What's So Funny? 

Books that make you laugh.

Matchstick Men
By Eric Garcia
Villard, $22.95
Grifters with issues? Say it ten times fast and topple dizzily into the new Ridley Scott/Nicolas Cage flick. But first there was a novel, and this is it. Roy and Frankie have been partners these past six years, conning elderly widows, single moms, and greedy college kids, sometimes out of their entire bank accounts. Frankie is a replacement for Roy's last partner, and he's been around long enough to get irritating. He plays music too loud, his car is a garbage dump, and he keeps trying to involve Roy in high-risk schemes. Obsessive-compulsive Roy, on the other hand, is clean and careful -- in fact, so careful that he has to check his door five times before he's certain it's locked. Enter the shrink, Dr. Klein. Groan. For about the first quarter of this novel, despite breezy, enjoyable prose, you feel like you're reading a Sopranos rip-off -- ambivalent Roy wants to unload on Klein about the widows and the single moms, while Klein keeps harping on Roy's marriage. Luckily, Garcia takes a left turn. Klein finds Roy's long-lost kid, fourteen-year-old Angela, and the two are introduced. Angela's pistol-smart, and she quickly ferrets out Roy's real occupation. Soon she's out playing the twenties on the poor 7-11 clerk, and not long afterward, they're all running the long con at the airport with Angela front and center, despite Frankie's objections. USC film-school grad Garcia clearly has his mind on the silver screen while his fingers play a slick keyboard. In the main, this is okay, though readers will spot an occasional scene-writ-large. And while this novel is being aggressively promoted as hilarious, the jury's still out on whether most readers will actually find it funny. Does cheating grieving widows rank high on your humor scale? Ultimately it doesn't matter, because this is an entertaining, clever romp. Bonus: you'll learn a number of cons and how a few carnival games work. Just don't try them at home. -- LINNEA DUE

One Nation, Extra Cheese: Your Guide to the Bestest Country Ever
By the Modern Humorist
Three Rivers; $9.95
This is a sarcastic tour guide to the United States created by the team behind Modern Humorist, an award-winning online humor rag founded a few years ago by John Aboud and Michael Colton. With categories such as "US Regions," "Language/Customs," and "Dating and Sex," the book is based around the premise of teaching unsuspecting foreigners such great American traditions as bad beer, reckless driving, and misplaced apostrophes in signage; it also dissects the difference between Star Trek fans and Star Wars fans. (Trekkies and Trekkers are "fat and sweaty"; Star Wars fanatics are "fat and/or sweaty.") This slim volume is funny, but in a Jay-Leno-point-out-the-obvious-joke way without ever reaching the social-commentary-masquerading-as-humor level of The Onion. Starbucks; disgraced Washington, DC mayor Marion Barry; S/M gear; and the aforementioned sci-fi shows appear multiple times throughout the 143 pages of Extra Cheese. Come on: in this nation of Dubyaisms, Eminem, Dr. Phil, and the women of Enron, isn't there anything fresher to make fun of? -- ELISE PROULX

Isn't It Romantic?
By Ron Hansen
Harper Collins, $17.95
This frothy meringue of a book is so light that reading it is like eating in a dream -- a burst of sweetness unburdened by chewing, swallowing, or calories. For Hansen it's a vacation from his quirky but serious earlier novels. In fact, this one is such a departure that Hansen moves it into its own genre by subtitling it an "entertainment." Clearly inspired by the works of Preston Sturges, this would make a fine screwball comedy onscreen. Fluffy entertainments can be funny, and this one starts out winningly, with Natalie the young and lovely Parisian scholar of Americana setting off bravely solo on the See America tour bus in order to teach her philandering fiancé a lesson. Handsome snob Pierre catches up with her in Omaha, and soon the bickering pair wander into the Main Street Cafe in Seldom, Nebraska, where locals snatch them up as the perfect King and Queen of the town's annual festival. From there the plot whips up the fluff with cross-cultural flirtations, improbable grand schemes, translation snafus, mistaken identities, and other gaffes in the comedy-of-errors repertoire. Hayseed townsfolk turn out to be unexpectedly sophisticated; the gas station owner is a closet vintner, the cafe chef whips up chocolate ganache after hours. Hansen's spare prose serves well at first, whisking the story along briskly in broad but never belabored strokes. But eventually the lack of a solid foundation renders this whole dessert a quivering sugary mass. Toward the end the writing takes on the abbreviated stage-direction style of the screenplay it wants to be, and its too-forgettable ending is a letdown after all the refreshing stereotype-tweaking that came before. -- GINA COVINA

White Flower Day
By Steven Weissman
Fantagraphics, $14.95
An effusive blurb on the back of Harvey Award-winning San Francisco comic artist Steven Weissman's new graphic novel nudges him toward the pantheon that includes Charles Schulz (Peanuts) and Bill Watterson (Calvin and Hobbes). That's about as accurate as it is necessary: not really. White Flower Day doesn't match the economy and lucid melancholy of the former or the audacious wit and style of the latter, but its charm comes from not seeming beholden to those -- or to any -- predecessors. This very loosely connected trilogy continues the adventures of Weissman's ghoulishly supernatural gang of round-faced, twiggy-limbed "Tykes," including Li'l Bloody, the Pullapart Boy, Kid Medusa, and X-Ray Spence. Rendered in a two-color format, with sharp-edged, minimally detailed pen-and-ink drawings, the book tends to amble forward like some late-night cable TV oddity that is compelling precisely because it enjoys its own defiance of conventional narrative logic. White Flower Day might at times seem as unrefined as the self-contained worldview of a precocious and fairly gloomy child, but at least it doesn't put on any airs. Navigating such episodes as the backfiring of an invisibility serum, the anticipation of a manufactured special occasion, and a particularly brutal game of dodgeball, Weissman's id-driven and unapologetically cruel characters become comfortably familiar to the reader by staying so true to themselves. -- JONATHAN KIEFER

Everyone in Silico
By Jim Munroe
Four Walls Eight Windows, $13.95
A comic tale with a serious edge, this novel by a former Adbusters editor takes place in a not-too-distant future when advertising pervades every aspect of daily life. Companies use phony car accidents and hostage crises as publicity gimmicks and hire professional "coolhunters" to ferret out new targets for ad campaigns. Fed-up citizens are moving to "Frisco," a virtual-reality universe where life is perfect and commercial-free. But there's something sinister lurking beneath Frisco's glossy surface. The Canadian author's anti-corporate politics are apparent throughout the book, but Munroe is careful to avoid the preachiness that bogs down many novels that have an agenda. His message -- that the corporate machine controls ordinary people's lives -- is neither new nor subtle, but it goes down easier when combined with some genuine good humor. The text is littered with clever little jabs at merciless advertising until even something as ridiculous as turning the moon into a giant billboard begins to seem frighteningly plausible in context. The story moves at a leisurely pace rarely seen in science fiction, and the interest comes less from exciting plot twists than from watching how characters -- an elderly corporate assassin out to rescue her missing grandson, a disillusioned coolhunter who can't afford the move to Frisco, a genetic engineer who sells rat-dog hybrids to gullible tourists as "bonsai dogs" -- deal with their changing world. Unfortunately, Munroe wraps things up suddenly just when the real plot seems to be beginning, but getting to that point is enough fun that most readers won't mind. -- MIKE ROSEN-MOLINA

Born on a Rotten Day
By Hazel Dixon-Cooper
Fireside, $10
How do you derail that Taurus in your office who's gunning for your job? What's the secret to keeping your flirtatious and socially ambitious Gemini spouse faithful? What do Divine, Heinrich Himmler, and Charlie Brown have in common? Fresno astrologer Hazel Dixon-Cooper gives the answers in this book. Subtitled "Illuminating and Coping with the Dark Side of the Zodiac," it's an astrological sendup so outlandish that even the late Sidney Omarr might get a laugh from it. Each chapter examines how a single sign's traits affect romance, family, the workplace, and other situations. Small illustrations and headlines in varying fonts frame each section, making the volume easy to navigate. It's a light and witty if occasionally repetitive read, and as in any astrological portrait, some of the tendencies outlined here seem uncannily accurate while others miss the mark by a wide margin. Some of the yuckier traits are exaggerated to the extreme, reminding us that this book is a well-informed farce above all else. Pisces, for instance, are characterized as liars who can barely slide off their barstools at closing time, while Geminis are depicted as sneaky horndogs. It's clear that Dixon-Cooper has a solid background in astrology, as the highs and lows of each sign stay pretty consistent. But one exception is Taurus: On one page Taurus is described as needing "constant adoration" and "blind obedience," while on the next page is depicted as strong because Taurus people "just don't care what others think." A few timeworn gender stereotypes occasionally peek through in the name of humor, but Dixon-Cooper keeps things pretty even otherwise, varying pronouns between male and female when referring to bosses, co-workers, and other hypothetical sign-bearers. So buy this book and learn the birthday of the person sitting in the cube next to yours, because she might already be setting you up for a fall. -- KEITH BOWERS


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