Before Night FallsReinaldo Arenas (Penguin)
Arenas is both tremendously poetic and explicit in his memoir of growing up, coming out, and rebelling in—and then eventually departing from—Cuba. Nothing captures the exuberance and sensory experience of Havana quite like this.
Miami Joan Didion (Vintage)
Contemporary Cuba can’t be fully understood without examining Miami. In Miami, the grandmaster of immersive, observational, intellectual reporting pulls the city and its Cuban-American population, their hopes, fears, and passions, into delicious, lyrical, Didion-esque focus.
King of CubaCristina Garcia (Scribner)
This is a novel, but it’s the novel that best captures the impassioned perspectives of the people who might be, on both sides of the Straits, less than pleased with the news of the thaw in U.S.-Cuba relations. A twinned, imagined narrative of a fictitious Fidel Castro and a Miami exile intent on assassinating him.
La Indagación del Choteo Jorge Mañach (Linkgua)
Mea Cuba Guillermo Cabrera Infante (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux)
Mañach has yet to be translated into English, so his inclusion here is a bit of a tease. This 1928 essay explains the distinctly Cuban habit—which pre-dates the Castros by a long shot—of mocking something by refusing to take it seriously. For insightful essays and articles from a Cuban writer in English, read Cabrera Infante, whose writing traces (among other things) the early exuberance of the Cuban revolution and the author’s eventual disillusionment with it. Both impart the experience of sitting with brilliant Cubans over a rum to debate the State of Cuban Intellectual Life.
Cuba Confidential Ann Louise Bardach (Vintage)
A deeply reported account of the family ties between powerful political dynasties on both sides of the Florida Straits that exacerbate the contentious relationships between Cuba and the U.S. Until now!
More fabulous Cuba books for the eager reader: S.L. Price: Pitching Around Fidel, contemporary Cuba through via baseball by an amazing sports writer; anything by Leonardo Padura, Cuba’s foremost novelist and a brilliant thinker; and, for the ultimate in panoramic history tomes, Hugh Thomas’s Cuba: Or The Pursuit of Freedom.
Julia Cooke is the author of The Other Side of Paradise: Life in the New Cuba. Her writing on Cuba has appeared in the Virginia Quarterly Review, the New York Times, and the Best American Travel Writing 2014, and she teaches writing at The New School.
Follow her on Twitter @juliaccooke!