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 four categories.

Works of creative nonfiction now take pride of place. These, in turn, are divided into essay collections versus book-length memoirs.

Under the category of research, 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.

As I continue to develop as a teacher of creative writing, I find books on the craft of creative writing increasingly helpful. It’s not just about what I can tell my students but how to improve my own writing.

A new category pertains to food and craft (of the non-writing sort). While cookbooks do not normally lend themselves well to book reviews, you’ll find a few standouts here.

Nonfiction reviews

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

Essay collections

Mini-review: Notes of a Native Son by James Baldwin

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

Mini review: Festival Days by Jo Ann Beard

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

Mini-review: Having and Being Had by Eula Biss

Mini-review: The Lyric Essay as Resistance: Truth from the Margins by Zoe Bossiere and Erica Trabold eds.

Mini-review: If This Were Fiction: A Love Story in Essays by Jill Christman

In the Golden Land: Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion

Mini-review: The White Album by Joan Didion

Mini-review: Not a Novel by Jenny Erpenbeck

Mini-review: The Book of Delights by Ross Gay

Mini-review: In the Dream House: A Memoir by Carmen Maria Machado

Mini-review: Upstream by Mary Oliver

Mini review: A Fish Growing Lungs by Alysia Li Ying Sawchyn

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

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

The Talented Tenth: Negroland: A Memoir by Margo Jefferson

Mini-review: The Part That Burns by Jeannine Ouellette

Mini-review: The Bright Hour: A Memoir of Living and Dying by Nina Riggs

Head for the Hills: Educated by Tara Westover

When the fat lady sings: The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch

Mini-review: Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner


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

Mini review: The People’s Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited by Louise Lim

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

How to Make a New Socialist Person: Laogai: The Chinese Gulag by Hongda Harry Wu


Mini-review: Meander, Spiral, Explode: Design and Pattern in Narrative by Jane Alison

Mini-review: The Art of Death: Writing the Final Story by Edwidge Danticat

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

Flash: The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction: Tips from Editors, Teachers, and Writers in the Field edited by Tara L. Masih

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

Mini review: A Harp in the Stars: A Lyric Essay Anthology edited by Randon Billings Noble

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)

Home and Hearth

Mini-review: Bao by Erchen Chang, Shing Tat Chung, and Wai Ting Chung

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

Mini-review: How to Cook a Wolf by M.F.K. Fisher

The Reluctant Recipe Reader: The Perfect Loaf: The Craft and Science of Sourdough Breads, Sweets, and More by Maurizio Leo

Chinese Cooking: Slippery Noodles by Hsiang Ju Lin

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

Mini-review: Dishoom “From Bombay with Love” – Cookery Book and Highly Subjective Guide to Bombay with a Map by Shamil Thakar, Kavi Thakar and Naved Nasir


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

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

Windfall: Dark Emu by Bruce Pascoe

Mother-Heroes: The Baby on the Fire Escape: Creativity, Motherhood, and the Mind-Baby Problem by Julie Phillips

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

Dutch History Writ SmallOns Kamp by Marja Vuijsje