Couch reads 

With the right books, summer reading is just as good indoors

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What a drag it is to be an indoor sort of fellow in June. Open up most any magazine and you'll find some chirpy book reviewer pressuring you to hit the beach -- as if summer happens only when you're near water, wearing flip-flops and thumbing through the latest "beach read."

If you share such sentiments, then here, dear sun-shy reader, is an article for you. You need not read anything outdoors (everyone knows it makes you squint), or in exotic places. In fact, you can enjoy these books in your home or apartment, perhaps as an unseasonable chill slips through the window.

The flagship book for such a summer undoubtedly is Dai Sijie's Mr. Muo's Traveling Couch (Knopf), a delightful novel about a Chinese Freudian who yearns for an ideal mate, and who has a few issues to get over in the meantime.

The book-dealing hero of Umberto Eco's The Mysterious Flame (Harcourt) also is a bit of a late bloomer, if not agoraphobic. He spends most of this novel rifling through papers in his parents' attic in Turin, Italy, reliving their tortured history.

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The protagonist of George Singleton's debut novel doesn't much care for leaving his chair either, but that's because he's holed up in a South Carolina motel room finishing his autobiography. Singleton has come up with the ironic title Novel (Harcourt) for the whole affair.

Contrasting these bookish folks, the lubricious characters of Jonathan Coe's The Closed Circle (Knopf) are real go-getters. In this follow-up to his cult favorite, The Rotter's Club, Coe reveals what happens to Brits raised in the '70s, coked up in the '80s and convinced they'd be rich in the '90s. (They become slaves to the free market.)

If Americana is your thing, a fistful of publications land this summer -- and they don't require listening to Ken Burns' narration. Steven Biel's American Gothic (Norton) studies the story of and meaning attached to America's famous portrait featuring an Iowa farmer and his seemingly unhappy wife.

Larry McMurtry spins a dual biography of Annie Oakley and Buffalo Bill in The Colonel and Little Missie (Simon & Schuster), revealing that superstardom didn't begin with Benjamin Franklin or Andy Warhol or even Madonna, but with the gunslingers of the Wild West.

Michael Joseph Gross would agree there is nothing more American than wanting to be a celebrity. In his fascinating cultural history, Starstruck (Bloomsbury), he hangs out with the looniest and most avid hardcore fans (people still trail Dolly Parton?) and returns with a bracing portrait of a culture obsessed with the fictions it creates.

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Perhaps envy is at the root of it all. Regardless, it's at the center of Kathryn Harrison's steamy new novel, Envy (Random House), about a psychotherapist who has sexual fantasies about his patients.

Other heavyweight fiction writers set to deliver big summer reads include Michael Cunningham (Specimen Days), Nick Hornby (A Long Way Down), Chuck Palahniuk (Haunted), John Irving (Until I Find You) and Bret Easton Ellis (Lunar Park).

But as everyone knows, these are not "beach reads," so buy them for fall. It will free up time for you to remain on your couch while traveling to Turkey with Orhan Pamuk (Istanbul), Africa with Paul Theroux (Blinding Light) and Los Angeles with Salvador Plascencia (The People of Paper).

Or you can stay indoors with Frank Bidart and contemplate his latest collection of poems, Star Dust, which he describes as, among other things, "the shimmering improvisations designed to save us."

Sounds like he could be talking about books in general.

-- John Freeman


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