The Mansion of Happiness: A History of Life and Death

Jill Lepore. Knopf, $27.95 (304p) ISBN 978-0-307-59299-6
In the 19th century, a Milton Bradley version of the British board game the Mansion of Happiness (known in recent decades as Life) became an enduring staple of American homes. The game raised in a playful way three perennial questions: how does life begin? what does it mean? and what happens when you’re dead? With her characteristically sharp-edged humor and luminous storytelling, Harvard historian and New Yorker writer Lepore (New York Burning) regales us with stories that follow the stages of life (“begin[ning] with the unborn and end[ing] with the undead”) in an attempt to explore how cultural responses to the questions have changed over time. This journey takes us to unexpected places: for instance, the practicality, politics, and ethics of breast pumps, and cryogenics as a form of resurrection. Through these stories, Lepore shows that as fertility rates changed and as life expectancies rose, the history of life and death, long viewed as circular (“ashes to ashes, dust to dust”) became more linear, incorporating even secular ideas about immortality. Lepore’s inspired commentary on our shared social history offers a fresh approach to our changing views of life and death. Agent: Tina Bennett, Janklow & Nesbit. (July)
Reviewed on: 03/26/2012
Release date: 06/05/2012
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