Jeff Kingston: Best books of 2009

Maybe not a comfortable read for the holidays, but this is a poignant reminder about the human consequences of aerial bombing. The authors in this collection of essays demonstrate that such bombing does not win wars but does devastate, and it is civilians who suffer disproportionately. It appears that the lessons of the 20th century adduced here merit closer scrutiny by those currently waging war.

BOMBING CIVILIANS: A Twentieth-Century History. Yuki Tanaka and Marilyn Young, eds. The New Press, 291 pp., $30 (hardcover)

BURNT SHADOWS, by Kamila Shamsie. Picador, 384 pp., $14.95 (paper)

Shamsie explores the scars that the larger sweep of history leaves on people caught up in the maelstrom. It is an ambitious epic, delving into personal tragedies set against the backdrop of tragic histories spanning six decades, three generations and five countries. The book opens with the 1945 atomic bombing in Nagasaki, veers through the 1947 partition in India and arcs forward to 9/11 and its aftermath. It is a novel that laments what happens in a world run by whites in self-interest despite fitful good intentions. In beautiful prose, Shamsie conveys the intimate and personal consequences of war and racism, adding a human dimension to the calculus of geopolitics.

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

This is a great and often very funny read about the seamy side of Japan, one brimming with insights about contemporary society. Adelstein draws on his crime reporting days for the Yomiuri, regaling readers with tales of police procedure, journalism, murder, dodgy dog breeders, sharing a yakuza’s moll and the murky underworld. He argues that the media is not as supine as many accuse it of being. Following Adelstein through the bars of Roppongi as he gathers information about the murder of Lucy Blackman, we confront a haunting reality.

Jeff Kingston is director of Asian Studies at Temple University, Japan Campus.