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March 16, 2008|Susan Salter Reynolds

Blubberland

The Dangers of Happiness

Elizabeth Farrelly

MIT Press: 220 pp., $19.95 paper

THE more we have, Elizabeth Farrelly claims, the more anxious we are. "McMansionism," "archiphobia" (fear of architectural beauty and the resultant ugliness), our pathetic insistence on cleanliness, our fear of chaos are symptoms of our disease. "A city deprived of its bubbling undercurrent of chaos, or with its chaos so thoroughly plastic coated . . . that there is no possibility of threat, holds also no possibility of excitement," Farrelly, an Australian writer on architecture and the environment, argues. "When the mask becomes opaque and shiny, it's all over." In an interesting twist, she blames our need for comfort and excess on "the feminisation of our culture and our world." Over-eating, over-spending and over-barricading, she writes, are all aimed at making us feel happier and safer. "Nestling down into our soft-feathered lives we abandon any quest for transcendence and settle instead for the mediocrity of comfort. This in turn dulls our imagination, protecting us from terror but also from any possibility of creative release."

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The Accidental Explorer

Wayfinding in Alaska

Sherry Simpson

Sasquatch Books: 232 pp., $23.95

CAN an ordinary person be an adventurer? In her first book, "The Way Winter Comes: Alaska Stories," Sherry Simpson, one of my favorite writers on wilderness, demonstrated her crystalline writing and ego-free powers of observation. Her family moved 11 times before she was 7, finally settling in Alaska. She grew up in the "suburban frontier," climbing trees, camping out, but never became "the sort of Alaskan who flies planes, kills wild animals, fishes open seas, climbs mountains, or treks through the backcountry as if it were no more troublesome than driving to the local 7-Eleven." This way of life, she implies, is for rich tourists. Sometimes, though, "we lose our way, without ever realizing it." Adventure ensues. Mapping historic trails "for a governor and his retainers who did not believe in wilderness," Simpson became fascinated by maps. She hiked some of the trails and read chronicles of Alaskan explorers. She quotes writer J. Michael Yates: "So many of us, alas, were born with no Northwest Passage to discover. We spend our lives carrying that poignant absence inside us." And she asks, "Can we help it that we arrived too late, that most of the planet has been all wrapped up and presented to itself with a bow?" Simpson realizes that in adventuring, the story is all you really take away, "the one thing in this world that belongs only to you. That story is your new home. It is your life." Her raw honesty about her own life (her marriage, her husband's drinking and reluctance to have children) reads like another trail on the map, a parallel river.

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The Odd One In

On Comedy

Alenka Zupancic

MIT Press: 230 pp., $19.95 paper

Comedy as a weapon, as a defense mechanism used by an underdog, has never been given the credibility of tragedy. Traditionally the medium of the poor and working class, it has, Alenka Zupancic argues, been a way of leveling the playing field. She contemplates the tantalizing second book of Aristotle's "Poetics," in which "the philosopher discussed comedy and laughter, and which is unfortunately lost." If it had survived, the author posits, philosophy might not have been so condescending to comedy. She is particularly fascinated with comedy as a subversive tool; it expresses what "one would never get away with in 'real life.' " By pointing out the gap between what we want and what we have, comedy helps us transcend the crises in our lives. "It draws our attention to the fact that something of our life lives on its own."

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susan.reynolds@latimes.com

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