Joy, Despair, Illusion, Dreams: Twenty Plays from the Nō Tradition, Royall Tyler (trans) (Columbia University Press, April 2024)
Joy, Despair, Illusion, Dreams: Twenty Plays from the Nō Tradition, Royall Tyler (trans) (Columbia University Press, April 2024)

Nō drama, which integrates speech, song, dance, music, mask, and costume into a distinctive art form, is among Japan’s most revered cultural traditions. It gained popularity in the fourteenth century, when the actor and playwright Zeami (1363–1443) drew the favor of the shogun with his theatrical innovations. Nō’s intricacies and highly stylized conventions continue to attract Japanese and Western appreciation, and a repertoire of some 250 plays is performed today.

The Dawn of the Warrior Age: War Tales from Medieval Japan, Royall Tyler (trans), (Columbia University Press, April 2024)
The Dawn of the Warrior Age: War Tales from Medieval Japan, Royall Tyler (trans), (Columbia University Press, April 2024)

The war between the Heike and Genji clans in the 13th and 13th centuries is among the most compelling and significant moments in Japan’s history, immortalized in The Tale of the Heike. Beyond the events recorded in this canonical text, the conflicts of the surrounding years are crucial to medieval Japanese culture and history. In 1156, power began to slip away from the court nobility in Kyoto. A shogunate was later founded in Kamakura, and in 1221, it won a decisive victory over the court.

If you happen to have a few hours to spare and a swash to buckle, here are two rousing epic adventures from Persia and the Middle East to fill in the time. If we think of Persian epics, the two titles which probably come to mind are Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh and Vis and Ramin by Fakhruddin As’ad Gurgani, both available in excellent Penguin translations by Dick Davis. There’s also Matthew Arnold’s Sohrab and Rustum, which is based on an episode in Ferdowsi’s poem. As for Arabic ones, the massive (and anonymous) Thousand and One Nights is the best-known.

If you are in Tokyo and you’re riding on the Yamanote Line, you are likely heading to one of the major shopping destinations on that line, such as Shibuya, Shinagawa, or Tokyo Station. If you are going to Tokyo Station, you will pass through Komagome, once a place in the country where people had villas with gardens. It was where the noblewoman Ogimachi Machiko (ca 1679-1724), second concubine to Lord Yanagisawa Yoshiyasu (1658-1714) composed her classic memoir, In the Shelter of the Pine, covering the years from 1690 to about 1710.

Samak the Ayyar: A Tale of Ancient Persia, Freydoon Rassouli (trans), Jordan Mechner (adapted) (Columbia University Press, August 2021)
Samak the Ayyar: A Tale of Ancient Persia, Freydoon Rassouli (trans), Jordan Mechner (adapted) (Columbia University Press, August 2021)

The adventures of Samak, a trickster-warrior hero of Persia’s thousand-year-old oral storytelling tradition, are beloved in Iran. Samak is an ayyar, a warrior who comes from the common people and embodies the ideals of loyalty, selflessness, and honor—a figure that recalls samurai, ronin, and knights yet is distinctive to Persian legend. His exploits—set against an epic background of palace intrigue, battlefield heroics, and star-crossed romance between a noble prince and princess—are as deeply rooted in Persian culture as are the stories of Robin Hood and King Arthur in the West. However, this majestic tale has remained little known outside Iran.

Year in year out Spain produces 1,500 kilos of that delicate spice, saffron, sold wholesale for US$700 per 100 grams. Gourmets were puzzled a few years back when 1900 kilos of Spanish saffron hit the market. Food inspectors soon discovered that the yellow powder contained traces of the flavorless plant root, or worse, animal droppings. The huge increase in volume came from the diversion of Iranian saffron, whose sale is stifled by the American embargo, to Spain’s packagers. Along the way crooks put their fingers on the scale by adding the impurities. Similar scams were practiced by spice dealers in 13th-century Damascus, involving precious products like myrobalan, agarwood, ginger, indigo, musk, ambergris. “Wise up to these things,” exhorts the Book of Charlatans, this newly translated compendium of tricks, cheats and phony spells.

Top Graduate Zhang Xie: The Earliest Extant Chinese Southern Play, Regina S Llamas (trans, intro) (Columbia University Press, June 2021)
Top Graduate Zhang Xie: The Earliest Extant Chinese Southern Play, Regina S Llamas (trans, intro) (Columbia University Press, June 2021)

Top Graduate Zhang Xie is the first extant play in the Chinese southern dramatic tradition and a milestone in the history of Chinese literature. Dating from the early fifteenth century, but possibly composed earlier, it is the work of a writing club called the Nine Mountain Society.