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Our clients often ask us to recommend books they can read to prepare themselves ahead of their travel to Cuba. In this post we’re going to profile 4 books to read before traveling to Cuba. If you only have time to read one book, buy and read the first one. If you want to read more than one book, keep purchasing books down the list.
We don’t mention any tourist guidebooks in this post. It’s not just that we don’t recommend the guide books to our clients. After all, Havana VIP clients don’t need any guidebooks, because they’ve got us. And we’re way more up-to-date and accurate than any guidebook. The reason we’re not going to list any guidebooks in this post is because what we’re talking about here is providing a deeper context than any guidebook will provide, so that when you get to Cuba you can better appreciate and understand the people and culture you’re experiencing on your trip.
The basic mission we set for every trip we plan is to take our clients on a historical and cultural journey from Columbus to Castro and Beyond. It’s the Beyond part that’s tricky. Beyond refers to more than whatever the future holds for a post-Castro Cuba. There are many excellent academic tomes that deal with that, none of which we’re going to recommend here. To us, Beyond also refers to that intangible cultural understanding that enlightened people try to achieve through travel. That sense that you “get” another culture intuitively, because not only do you understand that culture’s unique historical circumstances, but also because you can empathize with the other culture’s universal themes.
In this post of the 4 books to read before traveling to Cuba, we are going to recommend both non-fiction and fiction books. We present them not at all in any order of best to worst or any kind of judgement like that (which we’re not even qualified to make). And yes, our own book Cutting Edge Art in Havana is on the list, but we’re not listing it anywhere near first, so rest assured that we’re trying to be as honest and unbiased as we can.
4 books to read before traveling to Cuba:
If you’re going to read only one book before traveling to Cuba it should be Havana: A Subtropical Delirium.
Mark Kurlansky is a veteran journalist who has more than 30 years of experience covering Cuba (about 10 years longer than we have here at Havana VIP). This book is a short and sweet distillation of the highlights of all the knowledge he’s picked-up over three decades. He gives you the main courses of history flavored with interesting trivial tid-bits. There are accounts of key historical events from pre-Colombian times, explanations of the Spanish colonial period, the 100-plus year fight for colonial independence, the casino years of Lansky and Lucky Luciano, Ché and Fidel’s Revolution, and even daily life right now. He also teaches you some Cuban slang, gives you some great recipes for roasted chicken, mojitos, and black beans, and explains how Cubans score their everyday essential goods on the blackmarket.
This is our favorite Cuban history book, and we’ve read dozens of them. If we could require everyone to read one book before traveling to Cuba it would be Havana Nocturne.
TJ English is a thorough and rigorous historian specialized in organized crime stories who writes in an entertaining hard-boiled style. Reading a TJ English book is like reading a history book as-if written by Raymond Chandler. This book is a riveting read even if you aren’t going to travel to Cuba. But reading it first, and then traveling with Havana VIP to visit some of the actual sites where the events he describes took actually place is thrilling. Many of the locations described in Havana Nocturne are stops on our famous Havana Mob Tour Experience. The painstaking research TJ English did to do to produce this book, especially sifting through the misinformation commonly peddled as historical fact by some Cuban sources, is a monumental piece of work.
TJ English has a new book (March 2018) about the Cuban-American underworld called The Corporation.
Leonardo Padura is Cuba’s greatest living author, and The Man Who Loved Dogs is one of his best works. This epic fictionalized history of the plot to assassinate Leon Trotsky deserves to be turned into a major feature film.
It’s very difficult for any foreigner to “get” Cuban contemporary life, what one of our Cuban artist friends calls “the ironic circumstance of tropical communism”. Padura’s works are imbued with the heat, the decay, the bureaucracy, and the everyday impracticalities of living the utopian ideology of the Revolution. Most travelers are just never going to be able to internalize this on what for most is a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Cuba. The Man Who Loved Dogs tells the story of Trotsky’s murder through the fictionalized story of real his Cuban assassin, Ramón Mercader, a murderer who also loved dogs. At almost 600 pages this a not a quick read, but it’s compelling and worth the time.
Cuban contemporary art is some of the best in the world, and the newly updated 2019 edition of Cutting Edge Art in Havana is the best available book about Cuban contemporary art.
Profiling over 100 Cuban artists living and working in Havana today, Cutting Edge Art in Havana is an indispensable resource for anyone who wants to learn about Cuban art. The result of a 2 year curatorial field study by art historians from the University of Havana, the artists’ profiles are illustrated with examples of their works, and include otherwise hard to get contact information so you can plan your own visits to the artists studios. All this information is organized by geographic zones of Havana and presented on easy to read maps along with Havana’s museums and cultural centers. The curators even included a selection of the best paladars in each zone on the maps, so that you’ll know where to grab a bite or a drink. This book, produced by ARTempoCuba, is the basis for Havana VIP’s Artists Studio Tour Experience.
Those are our recommended 4 books to read before traveling to Cuba. Do you have some better suggestions? Let us know!