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Five of the Best Books by Ian Buruma

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Last week, The New York Review of Books hired Ian Buruma, 65, to be its new editor, taking over the role of the late Robert B. Silvers, who died in March at age 87. The NYRB has been fiercely independent and a valuable outlet for strongly worded and rigorously presented cultural criticism and political commentary since it was founded in 1963. While Silvers was widely praised for putting his writers ahead of his own ego — he expressed no ambition to be a writer himself — Buruma is a widely published journalist, historian and author of more than a dozen books. Born in the Netherlands and educated, in part, in Japan, Buruma is an intriguing choice to lead what is arguably the English-speaking world’s most elite magazine of ideas. The following is a short reading list highlighting several of Buruma’s most influential books, which underscore his most admirable quality as a writer: his evenhandedness as an interlocutor between the east and west, past and present, and political right and left.

Murder in Amsterdam

The author’s most widely praised and read book offers an account of the murder of Dutch provocateur Theo van Gogh on the street in Amsterdam. The killer said it was an act in defense of Islam, which the filmmaker had insulted in his film Submission, made with Somali-Dutch politician Ayaan Hirsi Ali, in which Koranic verses were displayed on the bodies of nude women. Buruma treads a difficult tightrope, offering an even-handed account of the ambiguities that asks whether religious and social tolerance extends to those who are willing to push to the extremes, where each side believes its version of the truth is absolute and purest. The book won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for the Best Current Interest Book of 2006 and is just as relevant today as when it was published


With Brexit looming, this book, originally published just prior to the turn of the millennium, is worth revisiting for its portrait of the historical relationship between the UK and the continent of Europe. It is a strong reminder that the UK, which has been an economic refuge for many continental Europeans throughout history, such as Voltaire (whose own writings on England provide the title) and as recently as the past economic recession. Buruma makes the point that England long had a dualistic personality, both simultaneously inclusive and exclusive, tolerant and intolerant — home to, at one point, both Karl Marx and Queen Victoria. The book ends with a prescient chapter on the UK’s love-hate relationship with the European Union.

The China Lover

Buruma has also tried his hand at fiction writing, having written two novels. This, the better known of the two, is a fictionalized account of the life and career of Yoshiko Yamaguchi, a real-life historical celebrity figure in Japan. A trio of male narrators each reflect on a distinct time-period in Yamaguchi’s life: the World War-era, when she starred in Chinese films, was imprisoned, and later returned to Japan; the 1950s, when her star again rose at home and she married Japanese-American sculptor Isamu Noguchi; and then later, her life as a politically active television presenter, a path which eventually led her to serve in parliament. Buruma’s thorough knowledge of the period makes for a vivid and detailed account of the period.

Year Zero

The post-World War II era is a frequent topic of Buruma’s and a personal passion. Subtitled, “A History of 1945,” the book uses eye-witness accounts and personal narratives to paint a portrait of how people in Asia and Europe struggled with the perverse idea that there could be a “return to normality,” following such intense and horrifying bloodletting. The book’s focus is the behavior of the survivors and how they acted out in response to occupation by North American and Western European forces, from sexual antics to suffering from starvation, from wild acts of revenge to coping with those returning from the war, whether former prisoners or soldiers. As always, Buruma is an expert at demonstrating how the past is prologue.

Theatre Of Cruelty

Buruma has long been a contributor to The New York Review of Books and this collection, published by the literary journal’s eponymous book imprint, brings together a collection of 28 essays and reviews from 1987-2013. Traditionally, the NYRB has not been as tied to the news cycle as other publications and with its penchant for providing adequate context for its longer think pieces, the journal gives its writers room to make numerous connections among many seemingly disparate subjects. This collection offers ample evidence that Buruma is a highly adept writer in the NYRB style and provides a good introduction to Buruma’s eclectic range of interests and passions, which touch on everything from 20th century European and Asian history, to contemporary theater, art and film.

American journalist, editor, traveler, and believer in the power of books to change the world.