Those with an academic interest in Chinese literature are undoubtedly aware of the CT Hsia classic History of Modern Chinese Fiction which has just been reissued by the Chinese University Press. Those who aren’t might find the thought of a 600-page tome of literary criticism to be more than a little daunting; that would be a pity, for the volume is an example of erudition and clarity of expression.

Princeton University, or at least the HR department, recently promulgated new policies discouraging if not quite banning such terms as “man made”, “manpower” and “man” (as a verb); these are to be replaced with such gender-neutral terms as “artificial” and “staff” (as noun and verb). “Workmanlike” is to become “skillful” (although they don’t seem exact synonyms to me). It’s easy to make fun of such pronouncements; after all, the use of male terms for gender-neutral concepts predates even English itself. Exactly, women might reply.

It was with this political-linguistic issue in mind that I read Womansword: What Japanese Words Say About Women. Japanese is, or at least seems to be, an order of magnitude more gender-layered than English and Womensword is an attempt to pick these meanings apart and does so with clarity and good humor. But it seems that on the whole, author Kittredge Cherry is of the view that gender differentiation in Japanese is a flexible device rather than one constituting an instrument of social exclusion; indeed, she intends the book “to honor the women of Japan”.

In a corner of the Russian Far East, just across the Chinese border and wedged in between Heilongjiang’s upturned chin and lip, lies the Jewish Autonomous Oblast (Region) whose capital is Birobidzhan. The Oblast is somewhat larger than Israel, but with a fraction of the population: it peaked at 214,000 in the late 1980s, and has dropped by some 20% since then. The Oblast is neither very autonomous nor terribly Jewish—well under 2000 Jews live there now. Where the Jews Aren’t, Masha Gessen’s story of this peculiar place, has an apt title.

No opera composer turned to William Shakespeare more often than Giuseppe Verdi, who composed three works, Macbeth, Otello and Falstaff, based on the Bard’s plays. But if it hadn’t been for the persistence of his publisher Ricordi and would-be librettist Arrigo Boito, Verdi might well have stopped at one. He had to be coaxed out of a post-Aida retirement to write Otello, which finally premiered in 1887, sixteen years later.

But Otello was worth waiting for. A masterpiece, a thorough integration of music, words and drama that, astoundingly, manages to illuminate the original work—itself an unequalled masterpiece—on which it is based.