This new take on Japanese modern classics — old standbys and lots of recent writing as well — is big (864 pages and it’s only the first volume). It includes examples from the Restoration of 1868 through the Occupation of 1945. There’s not only the usual fiction and poetry but also essays and criticism as well. And most of the translations are newly done for this publication.
VERY THAI by Philip Cornwel-Smith and John Goss (River Books)
This is a brilliant book-length photo-essay on Thai popular culture that gives hundreds of examples of the Thai way of doing things. As Alex Kerr says in his preface, this culture “seems an informal, free-wheeling place, even at times chaotic. But the more time you spend here, the more you realize that there is an internal logic and symbolism invisibly ordering everything.
THE SCARLET GANG OF ASAKUSA by Yasunari Kawabata, translated by Alisa Freedman (University of California Press)
Yasunari Kawabata’s fabled 1930 modernist novel about high jinks in the lower depths of Tokyo’s formerly famed entertainment district is all about pimps and prostitutes, bums and beggars, as observed by our foremost literary fla^neur. I must also confess a connection — I wrote both the foreword and the afterword for this edition. Nonetheless (or consequently) I enjoyed this book more than any other in 2005.
Jeff Kingston POLITICS, MEMORY AND PUBLIC OPINION: The History Textbook Controversy and Japanese Society, by Sven Saaler (Deutsches Institut fur Japanstudien)
This is a great book because it exposes the fallacies of conservative historians who are trying to foist collective amnesia on an unwilling public. Sven Saaler, a professor at the University of Tokyo, succinctly limns the controversies of war memory that persist in 21st-century Japan. He takes on the revisionist Dr. Feelgoods of Japanese history, carefully eviscerating their attempts to assert a valorous and vindicating narrative. He explores the gap between the conservative political elite and a sensible Japanese public that has not warmed to their whitewashing of history. I am happy to have such a cogently argued book to assign my students.
LAW IN EVERYDAY JAPAN: Sex, Sumo, Suicides and Statutes, by Mark West (University of Chicago Press)
Mark West, a professor at the University of Michigan, shows how Japanese are as rational as anyone in responding to carrots and sticks. This is a stimulating book on how the law influences everyday life in subtle and unexpected ways. His lucid explanations of the complex interplay between law and social norms playfully takes readers on a tour of love hotels, sumo stables and karaoke pubs, while also shedding light on Japanese traits such as honesty and diligence. Don’t be put off by the title, it is a fun read and where else can you find the history of love hotels?
AN END TO SUFFERING: The Buddha in the World, by Pankaj Mishra (Picador)
I was blown away by Mishra’s perceptions and felt shaken gazing into the unsparing mirror he holds up for us. He helped me understand the core of Buddhism and question myself in this powerfully introspective rumination on the contemporary relevance of Buddhism. We travel with the author in tracing the evolution and influence of Buddhism as both doctrine and way of life and find much to ponder in his efforts to address the enduring questions of identity, alienation and suffering. Everyone knows someone just a tad too self-absorbed and complacent who needs a book like this to shake him/her up and become more thoughtful, if not mindful.
THE ORIENTAL CASEBOOK OF SHERLOCK HOLMES by Ted Riccardi (Random House)
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle passed away in 1930, but his most famous character, detective Sherlock Holmes, is still alive and well. In “Oriental Casebook of Sherlock Holmes,” Columbia University professor Ted Riccardi has produced nine stories about Scotland Yard’s famous sleuth, filling in Holmes’ enigmatic “missing” years between 1891-94. Narrated by his ever-present companion Dr. Watson, Holmes relates exotic exploits east of Suez, where he encounters devious czarist agents who are vying with the British for influence in Tibet and the subcontinent. Along with crime and detection there’s spine-chilling adventure: “The Giant Rat of Sumatra” is more of a tale of horror than a mystery, and invites comparisons with H.P. Lovecraft. A must for dyed-in-the-wool fans of Sherlockiana.
FOREIGN BABES IN BEIJING by Rachel Dewoskin (W.W. Norton & Co.)
On television in the new China, anything goes! Take it from American Rachel Dewoskin, who relates her true-to-life experience as a foreign femme fatale who costarred in a local TV melodrama, which among other things required her to appear in bed scenes with the Chinese male lead. This is big-time culture shock and, breezy style aside, provides valuable insights into how Chinese perceive themselves and others, which means it’s required reading for any Westerner contemplating living in China.
THE PALACE TIGER by Barbara Cleverly (Carroll & Graf)
Barbara Cleverly’s well-researched period novels set in India in the early 1920s are somewhat reminiscent of Agatha Christie. “The Palace Tiger,” her fourth featuring Scotland Yard detective inspector Joe Sandilands, involves the inexplicable death of a maharajah’s son that occurs during the hunt for a man-eating tiger. Cleverly, who brought Sandilands to life to entertain her dying husband, has been quoted as saying, “India seems to bring out the writer in people.” Her own works amply attest to the truth of this observation.
THE PUSH MAN AND OTHER STORIES by Yoshihiro Tatsumi (Drawn & Quarterly)
PYONGYANG: A Journey in North Korea, by Guy Delisle (Drawn & Quarterly)
We shouldn’t need Scott McCloud to remind us that “the art form . . . known as comics is a vessel which can hold any number of ideas and images,” but there do still seem to be readers under the misapprehension that comics are necessarily concerned with men in tights. Two of the best Asia-related books this year demonstrate that comics can, in fact, consider subjects as varied as the gritty urban world of the Japanese working poor featured in Yoshihiro Tatsumi’s “The Push Man and Other Stories” and a French-Canadian animator’s experiences in the capital of the hermit dictatorship as recorded in Guy Delisle’s “Pyongyang.” We will notice, too, even if we never get beyond these two offerings, that comics can be structurally quite different from one another. The stories collected in “The Push Man,” for example, are mostly austere eight-page vignettes. The constricted form Tatsumi employs, we come to feel, fits perfectly the constricted lives of his characters: a fellow who allows his arm to be severed so his girlfriend can open a bar with the insurance money, for example, or a pimp encaged by the woman who keeps him.
Much more expansive is Delisle’s “Pyongyang,” which is not a collection of strips but a unified book divided, as a novel would be, into chapters. Neither “Pyongyang” nor “Push Man” will make for cheerful holiday reading, but as North Korea is not only awful, but absurd, Delisle does manage to inject a surprising amount of wit into his illumination of one of our world’s darkest corners.
UNDERSTANDING COMICS: The Invisible Art, by Scott McCloud (Kitchen Sink-HarperPerennial)
McCloud’s indispensable “Understanding Comics” is a skillfully drawn comic book itself, which helps us do what its title promises. McCloud makes it possible for us to enjoy “Push Man,” “Pyongyang” and other comics to the full.
DONALD RICHIE’S JAPAN JOURNALS 1947-2004 (Stone Bridge Press)
If you remember Japan in the decade before this one, or the one before that, or even longer, the most rewarding recent book has to be “Donald Richie’s Japan Journals 1947-2004,” spanning half a century of life here. Compare his observations to your own, read about everybody he has known, some of whom you might have met yourself. Richie excels at the quick sketch, visual as well as verbal, and is particularly good on people. He is also keenly attentive to everything around him, quick to register difference and change: As a genre the journal perfectly suits him. (One small correction, though: It is not the ginkgo tree that smells of semen in the spring, it is the chestnut blossom.)
THE ANCIENT CAPITAL OF IMAGES by John Mateer (Fremantle Arts Centre Press)
Like Richie, the South African poet John Mateer records the homeless in Ueno Park in Tokyo, if in a drier, more analytical way. Mateer is a strong and interesting new voice in poetry, adding his own perspective to the varied responses writers have made to this country. Poetry often circulates unseen, and I first read Mateer in a chapbook given to me by his Japanese translator. A puzzling, rather philosophical sequence of poems about Kyoto supplied the booklet’s title, as it does for the poet’s excellent wide-ranging new collection, “The Ancient Capital of Images.”
SECRET HISTORIES: Finding George Orwell in a Burmese Teashop, by Emma Larkin (John Murray)
Another traveler, Emma Larkin, has spent a number of years and journeys exploring the connections between the British novelist George Orwell and Burma (now called Myanmar). Orwell’s first book, “Burmese Days,” was set there, as was the story he was writing when he died. In “Secret Histories: Finding George Orwell in a Burmese Teashop,” Larkin, who knows the language, travels to all the relevant places and meets people living there today. Talking in teashops, she tries to uncover the roots of Orwell’s later writing. But what her fascinating book provides above all is the unheard voices of ordinary Burmese people.
THE PLACES BETWEEN by Rory Stewart (Picador)
Travel writer Rory Stewart might easily have vanished beneath a snowdrift, fallen into a frozen river, or ended up on the supper plate of an Afghan wolf before he ever completed “The Places Between,” the account of his winter walk over the high passes from Heart to Kabul. Fortunately for us he survived the ordeal of frostbite, prickly heat, bed bugs, and religious fanatics to write this moving and poetic account of a country in turmoil, a people whose faith and ingrained hospitality does not preclude infinite reserves of violence. Essential supplies for a journey like this? An understanding of Islamic culture, a familiarity with Dari, the Afghan dialect of Persia, and legs of Teflon.
THE ART OF THE JAPANESE GARDEN by David & Michiko Young (Tuttle)
Gentler landscapes unwind between the covers of “The Art of the Japanese Garden,” a well researched and exquisitely designed title from husband-and-wife team David and Michiko Young. I’ve been trying, with decidedly mixed results, to produce something approaching the lovely designs featured here in my own pocket garden at home. An exquisite coffee table book to pour over during the festive season, and the perfect excuse to leave the gardening tools in the shed.
SPIRAL by Koji Suzuki (Harper Collins)
Lock the doors, draw the curtains and avoid inserting any unidentified videos into the deck before reading “Spiral,” Koji Suzuki’s spooky sequel to “The Ring.” Most of my reading is done in the wee hours of the night, after the house has fallen into an eerie hush. Usually I dim the lights; this time I had the full battery of lamps on. You could get a serious case of tori hada (“chicken flesh,” aka goose-pimples) reading this material, filled with a mortician’s attention to autopsy details and the study of strangely mutating viruses and sticky ectoplasms. Settle down to this creepy tale after you’ve safely removed the carcass of your Xmas turkey and swabbed away the last drops of cranberry sauce.