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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


MAP OF THE INVISIBLE WORLD, by Tash Aw. Spiegel and Grau, 336 pp. $15 (paper)

This mesmerizing novel is set in Indonesia just before the coup and massacres of 1965 where the pain, love and hopes of an intriguing cast of characters are evoked captivatingly by a gifted young Asian novelist. This is a story of those who don't belong, don't want to belong or think they fit but don't. The story hops from Bali to Malaysia and Sumatra, but mostly dwells on the tropical squalor and intrigues of Jakarta as the gathering crisis lurches toward the abyss in this high-tension romantic thriller.

NINE LIVES: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India, by William Dalrymple. Knopf, 304 pp. $26.95 (hardcover)

These days the media focuses on India's galloping economy, but here Dalrymple leads us away from the fray with his engaging portraits of nine spiritual seekers scattered across India. The chosen nine are all pursuing the divine according to ancient traditions that remain vibrant amid the upheaval of modernization. Through their eyes, travels and experiences, we discover the juxtapositions and paradoxes that animate life in contemporary India. The story of the young Jain nun who chooses to starve herself to death will haunt you for some time.

COUNTRY DRIVING: A Journey Through China From Farm to Factory, by Peter Hessler. Harper, 448 pp., $27.99 (hardcover)

Hessler is funny, entertaining and insightful as he explains what is going on in people's lives in contemporary China. The book delivers three narratives that unravel monolithic misrepresentations of a country in tumult. We tag along on a Great Wall road trip scattered with decrepit towns, discover village life in upheaval just outside Beijing and gain an appreciation of how terrifying it must be to drive in a country where most drivers are just learning the ropes. Hessler also regales us with travails of a bra fastener factory in the south and life in the depressing industrial zones in pages brimming with wry humor and mind-boggling tales.

Jeff Kingston is director of Asian Studies, Temple University, Japan

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