What do you do with a gang of monks who have been condemned to death for immorality? If you are King Rama II of Siam (1809-24), you commute their sentences to hard labor, which consists of making them cut grass for your elephants every day. This is one example of the sometimes quirky humanity of the Chakri Dynasty, which, as royal houses go, is a relative newcomer, having been founded only in 1784.

“As soon as he took his first spear, he writhed in pain. Leaking urine and making a miserable spectacle, he took nine spears.” The gruesome and cruel execution of one Heizō Takamiya described here took place in Osaka in 1829; the unfortunate Heizō was accompanied by five other people, one a woman (Toyoda Mitsugi) and four others who were already dead and had been pickled in salt so that their remains could be symbolically crucified and methodically stabbed with spears as a form of humiliation.

It’s a well-worn assertion, even a cliché, that art and spirituality are inextricably linked. A concrete representation of the subject for religious meditation is, we could say, a visible aid to devotion: not so much the object itself, but what it symbolizes, which is important to the viewer (or listener if it’s music).

For some men, getting to know a woman isn’t quite what it seems. In this quirky collection of stories by Xu Xu, we can read about a man who dates a would-be ghost, another takes up with a supposedly mentally-challenged girl who has conversations with birds and eventually becomes a Buddhist nun, a third hooks up in a pro forma marriage (which later becomes real) with a mysterious Jewish woman whom a new acquaintance has asked him to help get to Europe, and a fourth falls in love with a strange girl who eventually kills herself after telling her tragic personal story to the narrator.

“And he gathered them together in a place called in the Hebrew tongue Armageddon” (Revelation 16:16). Armageddon. The word sends shivers up the spine; it’s the place where, according to the imaginative interpretation of some, the final battle between the forces of good and evil will be fought. It’s mentioned twelve times in the Old Testament and once only in the New, quoted above.

India has suffered much from stereotyping, particularly at the hands of Western historians. It has been dismissed as being almost stagnant until Western encroachments somehow woke it up, and it’s been regarded as isolated from surrounding territories, somehow evolving on its own first as “a self-generated Hindu and Sanskritic civilization”, as Richard M Eaton puts it in this new book. From 1000 to 1800 CE historical convention labels this time-span “the Muslim period”, although the inhabitants of India habitually referred to their conquerors not as Muslims but “Turks”, an ethnographical term rather than a religious one. Eaton notes that in the case of Central and South America, historians usually refer to the “Spanish” (or Portuguese) conquest, rather than the “Christian” conquest, and he rightly wonders why this should be the case, since forced conversion of native populations was almost as important as gold and silver.