Whether you are an armchair traveler or planning a visit, you can load up your TBR with these 36 best books about Cuba.
Cuba is having a moment. It has a warm Caribbean location, an evolving but still Communist economy and a fraught relationship with the United States. Cuba is an odd combination of great beach destination and global oddity that makes people curious to learn more about it’s history and culture.
Curious myself, I’ve have visited Cuba and also read up on it. In addition to dispensing travel advice, I’m also a recovering bookseller and always up for recommending a compelling and unusual read.
While Havana is well known for being a favorite haunt of Earnest Hemmingway but he’s not the only one who lived there or was inspired to write about it. So, I’ve curated the following list of Cuban books to cover literary fiction, fantasy, thrillers and non-fiction that features the people of Cuba and the island itself as a major character in its own drama.
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Fiction Books on Cuba
Classic Cuban Literature
The Old Man and the Sea, Earnest Hemmingway
“Papa” Hemmingway loved Cuba. He lived there for twenty years and wrote some of his most famous books there. This book about an aging Cuban fisherman’s epic battle with a marlin helped cinch Hemmingway’s Nobel Prize.
The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, Oscar Hijuelos
This is my favorite piece of Cuban literature. You can hear the mambo music in your head as you read this Pulitzer prize winning tale of two brother/musicians make their way out of Havana and into the New York’s music scene in the pre-revolutionary 1940’s.
Our Man in Havana, Graham Greene
All Wormhold wants is to do buy his daughter a pony. But the simple vacuum salesman finds himself recruited as an unlikely cog in the cold war spy game. The results are absurd, comical and tragic.
Books Set In and Around the Cuban Revolution
Distant Marvels, Chantel Acevedo
In 1963, as hurricane Flora bears down on Cuba, elderly Maria Sirena is forced into shelter with a motley crew of other reluctant women. They wait out the dangerous hurricane while Maria tells the story of her family’s involvement in the third war of Cuban independence.
Dreaming in Cuban, Christina Garcia
This story follows a sprawling family’s diaspora from the revolution into the ’80’s. From Amazon, “…Cristina García’s acclaimed book is the haunting, bittersweet story of a family experiencing a country’s revolution and the revelations that follow”. It is suffused with idealism, corruption and magical realism.
Telex from Cuba, Rachel Kushner
From Amazon, “…an astonishingly wise, ambitious, and riveting novel set in the American community in Cuba during the years leading up to Castro’s revolution—a place that was a paradise for a time and for a few. The first novel to tell the story of the Americans who were driven out in 1958, this is a masterful debut with a unique and necessary lens into US-Cuba relations”.
My Lost Cuba, Celso Gonzalez-Falla
This family drama is set in the precise moment in history just before the fall of Batista’s dictatorship to the Cuban revolution. These colorful characters are experiencing Cuba during it’s most profound moment of transition.
The Last Honest Man in Havana, Melanie Furlong-Riesgo
Rafael Áviles, an engineer at the Cuban Mint in Havana, is a young, earnest Communist Party member living with his ambitious wife, Elena. But when he is drafted into fighting the war in Angola, he begins to question his communist ideals.
Next Year in Havana, Chanel Cleeton
This pic from Reese Witherspoon’s Sunshine Book Club features Cuban-American Merisol, who travels to Cuba following her grandmother’s death. Her grandmother’s history involves a clandestine affair during the revolutionary period. While in Cuba, Merisol attempts to reconcile her grandmother’s stories with a modern Cuba as she finds romance of her own.
Cuban Genre Fiction: Thrillers, Sci-fi, Spec Fic and Romance
Farewell to the Sea, Reinaldo Arenas
The couple in this apocalyptic vision of Cuba reflect upon their disillusion and disenchantment with the revolution. The wife struggles to cope with communist society, resents her baby and fears losing her husband to infidelity. The husband has become jaded by communism and is exploring his latent homosexuality. It’s dreamy, and poetic.
Sins of the Flesh, Caridad Piñeiro
A steamy romance featuring a mercenary tracking down a woman whose gene therapy has given her paranormal powers. “… a nice dose of chilling suspense and exciting action with an intriguing sci-fi element and paranormal edge.” And if you like the first one, there is a second in the series.
The Price of Paradise, Susana Lopez Rubio, translated by Achy Obejas
Young Patricio finds romance in Havana after fleeing Spain in 1947. His works at the elegant El Encanto department store, which puts him proximity to Cuba’s power elite (including the mob). He falls in love with a mobster’s wife, Gloria and the books follows their reckless affair over fifty years.
A Planet for Rent, Super Extra Grande by Yoss
This book is not so much set in Cuba as it is a metaphor for the Cuban condition. Xenoids have invaded planet Earth, and people are looking to flee the economically and socially bankrupt remains of human civilization. It’s an allegory for the current state of affairs in Cuba. If that sounds good, you can also check out her space opera, Super Extra Grande.
The Island of Eternal Love, Daína Chaviano
Romance, clashing cultures and bloodshed follow the multi-generational story of Amalia’s family in Cuba. Expect some supernatural happenings, fairies and clairvoyance thrown in for good measure.
The Year 200, Agustín de Rojas
The Communist Federation may have defeated the capitalist Empire, but the culture has become soft. Humanity is still divided and citizens are becoming disillusioned. In this vulnerable world a sleeper cell from the evil capitalist Empire reactivates and attempts to seize control through advanced technology. This book is part of Rojas’ Trilogy of Spiral, which also includes A Legend of the Future and Spiral.
Havana Bay, Martin Cruz Smith
Moscow detective Arkady is sent to Havana to identify his missing friend (and spy) Pribluda. His efforts to investigate are thwarted by his own diffidence and a Cuban culture that is angry and reeling from the withdrawal of Russia as an economic benefactor.
Havana Storm, Clive Cussler
Dirk Pitt is investigating an oil spill in the Caribbean when he stumbles across a post-Castro power struggle. Toxic outbreak, Aztec stones and ruthless tyrants…testosterone ensues.
Field Grey, Philip Kerr
Bernie Kerr was a German private detective in the run-up to WWII. By 1954, Bernie is living quietly in Cuba, doing some work for the mob, when he runs afoul of the U.S. Navy and lands in Guantánamo.
Literary Fiction Books Set in Cuba
The Tower of the Antilles, Achy Obejas
Short story collection featuring stories of identity, selfhood and conflict set against Cuba’s culture. ” The Cubans in Achy Obejas’s story collection The Tower of the Antilles are haunted by an island: the island they fled, the island they’ve created, the island they were taken to or forced from, the island they long for, the island they return to, and the island that can never be home again.”
Dirty Havana Trilogy, Pedro Juan Gutierrez
This gritty book explores the misadventure of Pedro Juan in a squalid post-Soviet Havana. “… The Havana he talks about is not the one described in travel brochures; it’s a bleak world, a blend of Bukowski, Miller, and Kafka.”
Cuba Libre, Elmore Leonard
This books has gun runners, a train heist, yellow fever and a love story all stitched into ripping yarn that reads like a classic western set during the Spanish-American War-torn Havana in 1898.
Non-Fiction Books About Cuba
Cold War Cuba, US Relations & The Revolution
Thirteen Days: A Memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis, John F Kennedy
JFK’s own memoir on the thirteen days of the Cuban missile crisis is one of the best books on Cuba. It illuminates our most tense moment with them curing the Cold War.
Red Heat: Conspiracy, Murder, and the Cold War in the Caribbean, Alex Von Tunzelman
From Amazon, “…While the United States and the Soviet Union acted out the world’s tensions on Cuba, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic, the power brokers of these three critical island nations…had ambitions of their own”.
The Motorcycle Diaries: Notes on a Latin American Journey, Ernesto Che Guevara
Che’s chronicle of his youthful adventure by motorcycle through Latin America. “I finally felt myself lifted definitively away on the winds of adventure toward worlds I envisaged would be stranger than they were, into situations I imagined would be much more normal than they turned out to be.”
Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life, Jon Lee Anderson
This best-seller is considered the authoritative source on Che Guevara. In this meticulously researched book, Anderson was able to source documents from Guevara’s widow and interview his comrades and detractors.
Books on Cuban Economy & Culture
This is Cuba, David Ariosto
Ariosto is a photo journalist who spent two years in Cuba on assignment. While there, he discovered cold war hangovers and the subtle absurdities that drive everyday life in Cuba. “Ariosto offers a penetrating report of a nation struggling with serious challenges.”
From Amazon, “…a multifaceted true tale of organized crime, political corruption, roaring nightlife, revolution & international conflict that interweaves the dual stories of the Mob in Havana & the event that would overshadow it, the Cuban Revolution”.
Bacardi and the Long Fight for Cuba, Tom Gjelten
A historical narrative on the Bacardi family, their business and their participation in Cuban life. This thoroughly books reads like fiction, offering a look at the events leading to the revolution and the events that caused people (including the Bacardis) to flee Cuba.
Havana: A Subtropical Delirium, Mark Kurlansky
Kurlansky explores Havana’s cultural history with a look at the city’s singular music, literature and culinary scenes. His “bibliographical sketch” roots around in the culture and struggles of the local Habaneros with factoids, stories and a dose of humor.
“If I were ever to make an old-fashioned film noir—with a cynical plot full of intrigue, violence, and sudden twists, filmed on dark and menacing streets in misty black and white—I would shoot it in Havana.” – Kurlansky
Cuban Memoirs & Travelogues
Trading with the Enemy, Tom Miller
Tom Miller’s account of his sojourn for more than eight months traveling through Cuba explores the impact of the embargo on the Cuban people. ” Miller provides a running commentary on Cuba’s food shortages, exotic sensuality, and baseball addiction as he follows the scents of Graham Greene, José Marti, Ernest Hemingway, and the Mambo Kings/”
Before Night Falls, Reinaldo Arenas
Arenas recounts his journey from a poverty-stricken childhood in rural Cuba to becoming a young rebel fighting for Castro. Arenas was a revolutionary freedom fighter, but in this memoir he “…breaks through the code of secrecy and silence that protects the privileged in a state where homosexuality is a political crime”.
The Red Umbrella, Christina Gonzalez
Operation Pedro Pan started in 1960 and it facilitated the mass exodus of over 14,000 unaccompanied minors from Cuba to the US. In 1961, 14 year old Lucia Alverez and her brother were sent from their sleepy Cuban town to the US as part of operation Pedro Pan. This book tells the story of the family experience in post-revolution Cuba and her life after settling in Nebraska.
Waiting for Snow in Havana, Carlos Eire
Eire was also air-lifted out during Pedro Pan. His memoir focuses on his life in Cuba before the airlift. This book is a eulogy for his native land and his lost childhood paradise.
The Other Side of Paradise: Life in the New Cuba , Julia Cooke
Castro’s death and evolving US policy have put Cuba on the brink of a era. Revolutionary burn-out and a depressed economy have taken a toll on Cuban culture.
Travel Resources for Cuba
I like the Lonely Planet guides for their practical advice and willingness to suggest offbeat adventures. Not only that, but you can get this guide (and several other books on this list) for free with your Kindle Unlimited account.
Get books for free! If you don’t have a Kindle Unlimited account, you can get a 30-day free trial HERE.
If you prefer blog resources to guide books, check out the following articles on how to prep a trip to Cuba:
- Prepare for your Cuba trip with this packing and preparation guide
- Check out the the cool art scene in Havana.
- And pack your itinerary with this list of top things to do in Cuba.
- Prepare for your Cuba trip with this packing and preparation guide
- Use this guide to the cool art scene in Havana.
What a complicated place. Reading just a sampling of these books on Cuba will give you a good education on its history and culture. Please comment below if you wish to suggest any additions to this Cuba books list.
READ MORE BOOKS!
Start with this list of the very best travel books. It includes great reads about how travel is transformative, offering wacky tales of derring do, epic quests and stories of authentic travel.
You should also check out the following series of book lists for specific destinations:
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