Buruma (Human Rights and Journalism/Bard Coll.; Year Zero: A History of 1945, 2013, etc.) presents a series of essays on a variety of cultural subjects— simmering below all: war and destruction.
The essays all originally appeared in the New York Review of Books between 1987 and 2013, though the majority are from recent years. (A couple appear under different titles.) Although there is a sensible organization—clusters of essays about film, World War II, pop culture, art and Asian affairs—it is not patent from the table of contents, which simply lists titles. As Buruma’s regular readers know, his is a comprehensive and even polymathic intelligence. Able to write with apparent ease and grace about a wide variety of subjects—the work of R. Crumb (Buruma calls him “undoubtedly a great artist”), the diary and global image of Anne Frank, the horrors of Hiroshima, the WWII films of Clint Eastwood, the work of Satyajit Ray and Alan Bennett, the career of David Bowie, the art of George Grosz, the architecture of Tokyo—Buruma displays a generosity of spirit that is often absent in the work of other cultural critics. Although he does take a potshot at Maya Angelou and has some dark words for others (most, like Hitler, are deeply deserving), the author generally focuses on strengths of artistic works and maintains a hopeful view of history, though he seems to find it increasingly hard to do so. Some of the pieces are reflections on exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art; some end with sad details about the death of an artist (Grosz choked to death on his own drunken vomit); others end with brave and/or wistful declarations—e.g., “truth is not just a point of view,” he writes in his essay on victimhood.
A unique intelligence encounters the uniqueness of art and culture, and readers are the beneficiaries.