It helps to come to Islands & Cultures—a collection of essays focusing largely if not exclusively, as goes the subtitle, on “sustainability”—with at least some background on Polynesia, not because such background is necessary to follow the arguments in the various papers, but because otherwise one will be spending a great deal of time on the Internet chasing down one interesting reference after another.

Many of us have likely seen photos of the Aral Sea, and the rusted Soviet-era ships, sitting in the desert with no water in sight. The Aral Sea is now just 10% of its former volume, shrinking down from what was once the fourth-largest body of inland water in the world, after what writer Jeff Fernside calls “one of the worst human-caused environmental catastrophes”.

What does it mean to be a meritocracy? Ask an ordinary person, and they would likely say it means promoting the best and brightest in today’s society based on merit. But that simple explanation belies many thorny questions. What is merit? How do we measure talent? How does equality come into play? And how do we ensure that meritocracies don’t degenerate into the same old privileged systems they strive to replace?

There is more to festivals of India than commemoration of events rooted in Indian mythology—Diwali is a big one with Rama defeating the Ravana. Christmas celebrations in India are a testimony to the eclectic mix that the country is. In Indian Christmas: Essays, Memoirs, Hymns, editors Jerry Pinto and Madhulika Liddle have put together a sweet collection of reminiscences, poetry, photographs, and paintings to provide a glimpse of the Christmas spirit as it inhabits different neighborhoods in India.

The world would likely be a better place if there were more people like Jeff Fearnside in it. Ships in the Desert is a collection of essays based on and informed by four years that Fearnside spent in, mostly Kazakhstan early in the century, first as a teacher for the Peace Corps and later managing a fellowship programme. He comes across as concerned, thoughtful and, above all, tolerant.

Calling for a New Renaissance, Gao Xingjian (Cambria, September 2022)
Calling for a New Renaissance, Gao Xingjian, Mabel Lee (trans), Yan Qian (trans) (Cambria, September 2022)

Nobel laureate Gao Xingjian presents his primary concerns of the past decade or so. He indicts the lingering impact of ideology on contemporary literature and art, and for this reason calls for “a new Renaissance”, a result of which would be “boundary-crossing creations” such as the three cine-poems that he produced and describes in detail in this book.

The pursuit of meritocracy has proven a sort of holy grail for many policymakers and social-planners, perhaps nowhere more so than in Asia, where it can be explicitly invoked as the way to catch up with and even leapfrog the West. The cleverly-entitled Making Meritocracy is a collection of scholarly essays investigating the past and present of meritocracy in, primarily, China and India.