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Final word on the year’s best reading

Okinawan music rhapsodized, bloody battles retold, thrilling tales unleashed and Japan's gloom exposed — our favorite books of 2010

by David Burleigh

Like the ancient Greeks who were outnumbered by Persian hordes at the battle of Thermopylae, a motley gathering of British and Indian troops was almost overpowered at Kohima, but managed to resist the Japanese forces intent on taking India. Only a regiment, not a whole division, of Japanese soldiers was expected, and the struggle was bitter and prolonged.

ROAD OF BONES: The Siege of Kohima 1944, by Fergal Keane. HarperPress, 576 pp., £25 (hardcover)

“Fatigue was the greatest danger,” writes Fergal Keane in this comprehensive, moving, very fair account. Unlike the Greeks, the Allied troops were not betrayed. “Road of bones” was the name given to the trail of death that followed the Japanese troops retreating into Burma.

THE HARE WITH AMBER EYES: A Hidden Inheritance, by Edmund de Waal. Chatto & Windus, 368 pp., (hardcover)

The inherited gift of a substantial collection of netsuke inspired the potter and ceramics expert Edmund de Waal to find out where they came from, and how they were passed on. The decorative toggles of wood and ivory, as much as two centuries old, had been bought first by a wealthy ancestor in France. This marvelous book recounts not only the 19th-century fad for Japonaiserie, but traces the family’s origins in Russia, their residence across Europe, and all the triumphs and tragedies involved. It is a Proustian journey of retrieval, an aesthetics of memory and touch, and much else besides.

FOREST OF EYES: Selected Poems of Tada Chimako. Translated and introduced by Jeffrey Angles. University of California Press, 176 pp., $19.95 (paper)

The poetry of Tada Chimako (1930-2003), translated piecemeal before, appears here in a representative selection, from evocations of Western myths to narrative meditations in prose. Her allusions draw upon the classical traditions of the East and West as well as ancient Mexico and Egypt. Tada essayed many genres — from free-verse and prose poetry to tanka and haiku — and the tone varies accordingly: from large poetical abstraction (“Like a stake, the river penetrates / Past, present, and future”) to delicate haiku (“yesterday, today, tomorrow / they are all a white field / in summer”), all beautifully rendered into English.

David Burleigh, who has lived and worked in Tokyo for 30 years, is on sabbatical leave at present.