The best non-fiction books that will immerse you in far-flung places and times

Who am I?

Early in life, I felt the presence of a “guardian angel” who would take my hand and accompany my mind to imagine distant cultures. I grew up in Florence, and in our history, there were so many tales of people coming from afar, and of Florentines traveling across deserts and oceans. And as time passed, I would be drawn to beautifully written true stories which opened windows onto different epochs and dramas of life in both near and far-flung places of the world.

I wrote...

The Lady of Sing Sing: An American Countess, an Italian Immigrant, and Their Epic Battle for Justice in New York's Gilded Age

By Idanna Pucci,

Book cover of The Lady of Sing Sing: An American Countess, an Italian Immigrant, and Their Epic Battle for Justice in New York's Gilded Age

What is my book about?

In 1890’s Manhattan, 22-year-old Maria Barbella is sentenced to be the first woman to die in the newly invented electric chair. Cora Slocomb di Brazza--an American heiress and pioneer activist married to an Italian count and living in Italy--mobilizes Manhattan’s press and public opinion to save her. In a nation already rumbling about women’s rights, Cora launches the first campaign against the death penalty. Yet, the inventor Thomas Edison has aligned his forces against the Italian immigrant girl. Locked in the “war of the currents” with his rival Westinghouse, the future of Edison’s DC current in America depends on Maria’s execution.

Woven through the tale are rich themes of class, shame, cruelty, loneliness, empathy, and love. The New York chronicler, Pete Hamill, wrote:
“This extraordinary book of historical non-fiction has the shape of drama as old as the Greeks with vivid relevance to the way we live now.”

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The books I picked & why

The Ten Thousand Things

By Maria Dermout,

Book cover of The Ten Thousand Things

Why did I love this book?

This true story occurred over twenty years starting in 1920. A haunted garden on a small island of the Indonesian Maluku archipelago. Here, Felicia has spent her early childhood with her grandmother, the last of an old line of Dutch spice growers. Felicia returns from Europe, after a ruinous marriage, with her baby son Willem. The plantation, overgrown and abandoned, reaches down to the blue-green waters. Felicia and her grandmother settle down again together to the ebb and flow of life surrounded by clove and nutmeg trees, and mystery. But slowly strange events happen in that Garden of Eden and a fascinating story of violence and murder unfolds in a world dominated by the psychic forces of nature, where nothing is predictable or a cliche. 

By Maria Dermout,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Ten Thousand Things as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In Wild, Cheryl Strayed writes of The Ten Thousand Things: "Each of Dermoût’s sentences came at me like a soft knowing dagger, depicting a far-off land that felt to me like the blood of all the places I used to love.” And it's true, The Ten Thousand Things is at once novel of shimmering strangeness—and familiarity. It is the story of Felicia, who returns with her baby son from Holland to the Spice Islands of Indonesia, to the house and garden that were her birthplace, over which her powerful grandmother still presides. There Felicia finds herself wedded to an uncanny…

Book cover of A Fortune-Teller Told Me: Earthbound Travels in the Far East

Why did I love this book?

Warned by a Hong-Kong fortune-teller not to risk flying for a whole year, the author – a vastly experienced Far East war and revolutions correspondent of the German Der Spiegel – took what he called “the first step into an unknown world.” It turned out to be one of the most extraordinary years he ever spent: he was marked by death and instead he was reborn. Geography expanded under his feet. Magnificently written in the best traditions of travel literature. A full immersion into the invisible world and belief systems that shape Southeast Asian cultures.

By Tiziano Terzani,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked A Fortune-Teller Told Me as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Warned by a fortune-teller not to risk flying, the author - a seasoned correspondent - took to travelling by rail, road and sea. Consulting fortune-tellers and shamans wherever he went, he learnt to understand and respect older ways of life and beliefs now threatened by the crasser forms of Western modernity.

William Shawcross in the Literary Review praised Terzani for 'his beautifully written adventure story... a voyage of self-discovery... He sees fortune-tellers, soothsayers, astrologers, chiromancers, seers, shamans, magicians, palmists, frauds, men and women of god (many gods) all over Asia and in Europe too... Almost every page and every story…

Book cover of King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa

Why did I love this book?

This is a riveting and haunting account of a well-hidden history. The author tells the story of the acquisition of the Congo, a century ago, by King Leopold of the Belgians as a personal fiefdom through political guile, boundless greed, unspeakable cruelties, and of the crusade by a small group of pioneer human rights activists who unmasked the king and eventually generated the international pressure needed to stop the enslavement, mutilation, and murder of millions of Africans.  The superb writing carries the reader on as if pulled by a magnet.

By Adam Hochschild,

Why should I read it?

6 authors picked King Leopold's Ghost as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Winner of the Duff Cooper Prize, King Leopold's Ghost is the true and haunting account of Leopold's brutal regime and its lasting effect on a ruined nation. With an introduction by award-winning novelist Barbara Kingsolver.

In the late nineteenth century, when the great powers in Europe were tearing Africa apart and seizing ownership of land for themselves, King Leopold of Belgium took hold of the vast and mostly unexplored territory surrounding the Congo River. In his devastatingly barbarous colonization of this area, Leopold stole its rubber and ivory, pummelled its people and set up a ruthless regime that would reduce…

Book cover of The Guardian of Mercy: How an Extraordinary Painting by Caravaggio Changed an Ordinary Life Today

Why did I love this book?

In this wondrous book on Caravaggio, the world of Naples unfolds from the inside through an electrifying reading experience. Written with grace, almost every sentence imparts an epiphany. The author challenges us to undertake soul-work, even if one is a secular reader. Reading becomes an act of empathy and passion. In the words of Wallace Stevens, potential readers will become ‘necessary angels’.

By Terence Ward,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Guardian of Mercy as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A Profound New Look at the Italian Master and His Lasting Legacy

Now celebrated as one of the great painters of the Renaissance, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio fled Rome in 1606 to escape retribution for killing a man in a brawl. Three years later he was in Naples, where he painted The Seven Acts of Mercy. A year later he died at the age of thirty-eight under mysterious circumstances. Exploring Caravaggio's singular masterwork, in The Guardian of Mercy Terence Ward offers an incredible narrative journey into the heart of his artistry and his metamorphosis from fugitive to visionary.

Ward's guide…

Book cover of The Tale of Genji: The Arthur Waley Translation of Lady Murasaki's Masterpiece with a New Foreword by Dennis Washburn

Why did I love this book?

This masterpiece - believed to be the oldest full-length ‘novel’ in existence - is an extraordinary exploration of human feelings, emotions, and relations as fresh and beguiling today as when it was first written one thousand years ago. I include this as non-fiction because it is a true account of daily life at the Heian Japanese court. Lady Murasaki’s characters draw the reader into their passion and terrors in an uncannily modern way, still so alive today. Readers will find themselves immersed in a strange and distant culture whose inhabitants’ loves, rivalries, suffering and follies they can easily identify with. It is an astonishing diary disguised as a “novel”, one of the greatest classics of all time, surprisingly written by a woman. 

By Murasaki Shikibu, Arthur Waley (translator),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Tale of Genji as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"What Waley did create is literary art of extraordinary beauty that brings to life in English the world Murasaki Shikibu imagined. The beauty of his art has not dimmed, but like the original text itself retains the power to move and enlighten."-Dennis Washburn, from his foreword

Centuries before Shakespeare, Murasaki Shikibu's The Tale of Genji was already acknowledged as a classic of Japanese literature. Over the past century, this book has gained worldwide acceptance as not only the world's first novel but as one of the greatest works of literature of all time.

The hero of the tale, Prince Genji,…

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Interested in Southeast Asia, Indonesia, and Italy?

9,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about Southeast Asia, Indonesia, and Italy.

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