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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


THE FORGOTTEN JAPANESE: Encounters with Rural Life and Folklore, by Miyamoto Tsuneichi. Translated by Jeffrey S. Irish.

In making available this account of Japanese who are forgotten, by an author who, in English, is unknown, translator Jeffrey Irish has done us a tremendous service. Anyone interested in how things used to be in rural Japan will want to read ethnologist Tsuneichi Miyamoto's tales of his travels on foot up and down the archipelago, and will relish the stories he gathered. The past, we learn, really is a foreign country. Miyamoto's journey into that foreign place, his visits with its forgotten people, exquisitely told and exquisitely translated, goes onto the short shelf of essential books about Japan.

THE CHANGELING, by Kenzaburo Oe. Translated by Deborah Boliver Boehm. Atlantic Books, 468 pp., £19.99

Kenzaburo Oe's "The Changeling" is the work of an author who understands his medium and knows how to make it sing. Not atypically for Oe, the novel is autobiographical. It circles around the suicide of a successful filmmaker called Goro, who happens to be the brother-in-law of a well-regarded novelist. (Juzo Itami, who committed suicide, was Kenzaburo Oe's brother-in-law.) It leads from that filmmaker's death, with leaps backward and forward, to a birth, and, along the way, visits biblical exegesis, Maurice Sendak, nationalist politics, film, art, theories of the novel, and much besides. It is riveting from first page to last.

FOREST OF EYES: Selected Poems of Tada Chimako, by Chimako Tada. Translated and with an introduction and notes by Jeffrey Angles. University of California Press, 164 pp., $19.95 (paper)

Chimako Tada's "Forest of Eyes" is a superb collection of poetry. It is a delight to find a poet who understands that a successful poem calls upon "not only the senses and the emotions but also the brain's capacity for performing intellectually delicate work." One may prefer certain things Tada does to others, but will be astounded at how much she does brilliantly. Even forms that one may have thought exhausted such as the haiku and the tanka are revivified. This is a poetry collection that keeps one turning pages. How, we want to see, will Tada will astound us next.

David Cozy teaches at Showa Women's University, edits the reviews section of Kyoto Journal, and feels especially grateful, this year, to the world's literary translators.

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