbins fashion, there's plenty of anthropomorphic absurdity, with the author delivering more of his warped take on the interconnectedness of life.

Best when read: After a couple of bong hits.

Sloth score: Low. Robbins' prose may be silly and often hilarious, but he still makes you stretch those mental muscles.

Fans of Jane Smiley who wept over her Pulitzer-winning A Thousand Acres may be taken aback by her new novel, Good Faith (Alfred A. Knopf). The carefully measured fable on greed and honesty lures the reader with an upbeat tone and smiling resonance, even as it prepares to turn the knife. Protagonist Joe Stratford, a New England real estate agent fresh from a divorce, gets gently conned into a shady development scheme in the early 1980s, all the while carrying on an affair with his boss's daughter. Smiley seems to revel in the slow-release, letting the tension build gradually as Joe's life begins to unravel.

Best when read: With an iced latte on the coffeehouse deck.

Sloth score: Medium-low. Yes, there are some big Life Lessons here, but they're buried beneath the soap opera.

British suspense writer Maggie O'Farrell hatches a clever, oddly addictive premise in her second novel, My Lover's Lover (Viking). Lily, a 20something Londoner, shacks up with her new beau, Marcus, only to soon question what happened to his previous flatmate, an ex-girlfriend who seems to have vanished with hardly a whimper. Though it sounds like the stuff of second-tier pulp mysteries, O'Farrell's immediate, present-tense writing style gives the book a faux-literary atmosphere not usually associated with the genre. Genuine chills ensue.

Best when read: On a crowded beach in full daylight.

Sloth score: Medium. Minus two for Brit-lit hipness, plus two for melodrama.

By now, the oft-mounted Eccentric Southern Family Novel should feel old hat, so frequently is the formula regurgitated for modern audiences. Luckily, Dwight Allen does an admirable job of moving past the old Southern Gothic conventions in his first novel, Judge (Algonquin). Part The Corrections, part Six Feet Under, the book finds an upper-class Kentucky clan dealing with the death of its patriarch, a scruffy Louisville judge. The family, of course, is rife with hilarious dysfunction, but Allen, a former New Yorker scribe, has the good sense to keep his characters human, even if his prose can get a little tedious.

Best when read: With a mint julep.

Sloth score: Low. If you can stay awake for the payoff, that is.

First-time novelist Lauren Weisberger has seen a blizzard of press over her debut, The Devil Wears Prada (Doubleday), a bitchy insider tell-all on the fashion mag industry. Sadly, the book can't live up to its hype, or even to its clever, cartoonish cover art of a Lady Lucifer in thigh-highs. Sure, Weisberger dishes some salacious gossip, no doubt inspired by her own tenure as the personal assistant to Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour, but her attempts at wit and emotion usually feel forced, like a pair of Prada pumps two sizes too small.

Best when read: Waiting in line at Dean & Deluca.

Sloth score: Oppressive. You'll lose IQ points just reading the jacket.

Dorothea Benton Frank has made a mini-industry out of her "Low Country Tales"; her first two novels Plantation and Sullivan's Island attempted to do for Charleston what Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil did for Savannah. Too bad Frank's often-awkward writing can't touch John Berendt's. Frank's third book, Isle of Palms, concerns an independent middle-aged woman (go figure) whose summer gets complicated due to the erratic behavior of her home-from-college daughter, wild ex-husband and "flamboyant" best friend. To make matters worse, she's runnin' around with a Yankee. Oh my!

Best when read: Between tennis matches at the country club.

Sloth score: Toxic. Who knew we Carolinians were so darn wacky?

MAY29THURSDAY
If you're too lazy this summer to do your own reading, get others to do it for you. To that end, you might want to check out the Faculty Readings currently being presented at Queens University of Charlotte. Tonight at 8pm, Geoffrey Becker, author of Dangerous Men (and whose short story "Black Elvis" was picked by E.L. Doctorow to appear in The Best American Short Stories, 2000), and J.D. Dolan, Assistant Professor of English at Western Michigan University, will read from their works, while tomorrow night at the same time, poet Cathy Smith Bowers (The Love That Ended Yesterday In Texas) and UNC-Chapel Hill graduate David Payne will be the featured readers. Admission is free; call 704-337-2335 for details.

MAY 31SATURDAY
Local author Michelle Groce will autograph copies of her debut novel, Jasper, at 2pm this afternoon at the Barnes & Noble location in Huntersville. This book is a young adult tale about a cat's adventures and has been praised by Pulitzer Prize winner Jules Feiffer. Call 704-895-8863 for more info.

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