In the Mail: Non-Fiction Edition

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Finding Iris Chang: Friendship, Ambition, and the Loss of an Extraordinary Mind by Paula Kamen

Publishers Weekly

Bestselling author Iris Chang’s 2004 suicide at age 36 so shocked friends and colleagues that some initially claimed that Japanese extremists had murdered her to avenge Chang’s acclaimed exposé in The Rape of Nanking of atrocities against Chinese civilians perpetrated by Japanese invaders in 1937-1938. Lacking the artistry of Ann Patchett’s recent portrait of her friendship with writer Lucy Grealy, this effort by Kamen (All in My Head) is a tedious, obsessive, exploitative effort, drawing on her eulogy to Chang. Kamen, who had known Chang since college, repeats some of the far-fetched, irresponsible conspiracy theories before settling on the sad truth that Chang, suffering from bipolar disorder, shot herself in the head with an antique pistol after much planning. Kamen describes her admiration for and jealousy of her rival, Chang’s grating ambitiousness and the first-generation American’s attempts at being a real American, epitomized by her campaign to be college homecoming queen. Kamen also probes the stigma of mental illness in the Asian-American community, Chang’s sense of guilt over her son’s autism, her veneer of perfection and the deterioration of her mental state. Despite its flaws, this could find a sizable audience among those Chinese-Americans who lionized Chang.

Free For All: Oddballs, Geeks, and Gangstas in the Public Library by Don Borchert

Publishers Weekly

Jack-of-all-trades Borchert shares wholesome, guardedly witty dispatches from the suburban L.A. library system in this charming tell-all. For 12 years the family-man author has held the post of assistant librarian, keeping a wary eye on unruly kids, mollifying mystified parents and repairing sadly manhandled materials. Borchert relays a conversation with an aged librarian who reveals how it was in the good old days (staff lunches used to be served with wine), then contrasts that account with modern-day multicultural crayons and the preponderance of latchkey kids abandoned in the library for long, numbing afternoons. A few of the regular patrons are inspiring Renaissance types, but most are unsettling and unsavory, such as intensely reclusive crossword-puzzler Henry hounding the reference desk; loser Max looking futilely on the Internet for a South American wife; or the drug dealers working the restroom. From patrons who rack up hundreds of dollars in fines to missing pet rats and fist-fighting mothers, Borchert has seen it all, and his account gives a human interest spin to this undervalued profession.

Mazel Tov: Celebrities’ Bar and Bat Mitzvah Memories by Jill Rappaport, Linda Solomon

Publishers Weekly

What do Larry King, Ed Koch and Richard Dreyfuss have in common? All three, we learn in this light book of profiles, had a bar mitzvah at age 13. On the one hand, this is a fairly superficial celebrity multi-biography that almost cynically panders to celebrities, with a couple of politicians thrown in. There are very few women represented, and almost no reflection on the spiritual commitments made in the bar mitzvah. But on the other hand, there’s something to be said for the specific and focused nature of this book, with all these people chronicling a single rite of passage that has remained steadfast through centuries of change. (And of course, who can resist then-and-now celebrity photographs?) Two of the most touching stories are of deaf actress Marlee Matlin’s bat mitzvah, since she had to learn Hebrew phonetically, and of her friend and mentor Henry Winkler, who struggled through his bar mitzvah because of dyslexia. Actor Kirk Douglas had two bar mitzvahs–one at the traditional age, and the other at 83, to honor his mother. Though frivolous–the chapter on the woman who bar mitzvahed her dogs and had them read the woof-Torah adds nothing helpful–some profiles are intriguing.


Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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