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Sunday, Dec. 20, 2009

Stephen Mansfield: Best books of 2009

JAPAN'S GESTAPO: Murder, Mayhem and Torture in Wartime Asia, by Mark Felton. Naval Institute Press, 224 pp., $39.95 (hardcover)

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Not for those looking for a cozy fireside New Year read. The fiendish methods used by the Kempeitai, Japan's military police, are known in outline, but now we have the chilling details. Felton focuses not only on the unit's systematic physical and sexual torture of Allied soldiers and Asian civilians but also on the broader activities of the group concerning prison camp management, biological and chemical warfare, and experimentation on prisoners. Felton's grasp of historical facts is compromised, though, when he asserts that their doings reveal a "truly bizarre and sadistic streak rooted in the Japanese character."

XANADU, BY JOHN MAN. BANTAM PRESS, 352 PP., $29.95 (HARDCOVER)

Gene Kelly was dragged out of retirement in 1980 to sing with Olivia Newton-John in the movie of the same name, and Coleridge wrote a verse about an imperial "pleasure dome." This "Xanadu" is John Man's account of retracing Marco Polo's journey to Shangdu, and his audience with the legendary Khan. Following the footsteps of explorers has become a convention in travel writing, and there is something to be said for substituting musty archives for what Man calls "ground truth." Traveling in the company of a Chinese archaeologist, he makes an admirable job of re-creating the past from the dust and decay of the centuries.

JAPANESE GHOST STORIES: Spirits, Hauntings and Paranormal Phenomena, by Catrien Ross. Tuttle, 160 pp., $14.95 (paper)

Best read in the dead of night with the lights dimmed. Settle in for an evening of psychic stirrings, ghouls and other hair-raising sensations. Bringing erudition to the eerie, Ross enlarges our vocabulary of the supernatural. From the unquiet graves of betrayed women and trees that grow hair to accounts of the skulls of drowned sailors biting at the oars of fishermen, Ross's explorations in the spookier corners and crevices of these islands unearth a trove of arcane detail. Along the way she provides insights into Japanese culture you are unlikely to find elsewhere.

Stephen Mansfield is a photojournalist and writer. He had three books published in 2009, including "Tokyo: A Cultural & Literary History" and "Japanese Stone Gardens: Origins, Meaning, Form."


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