The story begins in Jakarta, a hubbub of street vendors, motorbikes, and calls to prayer from mosque loudspeakers. “Travelling is the most ancient desire”, writes Intan Paramaditha in her first novel, a choose-your-own-adventure story published this February as global mobility ground to a halt. The wandering narrator, addressed in the second person befitting the conventions of the form, travels along multiple routes to Berlin, New York, and even outer space as she faces ordeals that illustrate the privileges of going abroad and the limitations of individual choice.

Chinese often claim a special relationship, sometimes verging on kinship, with Jews. The origins and reasons remain unclear but it may be at least in part due to two Jewish families—the Sassoons and their rivals, the Kadoories—both of whom played lasting roles in the development of two of China’s most modern cities: Shanghai and its rival, Hong Kong.

On 7 September 1695, just off Surat in Gujarat, an English pirate ship knocked off the Fath Mahmamadi, owned by an Indian trader who, according to a contemporary source, did as much trade alone as the East Indian Company all together. The pirates had been waiting for it at the Bab-el-Mandeb between Arabia and the Horn of Africa, but the Fath Mahmamadi had slipped by them in the dark of night. The pirates, whose ship the Fancy was one of the fastest afloat, beat the Indian vessel back to its home port and laid in wait again. The Fath Mahmamadi surrendered after a single broadside, yielding more gold and silver than the pirates had ever seen in one place.

Kim Ayami is a twenty-eight year old woman and law-school dropout who wants to be an actress, but appears to have been not very good at it, as she has only acted in one production and is now working at a theatre for the blind in Seoul after a number of stints as a waitress. It’s her last day there, though, because the theatre, the only one of its kind, is closing down and Ayami faces the uncertainty of unemployment, as she has no formal qualifications for another job.

In an age of microchips, information and cyber warfare, precision-guided ballistic missiles, satellite communications, advanced robotics and artificial intelligence, does a book about the historical struggles between insular sea powers and continental land powers have any relevance? Is there any practical benefit—other than an interest in history—to read about how the Athenians, Carthaginians, Venetians, Dutch, and British constructed and utilized sea power? Does the sea or land-oriented “culture” of a country really matter in 21st century geopolitics? 

One of the sloppier—and disturbingly frequent—critical lapses on either end of the ideological spectrum is to confuse modernization with Westernization. Some 20 years ago, Leo Ou-fan Lee’s Shanghai Modern sweepingly linked Eileen Chang’s novels, Ruan Lingyu’s films, jazz music in the dance halls, and graphic design in advertising and popular magazines not as local knock-offs of Paris and New York but rather a distinctly cohesive expression of an unprecedented cosmopolitan Chinese sensibility.