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The Mansion of Happiness: A History of Life and Death
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The Mansion of Happiness: A History of Life and Death

3.42 of 5 stars 3.42  ·  rating details  ·  579 ratings  ·  136 reviews
Renowned Harvard scholar and New Yorker staff writer Jill Lepore has composed a strikingly original, ingeniously conceived, and beautifully crafted history of American ideas about life and death from before the cradle to beyond the grave.

How does life begin? What does it mean? What happens when we die? “All anyone can do is ask,” Lepore writes. “That's why any history of...more
Hardcover, 320 pages
Published June 5th 2012 by Knopf (first published January 1st 2012)
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Lauren Albert
An odd book. It was not what I expected. It read like separate essays on the histories of widely disparate (though sometimes related) topics: nursing, eugenics, sex education, children's books and libraries, marital advice, parenting advice, cryogenics and Life the board game. There are others.They all touch on a "time" of life--or on ideas about those times--but so does everything, after all. That is not necessarily a criticism. I can imagine essays on a child's first experience of death, a per...more
John  Bellamy
Prince Hamlet's observation that "there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so" might aptly summarize Jill Lepore's collection of wide-ranging essays on ideas about life and death. And since perhaps no country other than America has produced weirder fancies on those two phenomena, Lepore provides a hilarious and witty historical tour of same, from Milton Bradley's 1860 board game, "The Checkered Game of Life" (it didn't include Boardwalk but it did feature a game-ending space cal...more
This was a thought-provoking read. Not all of the chapters, many of which had been essays written for the New Yorker, were equally of interest to me, but the overall theme of the birth of ideas was very interesting. Things that we take for granted as givens, like the idea of adolescence as a stage of life-it's good to be reminded that those ideas had a beginning, sometimes strange ones with unlikely (and sometimes really horrible) folks promoting them. Even the people who were proponents of the...more
The Mansion of Happiness by Jill Lepore is a collection of loosely-connected essays exploring The Meaning of Life (capital “T”, capital “M”, capital “L”). It turns out that the answer to this grand, existential question frequently turns on the unexpected and, often, the seemingly prosaic. To wit: photography and political calculus did far, far more to create the “right to life” movement than organized religion (especially protestant Christians).

Instead of trying to answer the question of the me...more
Because the chapters of this book began life as essays in The New Yorker magazine, they are somewhat loosely strung together and feel as though they could stand on their own, should you wish to delve into an individual topic. The author, a professor of American History at Harvard, has a broad overarching theme of the changing attitudes toward the life cycle in American culture. Her skill in pulling together disparate incidents and ideas works well, so the book is consistently interesting and ent...more
This book by the Harvard historian Jill Lepore is collection of loosely linked essays, many originally published in the New Yorker focusing on the big questions of life generally as reflected in the domestic sphere. The subjects include conception, sex, marriage counseling, breast feeding, the invention of the idea of adolescence, children's literature, parenting, home economics, old age, and cryogenics. The events and ideas discussed range from about the 17th century to the 21st, but are mostly...more
Rather than a comprehensive history, Lepore tackles the different stages of life--and how America has conceptualized, fantasized, and fought over them--through anecdotal stories and engaging, offbeat characters. Much of her research and storytelling is centered around the major shifts in American attitudes and values as a result of the Progressive Era, a period (I greatly paraphrase) concerned with improving the quality of human life through the widespread adoption of science and technology into...more
The best way to describe what this book is about is that it is a history of hokum, quackery, crackpots charlatans and chuckleheads as framed by the stages of life and death as refracted through a board game created in 1860 called the Checkered Game of Life. We know this game more by it's 100th anniversary reworking as the game Life.

through this we are treated to essays about eugenics, forced steralizations of the mentally impaired, cryonics, the creation of the Children's Library, how the unders...more
This book is a rather meandering look at various life stages viewed through a particular perspective of American culture. While several of the passages were interesting, I had to remind myself many times what the topic of the book was, because the various stories didn't really fit together. For example, the section on childhood was primarily about the development of children's libraries and literature, which didn't really address how the concept of childhood has changed in America over time. At...more
While I found this book a relatively engaging, quick read, especially for non-fiction, I agree with the other reviewers that Mansion of Happiness is meandering, and not in a good way. By the time I had finished reading the dust cover insert, introduction and first chapter, I already had the impression that I was reading essays on miscellaneous topics Jill Lepore found interesting that she then attempted to tweak to fit a theme so that they could be published in a book. Lo and behold, in the "Las...more
"Some people will always think they know how to make other people’s marriages better, and, after a while, they’ll get to cudgeling you or selling you something; the really entrepreneurial types will sell you the cudgel."

According to the jacket copy, this is "a strikingly original, ingeniously conceived, and beautifully crafted history of American ideas about life and death." No. It is actually a collection of recycled essays from The New Yorker. They're good essays, and I admire Dr. Lepore's abi...more
This book is a super-interesting conglomeration of facts about the culture of life and death in America. Lepore has done extensive research, and by bringing various historical events and people together, and comparing them side-by-side against the backdrop of American culture, she paints a truly intriguing picture of life in this country. Each chapter explores a different stage in a human life, from conception to death. The first two chapters were absolutely phenomenal, which I think is why I on...more
Really glad I read this. The author was inspired by her mother's death and most of the chapters began as essays in The New Yorker. Jill Lepore traces the history of American ideas about life and death. The fascinating - sometimes quirky facts - she provides illustrate her talents as a great researcher and that the reader is never bored illustrates her talents as a great writer. The latter part of the book focuses on the role American politics has had on debates about life and death and is what I...more
Lepore is such an insightful and wonderful writer that I feel humbled just to read her. This book not only exemplifies her strengths as an historical scholar, it shows her gifts both structuring and styling prose. And, on top of all this, every page is interesting to read. As she uses the book's titular board game as both a metaphor for and a means of structuring the exploration that follows, she reveals how attitudes toward life--writ large and small--have altered over the course of the last co...more
This is such a weird, scattered, fun, crazy book. It's different from most things I read - it's a "history" book, so to speak - but it's a history book that traces the natural life of objects and thoughts, rather than wars and power struggles. And it's sooo weird! When it talks about eggs, Lepore riffs on subjects as diverse as LIFE magazine to Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World" to Darwin's theory of evolution. It more than a little reminded me of Sebald's style. Totally crazy, totally awesome.
Sarah N.
Yes, it meanders, but so do great conversations with intelligent people. If you can accept that it's not a linear history, then you'll love it. Once I realized (and accepted) that the book was a history of ideas, informed by a writer with a sense of humour, then I was able to read it without judging the somewhat loose structure. Fascinating stuff.
Bob Wollenberg
Very interesting way to look at history as it affects various points of our lives. Well written and enjoyable.
I really enjoyed this quirky, slightly rambling history book. I love Lepore's voice.
Mar 07, 2014 Gwen rated it 2 of 5 stars
Recommended to Gwen by: NPR's summer 2012 book list
Shelves: culture
Had I known that this book was a collection of New Yorker essays loosely tied together, I would not have picked it up. I find more recent New Yorker articles much easier and enjoyable to read than those from decades past, and Lepore's are no exception. These essays were all over the place with only awkward callbacks and the flimsiest of connections to link disjointed topics. Lepore has some pithy humor amidst the overabundance of information, but these are hard to pull out with all the extraneou...more
"A History of Life and Death" is actually about perceptions and traditions revolving around birth, childhood, adolescence, sex, and death in the United States, with a lot of time devoted to E.B. White and his book "Stuart Little," breast feeding, and to the game of Life by Milton Bradley. "The Mansion of Happiness" of the title is Life's predecessor, and the author spends a good deal of time discussing the difference between the two games, with Mansion of Happiness devoting a number of squares t...more
A really interesting and fascinating book. In every chapter Lepore writes about the evolution of American thought on the only subjects that matter Life and Death. From the game of Life to breast feeding in the workplace to the development of sex education manuals and finally cryogenics Lepore touches in a wide range of topics. I can honestly say I learned something or many things in every chapter. Erudite and witty, Lepore writes very well and her research is prodigious and well footnoted for sc...more
Grady McCallie
The chapters in this collection of historical essays are all ostensibly about changing conceptions of 'the journey of life' in American culture over the last three centuries. I say ostensibly because many started out as free-standing essays. Virtually all the topics of the individual chapters are personally and idiosyncratically relevant to Lepore's biography (some quite poignantly so), as she explains in her epilogue - titled, in keeping with the book's birth to death structure, 'Last Words'. T...more
Byron Edgington
Ms Lepore has done it again. Brilliant essays on various and changing views of life and death in modern, and not so modern America. Is life a circle or is it linear? Since the advent of electric lighting and subsequent change from agrarian to urban lifestyles, American psychic life has changed utterly. Our sense and understanding of living and dying changed in ways few of us appreciate: from board games to breast pumps, the way we look at cemeteries, how we view life expectancy, even our politic...more

“He [Scottish biologist, J.B.S. Haldane, c. 1923] imagined a future in which a third of all children would be conceived and incubated in glass jars.”—page 51

Often, while reading ‘The Mansion of Happiness: A History of Life and Death’, by Jill Lepore—a collection of essays looking at the sociological attitudes toward life and death over the centuries—I was struck with the distinct feeling that I was reading the voice-over narrative of a PBS documentary. That’s not a bad thing,...more
Aileen Benjamin
I really enjoyed this book. I'm not a subscriber to the New Yorker so all of the material was completely fresh to me.

When I read the first chapters I was skeptical about her tone and none too interested in board game history but things vastly improved as I continued into the main content. As other reviews have stated this is a collection of essays organized into chapters that progress from the beginnings of life through deth and the afterlife. I won't repeat what has already been said. This rea...more
Margaret Sankey
Taking as a framing device the Milton Bradley game Life's evolution from Victorian morality play to 1950s consumer grab, Lepore examines the stages of life in vivid, short chapters illustrating the rapid and widely shifting ways Americans have come to view what is expected out of a lifetime. Among the telling ideas are the political battles over breastfeeding (should the IRS allow a breast pump as a deduction?), how the woman who invented children's rooms in public libraries also tried to block...more
Jun 12, 2012 Susan marked it as to-read
Not sure........ from EW (grade: A) (June 15, 2012): "Named after the Victorian-era board game that inspired Milton Bradley's LIFE, this fascinating book explores a few centuries' worth of ideas about life and death -- you know, just a light beach read. But for all its analysis of Darwin and Aristotle, it's a lot of fun. Riffing on everything from breast pumps to cryogenics, New Yorker writer Lepore shows how our concepts of birth, youth, middle age, and old age have changed with cultural shifts...more
There was so much in this book that blew my mind. It gave me a new understanding about how things in history occurred and reminded, yet again, that the reasons for something are seldom as simple as they seem, but are influenced by little bits, which taken together, create an entire ENVIRONMENT of cultural belief that at the time, seem correct to the masses. An amazing realization about how the ideals and desires of our present age are so new to us and can so drastically change, develop and shift...more
Karl Lagerfeld
The Mansion of Happiness is a collection of Jill Lepore's essays on life and death (as the cover says). The essays are loosely related, but generally use one illustrative example (like, the board game from which the book derives it's title) to use as an aperture into how American views on life and death have changed over the past 150 years. The essays can be a little disjointed from one another, but I particularly found the ones on birth control and the right to life movement fascinating, as wel...more
Mary Messall
Though not explicitly a parenting book, this has a lot of really good, fascinating historical perspective on childbearing, child rearing, and the role of women and children in society. Really strong writing helps pull a lot of diverse stories and ideas together.
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JILL LEPORE is the David Woods Kemper ’41 Professor of American History, Harvard College Professor, and chair of Harvard's History and Literature Program. She is also a staff writer at The New Yorker. Her landmark biography of Benjamin Franklin’s youngest sister will be published in 2013. Her previous books include The Mansion of Happiness: A History of Life and Death (Knopf, 2012); The Whites of...more
More about Jill Lepore...
Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin The Name of War: King Philip's War and the Origins of American Identity The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party's Revolution and the Battle over American History New York Burning: Liberty, Slavery, and Conspiracy in Eighteenth-Century Manhattan The Story of America: Essays on Origins

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