Just before I started to read this book I had been immersed in the letters written by Jewish merchants based in Cairo from the tenth to the 12th centuries describing the trade they conducted across the Indian Ocean all the way to the Malabar coast. These letters are written in a difficult cursive Hebrew script and in a Judaeo-Arabic dialect, so one needs greater expertise than I possess to read them in the original.
It was therefore with what was almost a sense of dejà vu that I encountered Joseph Sassoon’s fascinating account of the rise and fall of the Sassoon family, from the beginning of the 19th century to the disappearance of their trading name in 1978.
The journalist and broadcaster Christina Patterson’s memoir begins promisingly. She has a talent for vivid visual description, not least: ‘We are a pink and navy family. Two pink girls, a navy boy and a navy wife.’ Her early family holidays in Sweden, where her mother is from, are full of lingon-berries, hammocks and mini-golf. She recounts the story of her parents’ courtship as students and says of their relationship: ‘Love at first sight.
The 20th century was an amazing time for Russian pianists, and the worse things got, politically and militarily, the more great pianists thrived, despite the extreme danger and discomfort in which they lived and in which some of them died. If we think immediately of Richter, the greatest of them all, and Gilels, there are at least 20 more that we could add without exaggeration. One of the most important was without question Maria Yudina, born in 1899, who astonishingly survived until 1970.
The Normans had an astonishingly good run. Not only did they take over England in 1066, of course, but they also triumphed over the Muslims, establishing themselves in southern Italy and founding a principality in the Near East. William the Conqueror’s is one of the most famous names from Europe’s Middle Ages, but the achievements of Robert Guiscard were nearly as astonishing: leaving Normandy with five knights and 30 infantrymen, he became Duke of Sicily, Apulia and Calabria.
The first novel in more than 20 years from the essayist and cultural analyst Pankaj Mishra is as sharp, provocative and engagé as you’d expect. An exploration of Narendra Modi’s autocratic, Hindu-nationalist New India seen through the progress of three graduates from the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology, it’s also reassuringly rich in characterisation and the sheer sensory overload of modern life.
Narrated by Arun Dwivedi to an initially unnamed interlocutor, the book follows his journey from poverty to modest success as a translator in Delhi, while his feckless friends Aseem and Virendra make it big in America.
Demographers are attached to their theories. The field’s most enduring is the ‘demographic transition’, whereby modernisation inexorably lowers a society’s once-high fertility to replacement rate. Unfortunately, reality is obstreperous and doesn’t always obey the rules.
The United Nations Population Division bases population projections on the assumption that all countries will eventually follow the pattern of plummeting birth rates first observed across the West.