Fables for our time

Three funny books vie for $5,000 Thurber prize

Next Monday, just two days before the literati gather in tuxedos at the Marriott Marquis in Times Square to present the National Book Awards, the humorati will meet at the Algonquin Hotel for what's sure to be a wittier evening.

Three writers are vying to win this year's Thurber Prize for American Humor. The annual award ($5,000) is conferred by the Thurber House, a literary center, in Columbus, Ohio, dedicated to the work of James Thurber, the author, humorist, and cartoonist who worked at The New Yorker from 1927 to 1961.

The three finalists are:

• "No Way to Treat a First Lady," by Christopher Buckley (Random House). In this "love story" set in Washington, D.C., the first lady of the United States has been charged with killing her philandering husband, the president. On trial for her life, the only one who can save her is her ex-boyfriend, a shameless defense attorney.

• "The Day I Turned Uncool," by Dan Zevin (Villard Books). This not-coming-of-age memoir describes the author's troubles moving from his 20s to his 30s, including the trials of hiring a cleaning lady and committing flagrant acts of home improvement.

• "Me and Orson Welles," by Robert Kaplow (MacAdam/ Cage). Kaplow's first novel for adults is set against the background of Orson Welles's debut production at the Mercury Theatre on Broadway in 1937. Richard Samuels is a stage-struck 17-year-old from New Jersey who wanders onto the set one day and gets a small role in Welles's "Julius Caesar."

Entries for this year's prize must have been published in the United States between Jan. 1, 2002 and Dec. 31, 2003.

Previous winners of the Thurber Prize have included "Coyote v. Acme," by Ian Frazier; "Me Talk Pretty One Day," by David Sedaris; and "Our Dumb Century," by the editorial staff of The Onion magazine.

For more information, go to www.thurberhouse.org.

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