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The Mansion of Happiness: A History of Life and Death 1st (first) Edition by Lepore, Jill published by Knopf (2012)

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1 review about The Mansion of Happiness: A History of Life...

The Game of Life

  • Aug 9, 2013
Rating:
+4
While my review titles are often allusional or delusional attempts at humor or insight, this one is strictly literal and it is Jill Lepore, the book's author who is trending into the area of allegorical insight.  The original Mansion of Happiness was an 18th century version of the modern board game that with dice, decisions. and deliberate emulates the contemporary vision of the "good life".   Lepore uses this framework to stitch together a series of historical essays on how those visions of life--birth, death, and the stages of growth and decay in between-have changed over time.


Lepore is a young historian who writes with an openness, free flow of association, and good humor that allows her to sneak serious historical insights into consumable chunks that hit home while we are nodding in agreement or laughing out loud.  She illustrates the rapid transition of birth and death from homes to hospitals and of parenthood from universal marker of adulthood (all adults are mothers or fathers) to role to mastered (with skills to be learned from experts and based on science).   At the peak of the curve of life, as we have progressed (a statement about time, not value) from birth to childhood to adolescence to adulthood to parenthood (with special focus on motherhood and breastfeeding), issues of "life and death" begin to intrude--Lepore shows how opinions on political hot button issues of birth control, abortion, and euthanasia are shaped and distorted by contemporary views of the curve of life. 

Lepore wraps up with the concept of resurrection with a fascinating interview with the father of cryogenetic preservation of the human body.  Robert Ettinger was near the end of his own life (he died at 92 shortly after the interview) at the time and his bizarre and scientifically sketchy ideas in Lepore's account, coming as it does after our journey through the Game of Life represent a desire for faith, memory, and remembrance, more than just a feeble hope for resurrection.

Two drawbacks keep Mansion from earning the top score: 

1.  Only at the end in an afterwards does Lepore reveal that the chapters began as essays in the New Yorker, which doesn't diminish their value but does add a bit of biting edge to the section where she compares the writing style of the new Time magazine in the 1930's to The New Yorker with an undercurrent of condescension.  I have read and enjoyed both and while their writing styles definitely diverse they are each fit for purpose.  No need to get snarky about it.

2.  Similarly, in an extended section on the history of children's literature and children's libraries illustrating how the contemporary view of childhood was changing in the early 20th century, it becomes clear that Lepore is more interested in the topic than we are as readers.  The topic is interesting but might have kept the reader's attention better had she not had an axe to grind (extended discussion in the footnotes reveals the sharpness of the axe she's working on).

But these are small things that don't detract materially from the value of the framework and the historical challenges to time and culture-bound thinking.  And this is just plain fun reading.

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August 11, 2013
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