Anthony Fensom: Best books of 2009

The best expose of Japan’s organized crime scene since Robert Whiting’s “Tokyo Underworld.” Former Yomiuri Shimbun journalist Jake Adelstein takes readers on a gripping tour of his 12-year stint on the Tokyo police beat and into a dark world closed to most non-Japanese. Part Philip Marlowe and part Clark Kent, the bilingual American succeeds in uncovering the activities of some of the city’s more notorious yakuza gangsters, with crimes ranging from extortion to human trafficking and murder. Not for the fainthearted, this outstanding debut is a must-read for anyone wanting to get the real scoop on Japan’s secret criminal society.

TOKYO VICE: An American Reporter on the Police Beat in Japan, by Jake Adelstein. Pantheon, 352 pp., $26 (hardcover)

SUPERFREAKONOMICS, by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner. William Morrow, 288 pp., $29.99 (hardcover)

The dismal science of economics has rarely been more entertaining than it was in the international best-seller “Freakonomics,” which applied orthodox analytical tools to make some startling conclusions about everyone from sumo wrestlers to the Ku Klux Klan. Four years later, the same authors return with a similar work that, while lacking the surprise factor of the original, nevertheless again succeeds in making economics more sexy than a J-curve. While their research on topics ranging from global warming, suicide bombers and prostitutes likely will provoke much debate, this is another entertaining read that is more funny than freaky.

TRADITIONAL MOLVANIAN BABY NAMES, by Santo Cilauro, Tom Gleisner and Rob Sitch. Hardie Grant, 160 pp., $9.95 (paper)

The fictitious country of Molvania is the source of more Borat-style humor in this latest release from the satirical Jetlag travel series, which is highly offensive and politically incorrect and also outrageously funny. Original baby names like Bijupeltya (“hairy at birth”) and Mitralkura (“covered in strange welts”) offer plenty of options for prospective parents, or just those wanting a stocking filler certain to produce a merry Christmas.

Anthony Fensom is a freelance journalist and communications consultant.