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

The Books I Picked & Why

The Ten Thousand Things

By Maria Dermout

The Ten Thousand Things

Why 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. 


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

By Tiziano Terzani

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

Why 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.


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

By Adam Hochschild

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

Why 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.


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

By Terence Ward

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

Why 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’.


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

By Murasaki Shikibu, Arthur Waley

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

Why 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. 


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