What originally drew me to Latin America wasn't the sex, sun and salsa. Rather, it was a fascination with the politics, culture and society in this part of the world.
It started in university with a socioeconomics course. Insufferable Marxist indoctrination aside, it was an engaging class and responsible for igniting my enthusiasm for Latin America. I probably never would have bothered to travel here if I hadn't taken the class.
Credit where credit's due.
Since then, I've read dozens of books covering almost every country in the region (aside from the more obscure ones, like Suriname, Guyana and French Guyana - I don't know anything about these places...even though my grandfather lived in Suriname).
Here are some of the more interesting titles I've come across, both fiction and non-fiction. I've sorted them by country to make things easier.
21 Must-Read Books About Latin America
The Argentina Reader: History, Culture, Politics - Gabriela Nouzeilles
I have a confession: I'm not particularly interested in Argentina. I don't know why. For me, this book was perfect because it was organized in a way that let me cherry pick the subjects I was interested in (i.e. politics) and ignore the ones I wasn't (i.e. soccer). A good overview for the first-time visitor, but probably too basic for someone more familiar with the country.
Brazil on the Rise: A Story of a Country Transformed - Larry Rohter
The first book I read about Brazil. Provides a basic overview of Brazilian culture, bureaucracy, politics and economy. Very easy to digest and a good place to start if you're new to Brazil. However, the book is not without bias. Rohter often descends into stereotyping the Brazilian people and extrapolates these stereotypes in an attempt to explain why things are the way they are economically, socially and politically. Although there is some good historical content regarding politics and history in this book, take his social observations and commentary with a grain of salt.
Dancing With The Devil In The City of God: Rio de Janeiro on the Brink - Juliana Barbassa
A little-known book, but the best commentary on contemporary Rio that I've come across. A wealth of interviews with Brazilians from all walks of life accompanied with the author's own personal history create a well-rounded narrative. A great guide for anyone wanting to understand the city better.
The Politics of Military Rule in Brazil, 1964-1985 - Thomas E. Skidmore
Dense, but excellent. Virtually the only resource discussing military rule in Brazil (or if not, at least the most comprehensive). Most impressively, this book is more or less free of bias. Recommended for those who have a deep interest in Brazilian history and politics, not for the casual reader. Pretty dense and academic.
Short Walks From Bogota: Journeys in the New Colombia - Tom Feiling
A short read with insightful commentary and perceptive observations. He doesn't glorify Colombia like many travel writers tend to do, but nor is he overly pessimistic. This book will provide you with a well rounded account of the history and culture of Colombia.
Delirio - Laura Restrepo
An excellent work of fiction that describes the fragmentation of families that occurs as a result of drug violence that plagued Colombia. Set in Bogota in the '80s. Engaging commentary about the familial consequences of a corrupt and violent society.
The Fruit Palace - Charles Nicholl
A hilarious and outrageous travel book about one man's adventures in the cocaine underworld of Colombia in the early eighties. Some parts obviously exaggerated for effect, but still a thumping good read from an extremely talented writer.
Our Man in Havana - Graham Greene
Not a political commentary, but rather a cheeky critique of British intelligence. Takes place during the Bastista regime. Admittedly, you won't learn much about Cuba from this book. But still worth a read. Check out the movie as well.
Waiting For Snow in Havana - Carlos Eire
I have no time for books that are sympathetic to the Castro regime. This is anything but. The author discusses his experience in Cuba growing up in a wealthy family, and his eventual exile during operation Peter Pan. The prose is a bit purple at times and it's definitely longer than it needs to be, but he does a superb job of bringing the sights, sounds and vibe of Havana to life.
The Feast of the Goat - Mario Vargas Llosa
A historical fiction about the Trujillo regime in the Dominican Republic. A must-read book for anyone interested in the Dominican Republic. Here's a brief review of the book from ROK.
Senselessness - Horacio Castellanos Moya
The author is actually from El Salvador, but it is clear that the unnamed Latin American country he refers to in his book is Guatemala. Great for it's non-PC content and the excessive and at times hilarious paranoia and hedonism of the protagonist. Great style, good pace.
El Narco: Inside Mexico's Criminal Insurgency - Ioan Grillo
The go-to book for anyone curious about the drug war in Mexico. Grillo goes to great lengths to describe just about every aspect of the conflict plaguing Mexico. Expertly structured and skillfully written.
The Savage Detectives - Roberto Bolaño
Hands-down the most vivid and descriptive novel I've read describing the sights and sounds of Mexico City. Give yourself some time for this one though - it runs over 600 pages.
God's Middle Finger - Richard Grant
A curious and perhaps somewhat naive journalist's travels through the indescribably dangerous and largely backward communities of Mexico's Sierra Madre mountains. My favourite book from Richard Grant.
El Monstruo: Dread and Redemption in Mexico City - John Ross
The most comprehensive book detailing the history of Mexico City, from prehistoric times to present day. If you read one book about Mexico City, read this one. A bit long but no wasted space.
Murder City - Charles Bowden
A brutal, harrowing and unforgiving account from one of the best reporters of our time (sadly, now deceased). Bowden does not sugarcoat shit in this novel. He describes exactly how fucked up this border city is and how it came to be this way.
First Stop in The New World: Mexico City - David Lida
Although Lida probably wouldn't be the first person I'd want to sit down and drink a beer with, his book on Mexico City is nevertheless impressive and a great way the pique the interest of a first-time visitor.
The Labyrinth of Solitude - Octavio Paz
Kind of weird and artsy in an academic way. To be honest, it was a struggle for me to get through. However, Paz does a great job of explaining the complexities of Mexican identity. And it is truly fascinating to see many of these things hold true for the Mexicans I have met - even young ones.
Blood of Brothers: Life and War in Nicaragua - Stephen Kinzer
An excellent account of the civil conflict in Nicaragua. Largely free of ideological bias (again, I don't have much time for communist sympathizers).
The History of Panama - Robert C. Harding
The best, if the not only, book to read about Panamanian history. Most books about Panama focus heavily on the canal. This one gives the reader a much broader overview and understanding about U.S influence in the country.
At The Tomb of the Inflatable Pig: Travels Through Paraguay - John Gimlette
The only book I know of about Paraguay. Thank God it's a good one. Very good, actually. If you're worried that you don't think there's a way for you to possibly ever give a fuck about Paraguay, try this book. It singlehandedly sparked my interest in the country.
The Conspiracy - Israel Centeno
A critique of the Chavez regime that was banned in Venezuela and ultimately resulted in the author's exile. It challenges the origin myth of the Latin American left, revealing them as nothing more than totalitarian brutes. English translation available but may be hard to find.
Of course there are many more must-read books from Latin America, but I wanted to let you know about some of the more unfamiliar titles I've stumbled across. If I had to recommend my top three books from the list...
1) Dancing With The Devil In The City Of God: Rio De Janeiro On The Brink - Juliana Barbassa
2) The Feast Of The Goat - Mario Vargas Llosa
3) Blood Of Brothers: Life And War In Nicaragua - Stephen Kinzer
I hope you enjoy these titles as much as I have.
Until next time,