Nonfiction to be read. Photo credit: Karen Kao

My readers know that I’m not a fan of history books. But I read them all the same as part of my research into all things Shanghai. While I’ve dangled my toes into the nonfiction pool, I’ve been occasionally surprised by strange and wondrous creatures. Creative nonfiction, in particular, thrills me and I hope to read more of it soon.

The nonfiction books you’ll find on this review page fall into three categories.

First, you’ll see my ongoing efforts to school myself in Chinese history, culture and politics. This is the research I need to do in order to create an authentic backdrop for my historical novels, The Shanghai Quartet. You’ll find some of that research reviewed here, though not all of it. If you’re particularly interested in 1930s Shanghai, the setting for The Dancing Girl and the Turtle, you can have a look at A Reading List. Or, if you’d like a bigger picture on Shanghai history, try this.

Second, you’ll find nonfiction books on the craft of creative writing: how to write it, how to edit it, and how to teach it.

Third, you’ll see nonfiction books about the Netherlands for no better reason than that I live here. Oh, and maybe a couple of cookbooks, some memoir, an essay collection.

Nonfiction reviews

Listed alphabetically by author surname and category. For lyric essays, see also Poetry & Plays.

Essay collections

Gone Fishing: The Boys of My Youth by Jo Ann Beard

Walls: Notes from No Man’s Land: American Essays by Eula Biss

In the Golden Land: Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion

Dead Folks: The Glen Rock Book of the Dead by Marion Winik


Word-painting: The New Art of Travel by Alain de Botton

La Migra: The Line Becomes a River by Francisco Cantú

Feeding the Homies: L.A. Son, My Life, My City, My Food by Roy Choi

Sunday: Modern Love: The Lives of John & Sunday Reed by Lesley Harding & Kendrah Morgan

Persimmons: Autumn Light: Season of Fire and Farewells by Pico Iyer

Head for the Hills: Educated by Tara Westover


Reform!: The Tragedy of Liberation – A History of the Chinese Revolution 1945-1957 by Frank Dikötter

Chinese Cooking: Slippery Noodles by Hsiang Ju Lin

Little Red Book: Quotations from Chairman Mao Zedong by Mao Zedong

The Sensitivity Reader: The Body Keeps the Score: Mind, brain and body in the transformation of trauma by Bessel van der Kolk


Read to Write: A Writing Life by Annie Dillard

Gutkind’s Baby: Creating Nonfiction: Lessons from the voice of the genre edited by Lee Gutkind and Robyn Joblowski

The Manual: Tell It Slant: Creating, Refining, and Publishing Creative Nonfiction by Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola

His Master’s Voice: The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction edited by Dinty W. Moore

Close Reading: Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose

Russians: A Swim in a Pond in the Rain (In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Reading, Writing and Life) by George Saunders

Rules: The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White (4th edition)


Attention: How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy by Jenny Odell

Windfall: Dark Emu by Bruce Pascoe

Joodse Huizen 4 (Jewish Houses) edited by F. Rijksbaron, E. Shaya and G.J. de Vries

Mendfulness: Mending Matters: Stitch, Patch, and Repair Your Favorite Denim and More by Katrina Rodabaugh

Dutch History Writ SmallOns Kamp by Marja Vuijsje