In 2011, Susan Conley’s candid memoir, The Foremost Good Fortune, took readers to Beijing around the time of the 2008 Olympics. Conley’s concise and poetic prose showed a side of Beijing few expats experience: the fears of a new cancer diagnosis while trying to navigate a new city with her husband and two young sons. This was followed in 2013 with a novel, Paris was the Place about  a young American woman who moves to Paris during the 1980s AIDS crisis to be closer to her brother. She finds work at a refugee detention center where she helps women prepare for their asylum hearings.

The Japanese are fascinated by cats, and it’s not difficult to find shrines dedicated to them. There are cats that live in train stations (one, at least, has a uniform and a “job”) and cat cafés, where people go to pet them and hang out with them. We are all familiar with the maneki-neko, the beckoning good-luck cat who appears in Asian shops everywhere, ensuring the success and prosperity of the enterprise. And they like to write about them, too; in Sei Shonagon’s Pillow Book (1002) the Emperor Ichijo, who was the earliest Japanese emperor (or anyone else of note in Japan) to own one, loses his cat at one point, and everyone has to go and look for it.

What if Michelangelo had not, as history concurs he had, declined the Sultan’s invitation to come to Constantinople in 1506 to design a bridge over the Golden Horn? This is the conceit behind Mathias Énard’s new novel, or rather novella, Tell Them of Battles, Kings, and Elephants (a perhaps anachronistic borrowing from the preface of a collection of Rudyard Kipling stories). What if Michelangelo had instead accepted?