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Life and Death. It’s All Here.

August 2, 2012 by Reader's Connection

The Mansion of Happiness: A History of Life and DeathIf you remove the notes and index from Jill Lepore’s new book, it’s really pretty short. Even if we count the introductory material (and we should) there are only 215 pages. But check out that subtitle: The Mansion of Happiness: A History of Life and Death. How does she accomplish so much in so little time?

The history starts at the beginning of life, rather than at the beginning of time. The first chapter has to do with birth, and looks at early ideas about how people get started (“What hee was in his Mothers Womb, before he was this Embryo, or Foetus; whether three bubbles?  or some rude and indigested lump? or a conception, or coagulation of mixed seed? or whether anything else?”) and moves up through the cosmic foetus in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

The last chapter deals with cryonics, the freezing of corpses so that they can be reborn in a future age when “scientists will turn woman into a sexual superwoman . . . with cleverly designed orifices of various kinds, kind of like a wriggly Swiss cheese, but shapelier and more fragrant.”

In between, the ideas that people, especially American people, have had about breast-feeding, children’s books, adolescence, eugenics, parenting and housekeeping are viewed with insight and wit. The chapters began as separately published essays, but individuals from early chapters reappear in others; and for me The Mansion of Happiness works as a book, a tour of the ways that life has been viewed–and how it came to be viewed that way.

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