8 Books to Read Before Visiting Cuba

Eight books to help you get the most out of your travels in Cuba.

Waiting for Snow in Havana, by Carlos Eire

Synopsis: “Have mercy on me, Lord, I am Cuban.” In 1962, Carlos Eire was one of 14,000 children airlifted out of Havana—exiled from his family, his country and his own childhood by Fidel Castro’s revolution. Winner of the National Book Award, this stunning memoir is a vibrant and evocative look at Latin America from a child’s unforgettable experience.

Waiting for Snow in Havana is both an exorcism and an ode to a paradise lost. For the Cuba of Carlos’s youth—with its lizards and turquoise seas and sun-drenched siestas—becomes an island of condemnation once a cigar-smoking guerrilla named Fidel Castro ousts President Batista on January 1, 1959. Suddenly the music in the streets sounds like gunfire. Christmas is made illegal, political dissent leads to imprisonment, and too many of Carlos’s friends are leaving Cuba for a place as far away and unthinkable as the United States. Carlos will end up there, too, and fulfill his mother’s dreams by becoming a modern American man—even if his soul remains in the country he left behind.

Narrated with the urgency of a confession, Waiting for Snow in Havana is a eulogy for a native land and a loving testament to the collective spirit of Cubans everywhere.
I’m listing Waiting for Snow in Havana first because it completely changed my experience in Cuba. He paints an image of Havana that is colorful and poignant. I was more aware of the history and what life growing up in Cuba might have looked like before Fidel Castro. When exploring Miramar, where Carlos Eire grew up, I looked at the houses and wondered which were similar to the one he lived in with his family. High, highly recommend this one.

The Old Man and the Sea, by Ernest Hemingway

“Told in language of great simplicity and power, this story of courage and personal triumph remains one of Ernest Hemingway’s most enduring works.

The Old Man and the Sea is one of Hemingway’s most enduring works. Told in language of great simplicity and power, it is the story of an old Cuban fisherman, down on his luck, and his supreme ordeal—a relentless, agonizing battle with a giant marlin far out in the Gulf Stream. Here Hemingway recasts, in strikingly contemporary style, the classic theme of courage in the face of defeat, of personal triumph won from loss. Written in 1952, this hugely successful novella confirmed his power and presence in the literary world and played a large part in his winning the 1954 Nobel Prize for Literature.”

You don’t need to visit Cuba to know that Hemingway left his mark (for tourists anyways). El Floridita and the Ambos Mundos hotel were both made tourist attractions by being known at usual haunts of the writer. The Old Man and the Sea is a short novel that takes place on the Cuban coast. Another highly recommended read.

Dreaming in Cuban, by Christina Garcia

“Cristina García’s acclaimed book is the haunting, bittersweet story of a family experiencing a country’s revolution and the revelations that follow. The lives of Celia del Pino and her husband, daughters, and grandchildren mirror the magical realism of Cuba itself, a landscape of beauty and poverty, idealism and corruption. Dreaming in Cuban is “a work that possesses both the intimacy of a Chekov story and the hallucinatory magic of a novel by Gabriel García Márquez” (The New York Times). In celebration of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the novel’s original publication, this edition features a new introduction by the author.” –

Cuba + magical realism = yes please.

The Boys of Dolores, by Patrick Symmes

“From the author of Chasing Che, here is the remarkable tale of a group of boys at the heart of Cuba’s political and social history. Chosen in the 1940s from among the most affluent and ambitious families in eastern Cuba, they were groomed at the elite Colegio de Dolores for achievement and leadership. Instead, they were swept into war, revolution, and exile by two of their own number, Fidel and Raúl Castro. Trained by Jesuits for dialectical dexterity and the pursuit of absolutes, Fidel Castro swiftly destroyed the old Cuba they had come from, down to the hallways of Dolores itself. At once sweeping and intimate, this remarkable history by Patrick Symmes is a tour de force investigation of the world that gave birth to Fidel Castro – and the world his Cuban Revolution leaves behind.”  

This is a fascinating look into the past and present culture of Cuban politics. I read it just after returning and it has embellished everything I learned while in Cuba with stories from men who went to school with Fidel Castro as well as current life in Cuba that I might not have seen.

Havana Bay, by Martin Cruz Smith

“Former Inspector for the Moscow Militsiya, Arkady Renko, is summoned to Cuba to identify a liquefying corpse, dragged from the oily waters of Havana Bay. Renko finds himself in a decaying country, the final recess of Communism – a place where Russia is despised, exotic rituals take precedence and unexpected danger meets bewildering contradictions. After a harrowing experience that has left Renko on the verge of suicide, this new mystery leads him on a trail of deceit that reaches international proportions, and gives him a reason to relish his own life again.”

If you want a little crime fiction to accompany your slice of Cuba, here you go.

Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life, by Jon Lee Anderson

“Acclaimed around the world and a national best-seller, this is the definitive work on Che Guevara, the dashing rebel whose epic dream was to end poverty and injustice in Latin America and the developing world through armed revolution. Jon Lee Anderson’s biography traces Che’s extraordinary life, from his comfortable Argentine upbringing to the battlefields of the Cuban revolution, from the halls of power in Castro’s government to his failed campaign in the Congo and assassination in the Bolivian jungle.

Anderson has had unprecedented access to the personal archives maintained by Guevara’s widow and carefully guarded Cuban government documents. He has conducted extensive interviews with Che’s comrades—some of whom speak here for the first time—and with the CIA men and Bolivian officers who hunted him down. Anderson broke the story of where Guevara’s body was buried, which led to the exhumation and state burial of the bones. Many of the details of Che’s life have long been cloaked in secrecy and intrigue. Meticulously researched and full of exclusive information, Che Guevara illuminates as never before this mythic figure who embodied the high-water mark of revolutionary communism as a force in history.”

While in Havana you should definitely visit the Museum of the Revolution.

The Other Side of Paradise, by Julia Cooke

“Change looms in Havana, Cuba’s capital, a city electric with uncertainty yet cloaked in cliché, 90 miles from U.S. shores and off-limits to most Americans. Journalist Julia Cooke, who lived there at intervals over a period of five years, discovered a dynamic scene: baby-faced anarchists with Mohawks gelled with laundry soap, whiskey-drinking children of the elite, Santería trainees, pregnant prostitutes, university graduates planning to leave for the first country that will give them a visa.

This last generation of Cubans raised under Fidel Castro animate life in a waning era of political stagnation as the rest of the world beckons: waiting out storms at rummy hurricane parties and attending raucous drag cabarets, planning ascendant music careers and black-market business ventures, trying to reconcile the undefined future with the urgent today.

Eye-opening and politically prescient, The Other Side of Paradise offers a deep new understanding of a place that has so confounded and intrigued us.”

For a glimpse into life in modern-day Cuba, pick up this read for your trip to Cuba.

Telex from Cuba, by Rachel Kushner

“Young Everly Lederer and K.C. Stites come of age in Oriente Province, where the Americans tend their own fiefdom—three hundred thousand acres of United Fruit Company sugarcane that surround their gated enclave. If the rural tropics are a child’s dreamworld, Everly and K.C. nevertheless have keen eyes for the indulgences and betrayals of the grown-ups around them—the mordant drinking and illicit loves, the race hierarchies and violence.

In Havana, a thousand kilometers and a world away from the American colony, a cabaret dancer meets a French agitator named Christian de La Mazière, whose seductive demeanor can’t mask his shameful past. Together they become enmeshed in the brewing political underground. When Fidel and Raúl Castro lead a revolt from the mountains above the cane plantation, torching the sugar and kidnapping a boat full of “yanqui” revelers, K.C. and Everly begin to discover the brutality that keeps the colony humming. Though their parents remain blissfully untouched by the forces of history, the children hear the whispers of what is to come.

Kushner’s first novel is a tour de force, haunting and compelling, with the urgency of a telex from a forgotten time and place.”

If you tend to be more of a fiction reader, try this one by Rachel Kushner. You’ll get a slice of Cuba along drama and intrigue.

Please note: all quoted synopsis are the jacket copy.



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