Muske-Dukes is a poet as well as a novelist, and we hear her lyrical voice throughout the book.
In Print

Heartsick Journey

‘Speak in haste, repent at leisure’ might be the motto of this new novel exploring premature death, grief and guilt.

Life After Death
by Carol Muske-Dukes
Random House, $23


EVERY MARRIAGE has the occasional raging argument that produces words you wish you could take back. What if, during one such confrontation, you told your spouse to drop dead, and he did? That’s the premise of Carol Muske-Dukes’ third novel, Life After Death.
The book – which Newsday calls “luminous” – opens with heroine Boyd Schaeffer tearing into her husband after he nonchalantly leaves their 4-year-old daughter alone in a public park. A charming and accomplished liar, Russell pleads extenuating circumstances and announces that he believes himself to be terminally ill. Boyd snaps: “You have an incurable disease? Don’t get cured.… I’d prefer you dead.” Russell obliges the next day, collapsing on the tennis court from a heart attack.
What follows is a melancholy meditation on love and bereavement, as Boyd, her mother-in-law Gerda and the local funeral director, Will, must sift through their tortured memories and personal failures to reclaim their lives. The reader becomes a detective, deciphering Muske-Dukes’ poetic landscape in search of an explanation for human suffering. We learn that this wasn’t Boyd’s first fateful encounter with a faulty heart. As a second-year obstetrics resident, she had performed a routine abortion on a woman with an undiagnosed heart condition, and the patient died under the knife. Paralyzed by guilt, Boyd had quit the medical profession and escaped into marriage with the rich ne’er-do-well, Russell. Meanwhile, Will still broods over the premature death of his twin sister, and Gerda voyages back through memory to Russell’s childhood to confront her own guilty secrets.
Muske-Dukes is a poet as well as a novelist, and we hear her lyrical voice throughout the book. A naked body is “the color of gold tea in a clear hourglass.” Russell’s jagged handwriting on a posthumous love letter to his wife jumps out of a stack of condolences on “sharp wings, predator swoops.”


IN A CRUEL CASE of life imitating art, after finishing this book Muske-Dukes lost her own husband, veteran actor David Dukes, to a fatal heart attack. She had lovingly satirized marriage to a thespian in a March 2000 New York Times Magazine essay titled “I Married the Ice-Pick Killer.” The 55-year-old Dukes collapsed and died while on location filming a television miniseries in October of last year. Life After Death is dedicated to him.
A professor of English, Muske-Dukes is also director of the department’s doctoral program in literature and creative writing. She has published six books of poetry: Camouflage, Skylight, Wyndmere, Applause, Red Trousseau and An Octave Above Thunder: New and Selected Poems. The last was chosen as a New York Times Most Notable Book for 1997 in the poetry category. Her previous novels are Dear Digby and Saving St. Germ. A critic as well as an author, she is regular book reviewer for the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, and the author of Women and Poetry: Truth, Autobiography and the Shape of the Self, Critical Essays.

– Diane Krieger


A Year in the World’s Life
1688: A Global History
by John E. Wills Jr.
W.W. Norton & Co. Inc., $27


That single year – 1688 – holds enough adventure for a decade, if not an entire century.
HISTORIAN JOHN E. WILLS JR. hesitated before writing a whole book about 1688, but “in the end, the year was just too good to pass up.” That single year holds enough adventure for a decade, if not an entire century, he found. 1688: A Global History takes readers on a voyage that starts in Mexico with Creole poet Juana Ines de la Cruz, a nun who penned love lyrics to the wife of the Spanish viceroy, and ends in London with the composition of Dido and Aeneas by Henry Purcell, organist at the coronations of both James II and his deposer, William III.
“I feared the balance of the book would be swamped by the famous English ‘Glorious Revolution’ of that year, and I would risk looking foolish as an outsider writing about an event that has been so much studied,” says Wills, an expert on Chinese history.
It proved an idle fear. The book has received critical acclaim, particularly in Great Britain, where 1688 was a watershed year. A reviewer for The Independent of London called 1688 “one of the most fascinating and brilliant works of popular history ever written,” while a Baltimore Sun reviewer calls it an “enchanting and learned volume.”
Lacing some 80 vignettes through 400 pages, Wills crosses every major body of water, offering snapshots of late-17th-century life from the courts of Louis XIV and Peter the Great to the empires of Kangxi and Sultan Süleyman. He journeys through the then-exotic Sonora Desert, Robben Island (off the Cape of Good Hope) and Zumbi’s kingdom of escaped slaves in Brazil.
Serendipity led Wills to some of his best material. In Brussels, he came across an antique globe dated 1688, which led to the story of Father Vincenzo Coronelli, the leading cartographer of his time. One vignette concerns an Anglo-Indian trading official named Elihu Yale and his odd link to a Chinese sea lord. The Englishman was later immortalized for endowing a struggling Connecticut college that gratefully adopted his name.
True to his baroque subject matter, Wills interweaves his multicolored threads. The Jesuit commentaries and translations of Confucian philosophy introduced in one chapter are discovered by a delighted Liebniz in another.

– Gilien Silsby


WORDS AND MUSIC
Toward a Sustainable Whaling Regime
edited by Robert L. Friedheim
University of Washington Press, $35

“Both pro-whaling and anti-whaling forces are rocking the boat,” writes international relations scholar Robert Friedheim in the first book to take a critical look at the international management of whales and whaling. “What they do is fuel each other’s paranoia and suspicion.” Friedheim, who died in January, joins USC law professor Christopher D. Stone and eight other experts to explain the politics of whaling.


The Playful World: How Technology Is Transforming Our Imagination
by Mark Pesce
Ballantine Books, $24

Web-based toys started in 1998 with Furbys, toys that could interact intelligently with their environment. Since then, new toys have emerged that seem magical by comparison. With this Web-enhanced book, Mark Pesce, chair of the Interactive Media Program in the USC School of Cinema-Television, offers a preview of the brave new world of toys that awaits us all (www.theplayfulworld.com).


Fairies
CD by Rivka Golani and Bernadene Blaha
CBS Records, $17.98

Acclaimed USC pianist Bernadene Blaha teams with Canadian violist Rivka Golani in an all-Schumann program of fantasy, folk tales and romantic adventure. The disc takes its name from two works, Schumann’s “Fairy Tales,” Op. 113, and “Fairy Tale Narrations,” Op. 132. “The playing on this recording is so incredibly expressive and intimate that it is easy to forget that you are not part of a private audience,” writes music critic Peter Amsel for Bay Review.


Book Life After Death photo by Mark Tanner/ other photos by Michele A.H. Smith