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Sunday, Dec. 19, 2010

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 STEVE FINBOW
THE THOUSAND AUTUMNS OF JACOB DE ZOET, by David Mitchell. Random House, 496 pp., $26 (hardcover)

A tale of love, murder, intrigue, and cultural identity, Mitchell takes the form of the historical novel and worries it like a chew-toy. Yet, rather than destroy the genre, he embellishes it, heaps poetry onto research, gazing with a precise and incisive eye back into the past. This is Nagasaki, the foreign outpost on the artificial island of Dejima, from where Dutch sailors and merchants trade with the Japanese. Mitchell's novel transports the reader to early 19th- century Japan in a beautifully crafted prose time machine.

KISSING THE MASK: Beauty, Understatement and Femininity in Japanese Noh Theater, by William T. Vollmann. Ecco, 520 pp., $29.99 (hardcover)

If I include the sub-subtitle to this extraordinary book, the reader may get some idea of its scope: "With Some Thoughts on Muses (Especially Helga Testorf), Transgender Women, Kabuki Goddesses, Porn Queens, Poets, Housewives, Makeup Artists, Geishas, Valkyries and Venus Figurines." Vollmann explores the role of gender and beauty in all of the above — but being Vollmann, he deviates into Norse poetry, Sappho and modern art. Intriguing.

ISLE OF DREAMS, by Keizo Hino. Translated by Charles de Wolf. Dalkey Archive, 168 pp., $14.95 (paper)

Published as "Yume no Shima" in 1985, Keizo Hino's surreal-eco novel, in which Tokyo exists somewhere between reality and nightmare, is a Ballardean investigation of cities, obsession and decay. Isle of Dreams — a piece of reclaimed land in Tokyo Bay — intrigues middle-aged and grieving Shozao Saka.

There, he meets Yoko, a young woman who introduces him to the urban nightmare of Tokyo, its hidden places and its lost people, its ultra-modernity overlaying a destroyed, decayed and soon-to-be forgotten history.

Steve Finbow is writing a critical biography of Allen Ginsberg.

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