***First of all, please note that I strongly disagree with the Publishers Weekly review posted above. I think it's simply wrong.***
Iris Chang (1968-2004) is somewhat forgotten now, and that's a shame. A journalist, she wrote an international bestseller back in 1997 called "The Rape of Nanking," a historical study that became not only a must-read among intellectuals and armchair historians, but also among college students, their professors, and hundreds of thousands of people of Chinese or Japanese descent.
Although born in the 1960's, Iris Chang became a sort of international ambassador/interpreter of the war crimes committed in Nanking, China, just before World War II, whose magnitude depends one whom you choose to believe. That she was a physically beautiful, mentally brilliant, hard-charging 20-something wunderkind is--from a historical point of view--totally irrelevant to her subject matter. On the other hand, it made her a meteor-like instant celebrity around the globe, sort of like Woodward and Berstein shortly after their Watergate reporting.
Tragically, Chang's unbelievable, too-good-to-be-true story was, ultimately, too good to be true. At the age of 36, she took her own life.
Now, author Paula Kamen has written a book that tells the story of Chang's life. What puts a fascinating twist on this biography is that Kamen and Chang were very good friends going back almost 20 years, and Kamen herself is a successful non-fiction author.
Kamen looks at Chang through two strikingly different lenses: one, from an objective, strictly professional/journalistic point of view, and two, from the point of view of a caring, long-term, mourning friend.
What gives the book its considerable heft is that the reader gets a super-close-up view of who Iris Chang was throughout her life. Kamen tracks down Chang's high school classmates, her sorority sisters, her former colleagues, her husband, and dozens of others. We get an amazing portrait of a first-generation Chinese-American growing up in the cornfield-ringed college town of Champaign-Urbana, Illinois. We follow her early struggles and partake in her jump to international celebrity. But then, we accompany her downward as well. Kamen includes quotes from dozens of e-mails, notes, Christmas cards, interview transcriptions and the like that she exchanged with Chang over the years. Some readers will find that this intimacy makes them uncomfortable. I, however, think that it let me get to know the soul of a beautiful person.
One of the possibly hundreds of details about Chang that Kamen relates goes back to the time when she was an intern at a famous Midwestern newspaper. Her editors told her to keep calling back a grieving family until she could get a quote for the newspaper. Risking her job, Chang refused. I like her guts.
This book is carefully layered. It is about many things: history, genocide, journalism, friendship, ambition, mental illness, suicide, loyalty, success, and failure. Kamen has done two things brilliantly here. She has taken us first-hand on a very sad journey of what it means to have unimaginable success, and she has created a loving and permanent portrait of her friend.