best books set in Cuba

The Best Books Set in Cuba you Should Read Now

Finding a good book about Cuba not only transports you to the island but opens up a whole new cultural understanding about this island nation.  I love to read books set in where I’m travelling to before the trip – and there is something special also about reading them while you’re there.  Post-trip, reading books about Cuba takes me right back there in a heartbeat.  Putting together a list of books to read about Cuba, is for me, not difficult.  My reading habits go back decades and I’ve always read in the same way – full-on – binge reading on a topic.   Visiting Cuba is an experience unlike any other and reading about it is the same.  And so I’ve put together an eclectic list of books set in Cuba, books by Cuban authors, both classic and contemporary books about Cuba – and because for me it’s not complete without exploring the food – I’ve also included my favourite Cuban cookbooks.  So what are you waiting for?  Head on in and explore the best books set in Cuba!

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The Best Books About Cuba

You simply cannot put together a list of books set in Cuba and books about Cuba without including Ernest Hemingway, but reading about Cuba shouldn’t be just based on him. So I’ve included some of the best published Cuban authors as well as other established, but extremely readable authors.    

There’s also an increasing range of books about Cuba that are Cuban audio books and these are fabulous. You can get a free Audible trial here – and get at least one of these books for free!

Favourite Cuban Audio books

Here’s my ultimate Cuban Reading List. I’ll start with the best fictional books about Cuba because I love a good novel.

The Best Fictional Books About Cuba

The one thing that comes through when you’re looking at fictional books set in Cuba is the grittiness of them. The crime genre is strong in the best fiction books about Cuba, but also, too, is realism.

The Old Man and the Sea – Ernest Hemingway

Hemingway won the Pulitzer Prize for this novel, and it aided his Nobel Prize for Literature too.  But more than those illustrious prizes, this is the quintessential Cuban novel.  Hemingway lived in Cuba for about 20 years and he was a fisherman, so this tale, the Old Man and Sea, of an elderly Cuban fisherman who spends months trying to catch a giant marlin, albeit off the coast of Florida completely captures the spirit of Cuba.

Buy the Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway here.

Our Man in Havana – Graham Greene

Satirical and set in Cuba before the Cuban Missile Crisis – this fabulous novel by English author, Graham Greene makes fun of intelligence services, especially the British MI6.  Our Man in Havana, a black comedy is set in Havana during the Batista regime.  It’s a fabulously entertaining read and was made into a film, set in Havana. This is truly one of the best novels about Cuba and a true classic.

Buy Graham Greene’s “Our Man in Havana” here.

Havana Bay – Martin Cruz Smith

In this, Cruz Smith’s fourth novel featuring investigator Arkady Renko, a decaying Cuba you’ll find gruesome murders, secret society ceremonies, international espionage and a suicidal main character.  The novel won the 1999 Hammett Prize.  It’s an intricate mystery it’s descriptive powers will take you right back to Havana in a heartbeat.

Buy Martin Cruz Smith’s Havana Bay here.

Dreaming in Cuban – Christina Garcia

Garcia was born in Havana and raised in New York and this novel set in Cuba tells the tale of three generations of the Del Pino family.  From Celia, the matriarch of the family who loves Cuba and Castro, to her daughter Lourdes, who fled to the USA.   Celia’s younger daughter Felicia brings the Santeria religion into this sweeping Cuban novel.  However, it’s Pilar, Celia’s granddaughter, based in New York, who does most of the “Dreaming in Cuban” in the novel.  The highly charged family reunion – back in Cuba ends with the 1980 Mariel Boatlift.     There’s dreams, idealism, corruption and more than a little magical realism involved in this novel set in Cuba.

Buy Dreaming in Cuban here.

The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, Oscar Hijuelos

Hijuelos was the first Hispanic American to win the Pulitzer Prize.   The Mambo Kings, as the 1990 Pulitzer Prize winner tells of Cuban brothers who move to the USA in the 1940s and pursue love and musical fame, appearing on the TV show, I Love Lucy.  For the exploration of pre-revolutionary Cuba and the Cuban culture of the early and mid-20th century, there really isn’t anything better than the Mambo Kings and it will truly inspire you.

Buy Oscar Hijuelos’s Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love here.

The Most Beautiful Girl in Cuba – Chanel Cleeton

New York Times bestselling author Chanel Cleeton’s may be fiction, but it’s inspired by true-life events – the story of Evangelina Cisneros, a legendary Cuban woman who changed the course of history.  When American Publisher William Hearst learns of the light eighteen-year-old Cisneros, he publishes her image on the front page of his newspaper and proclaims her “The Most Beautiful Girl in Cuba”.  It soon brings together the cause for American intervention in Cuba.   Cleeton’s family hailed from Cuba and she grew up on stories of the Revolution – and her novels draw on her family’s exodus from Cuba.

Buy Chanel Cleeton’s “the Most Beautiful Girl in Cuba” here.

Non-Fiction Books About Cuba

When it comes to non-fiction about Cuba then your options are split into the following :

  • Travel Books about Cuba
  • Books about the History of Cuba
  • Biographical Books About Cuba

Here’s a short selection of our favourite picks for each of those. I’ll start with the history of Cuba because it is truly fascinating.

Cuba History Books

There’s no shortage of books about the history of Cuba – so we’ve focused on just a few that give you the history of some of her more famous residents and those which give an overall flavour of the history in an easy to read format.

Cuba – A New History – Richard Gott

Gott is a former Guardian Journalist who – amongst other things- was present in Bolivia to identify Che Guevara’s body when he was killed there.  His seriously comprehensive Cuban history spans 500 years – right from the initial Spanish colonisation to today.  This book on the history of Cuba covers the slaughtering of the indigenous population, slavery, racism before leaping into the war of Independence and occupation, however brief, by the Americans in 1898.   Then on to Castro’s 1959 revolution, the Bay of Pigs Invasion in 1961 and how the country survived following the collapse of the USSR, on whom the country relied for so much.  It is a rollercoaster of a ride through Cuba’s history – and if you can read one book on the history of Cuba, then you should make it this one.

Buy Cuba A New History by Richard Gott here.

Bacardi and the Long Fight for Cuba, by Tom Gjelten

You’ll likely know the Bacardi name from their famous rum.  And this is the story of that empire, which started in Cuba when Facundo Bacardí Massó moved to Cuba in the 9th century.   At that time Rum was one of the least regulated spirits in the world.  Bacardi is headquartered in Bermuda now and this book charts the history of the family’s relationship with Cuba.  It’s also a fascinating understanding of Cuba’s economics.

Buy Tom Gjelten’s “Bacardi and the Long Fight for Cuba” here.

Voices from Mariel: Oral Histories of the 1980 Cuban Boatlift

From April to September 1980 more than 125,000 refugees fled Cuba, to escape Castro’s dictatorship.  The boats they fled in departed from the port of Mariel across the 90 miles of the Straits of Florida.  This oral history is the story of the immigrants themselves.  It is a sobering read that covers the largest overseas mass migration in Latin American history.

Buy Voices from Mariel here

Biographical Books about Cuba

Often the spirit of a location comes alive with the biographical detail, we’ve collated our favourite books of a biographical nature about Cuba.

Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life, by Jon Lee Anderson

You can’t go to Cuba without understanding at least a little about the Cuban Revolution of 1959.  Born into a rich family in Argentina, Guevara dedicated his life to overcoming oppression and championing revolution to overthrow those doing the oppressing.  He eventually became the second most powerful man in Cuba and while he died pursuing another revolution in Bolivia, Guevara’s legacy remains influential in Cuba to this day.  This is essential reading about Cuba.

Buy Jon Lee Anderson’s “Che Guevara – a Revolutionary Life” here

Trading with the Enemy – Tom Miller

For an account of life in modern Cuba, you won’t find anything better than Miller’s journalistic account.  Miller travelled on his own, no government minders – he explored Cuba for 8 months, and his entertaining, lively and often gritty account of his travels through Cuba is a fascinating story of his time here.  Miller convinced personalities and regular people to talk to him about food shortages, jokes, the black market and everything in between.  It’s a must-read for anyone considering a visit to Cuba.

Buy Tom Millers “Trading with the Enemy” here.

One Day in December: Celia Sánchez and the Cuban Revolution

Sanchez played a pivotal role in the Cuban revolution of 1959, but little is heard of her. She chose the historic Granma landing site. She fought with rebels. She collected documents that would become the official archives of the revolution. And after the revolution, she did much to enrich the lives of many Cubans – from launching literacy programs to creating parks and helping to develop the Cohiba cigar brand.

Buy One Day in December: Celia Sánchez and the Cuban Revolution

Cuba Travel Books

Of course, Cuba is covered in most of the major travel books, with small sections, but when it comes to specific books on travelling in Cuba here are your best options.

The Rough Guide to Cuba

A stalwart of the travel guides available for Cuba – the Rough Guide to Cuba contains detailed regional coverage as well as a chapter on contexts, to help you understand Cuba while you travel there.   The time-saving itineraries will help you to work out where it is that you want to go to in Cuba.

Buy the Rough Guide to Cuba here.

The National Geographic Traveler – Cuba

The travel book to Cuba for the discerning experiential traveller.  You’ll find inspiring photography, inside tips and everything you need for a more authentic experience of Cuba.  You’ll also get historical context and a great deal of cultural interpretation.

Buy the Cuba edition of the National Geographic Traveler here.

Lonely Planet Cuba

There are some tourists and travellers who prefer the Rough Guides and those who prefer the Lonely Planet.  I’m an LP kinda gal.  And so this is my go-to for travel guides to Cuba.  Maps of Cuba, inside tips, highlights – they’re great to get an overview of what to expect when you land in Cuba.

Buy Lonely Planet Cuba here.

The Best Books by Cuban Authors

Cuba has seen much turmoil throughout its history and there’s no better way to understand the country and how she has adapted than through her native authors.  These authors are rarely heard of outside of Cuban literature, but these works by Cuban authors detail and document the struggles of the Cuban people and explore specific Cuban literary themes.

Jose Marti – Cuban national hero and author

A Cuban national hero because of his role in the liberation of Cuba, Marti was also a Cuban journalist, poet, philosopher and publisher.   Marti wrote a series of poems, essays, letters, lectures, novels, and a children’s magazine.  He is most famous for one of his poems, “Simple Versus” – Versos Sencillos in Spanish which was adapted to the song “Guantanamera“, which has become the definitive patriotic song of Cuba.

Buy books by Jose Marti, including Versos Sencillos here.

Alejo Carpentier – creator of “Marvelous Real”

The concept of the “Marvelous Real” was defined by Alejo Carpentier as he attempted to understand the character of Latin America’s cultures, societies, nature and histories.   Carpentier was born in Switzerland to Russo-French parents and grew up in Havana.  His most famous work and example of the use of “Marvelous Real” is his 1949 novel, The Kingdom of this World, which covers the Haitian revolution of the late 18th century.  This book of historical fiction wasn’t translated to English until 1957 and is a masterpiece of Cuban and Afro-Caribbean literature.

Buy Alejo Carpentier’s The Kingdom of this World here.

Guillermo Cabrera Infante

Cabrera Infante was a one time supporter of Castro but went into exile in London in 1965.  His 1966 novel, “Three Sad Tigers” – Tres Tristes Tigres won the 1964 Premio Biblioteca Breve for the best-unpublished novel.  It’s an experimental playful novel that is rich in literary allusions. 

Buy Guillermo Cabrer Infante’s Tres Triste Tigres here.

Reinaldo Arenas

Another opponent of the Castro regime, Arena didn’t actually leave Cuba until the Mariel boatlift of 1980, attempting to communicate his political ideas through a series of novels instead.   He was initially a sympathizer then a critic of Castro and his work draws parallels between his life and the lives of his protagonists.  His autobiography, Antes que anochezca (Before Night Falls) is a stark account of his struggles to be a gay writer in Cuba and beyond.

Buy Reinaldo Arenas’ Before Night Falls here.

Daina Chaviano

Cuba’s most prominent contemporary author of science fiction and fantasy was born in 1957 in Havana Cuba and has lived in the USA since 1991.  Chaviano is considered to be in the top three most important female science fiction and fantasy authors in the Spanish language.  While in Cuba she published several fantasy and science fiction genre books and she’s written a series of novels that include historical and contemporary issues long with mythological and fantastic elements.    The Island of Eternal Love has been translated into 26 languages – making it the most translated Cuban novel of all time. 

Buy Daina Chaviano’s The Island of Eternal Love here.

The Best Cuban Cook Books

Along with books, it’s food that transports me to Cuba.  (Read about experiencing Cuba through food here) And these Cuban cookery books are fabulous at doing that. 

Paladares: Recipes Inspired by the Private Restaurants of Cuba – Anya Von Bremzen and Megan Fawn Schlow

This isn’t just a Cuban Cookbook – it’s a fascinating look into the culture of Cuban food.  Von Bremzen brings the stories of Cuba’s chefs, food historians, farmers and restaurateurs to life.  She writes of the “Special Period” and the years of privation.  In Paladares, She writes too of ex-pats who move to Cuba and open restaurants, all while Schlow documents the journey through stunning photography.   And yet there are also more than 100 recipes in here too which combine the traditions of Cuba with the desire of Cuban chefs to take their culinary culture a huge step forward.

Buy the Paladares Cuban Cookbook here

The Cuban Table – Ana Sofia Palaez & Ellen Silverman

As a Cuban-American food writer, Pelaez combined traditional Cuban cooking from Cuba, Miami and New York.  In this Cuban cookbook, the Cuban Table, she brings recipes, stories and culture from home cooks and professional chefs.  There are recipes in this bible of Cuban food for everything from Cuban sandwiches to stews, using African ingredients, Cuban secrets and lots of cultural nuances.  The photography will make your mouth water. 

Buy the Cuban Table – cookery from Cuba here

100 Classic and Modern Cuban Cocktails – Ravi de Rossi, Jane Danger & All Lapushchik

The best mojito I had in Cuba was in Baracoa – on the seafront, on the dilapidated porch of a tumbledown house, where the locals had gathered for drinks.  And it was where we got talking about life, the universe and everything.  Every single mojito I’ve had since reminds me of that magic moment.  So read about Cuban Cocktails in our guide here and then buy this book – it’s a brilliant overview of how to make 100 classic and modern cocktails from Cuba. 

Buy 100 Classic and Modern Cuban Cocktails here.

Final Words on the Best Books Set in Cuba

Theirs is nothing better when travelling somewhere than to read about it at the same time.  And no, I’m not talking about the guide books.  I’m talking about the fiction that inspired the writers to bring a location to life.  Or a history book that tells you what happened in that place 10, a hundred or even more years ago.  These books set in Cuba and books about Cuba bring the island to life and share the culture and vibe of Cuba – enjoy and let me know what your favourite books about Cuba are!

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