Whether you are an armchair traveler, planning a visit, or simply curious, we’ve got you covered with these 30 fantastic 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 its history and culture.
While Havana is well known for being a favorite haunt of Earnest Hemmingway but he’s not the only writer who lived there, or was inspired to write about it. So, we’ve curated the following list of Cuban books to cover literary fiction, fantasy, thrillers and non-fiction, all featuring the people of Cuba and the island itself as a major character in its own drama.
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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 Hemmingway cinch the 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 during the pre-revolutionary 1940’s.
Our Man in Havana, Graham Greene
All Wormhold wants is to buy his daughter a pony. But this simple vacuum salesman finds himself recruited as an unlikely cog in the cold war spy game. The results are absurd, comical and tragic.
Novels About Cuba
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”.
The novel 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. He’s 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 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.
When We Left Cuba, Chanel Cleeton
The events in this Cuban book were inspired by the tumultuous Cuban-American relations in the 1960’s. Beatriz and her family lost it all during the Revolution and they were forced to flee to the US. So, when the CIA comes a-calling, she takes the bait, becomes a spy, and finds herself back in Cuba during the chilliest part of the Cold War.
The Most Beautiful Girl in Cuba, Chanel Cleeton
In this Cuban novel, Cleeton goes back to the Gilded Age of 1896 and during the time of Cuba’s revolutionary independence from Spain. Evangelina Cisneros (an actual historical figure), is imprisoned by the Spanish on accusations of insurrection. She becomes a cause célèbre and is dubbed “the most beautiful girl in Cuba” in a bid to bring awareness to war, and her plight.
It was also a bid by William Randolph Hearst to sell newspapers and he sends a couple of female reporters to drum up the story.
Of Women and Salt, Gabriela Garcia
This is a multigenerational story of mothers and daughters spanning from 1866 Cuba to 2019 Miami. The lead character, Jeanette is just getting a handle on her addictions. She has a fraught relationship with her Mother, who is a Cuban immigrant. Jeanette ultimately travels to Cuba to visit her grandmother and learn more about their family’s past.
The book deals with themes of immigration, deportation, systemic abuse and patriarchy.
The Tower of the Antilles, Achy Obejas
This short story collection features 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
(Natasha Wimmer, Translator)
This gritty book set in Cuba 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.”
Cuban Genre Fiction: Thrillers, Spec Fic and Romance
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 López Rubio
(Achy Obejas, Translator)
Young Patricio finds romance in Havana after fleeing Spain in 1947. His works at the elegant El Encanto department store, which puts him in 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, Yoss
(David Frye, Translator)
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
(Andrea G. Labinger, Translator)
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.
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.
Cuba Libre, Elmore Leonard
This book 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
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 during the Cold War.
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.
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.”
Havana Nocturne: How the Mob Owned Cuba and Then Lost It to the Revolution, T.J. English
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 researched book 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’s Cuban history book explores Havana’s culture by looking 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
Kurlansky has also written a great book on the Basque culture, which we have featured in our list of books about Spain.
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
(Dolores M. Koch, Translator)
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 touching Cuban memoir tells the story of the family experience in post-revolution Cuba and her life after settling in Nebraska.
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.
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Travel Resources for Cuba
If you are interested in visiting Cuba, 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.
Do More Literary Travel
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