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Get To Know A Cuba Without Castro: Recommended Books, Movies And Music

David Gilkey/NPR
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David Gilkey/NPR

For years, Americans have been eager to visit Cuba, not just for its Caribbean warmth, but to seek out the roots of the island's music, to watch its films, to thumb through its books and meet its writers.

Fidel Castro's death Friday has again spiked interest in the country among Americans. And, with diplomatic relations thawing between the U.S. and Cuba, now more than ever it's possible to explore the island's culture at its origin.

But where to start?

To answer that question, we turned to Tom Miller, the author of Trading with the Enemy: A Yankee Travels through Castro's Cuba. Beyond that book, which is an account of his months spent traveling through Cuba, Miller has spent decades studying and writing about Latin America.

He drew up a list of books, movies and music to help you prepare for a possible trip — or just to sit back and enjoy the fruits of Cuba's culture from afar. Beside each pick is Tom's take on why it's worth checking out.


Books

Novels
  • Telex From Cuba, by Rachel Kushner: "A sweet, smooth novel of class and power."
  • Dirty Havana Trilogy, by Pedro Juan Gutiérrez: "The author insists he had never read Charles Bukowski until his own book came out. You be the judge."
  • Havana Red, by Leonardo Padura: "The hero of the novel is Lt. Mario Conde, whose investigations uncover raw Havana."
Poetry
  • The Whole Island: Six Decades of Cuban Poetry, edited by Mark Weiss.
Photography
  • Violet Isle, by Alex Webb and Rebecca Norris Webb: "A photography book whose pictures tell short stories of their own."
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Culture and history
  • Cuba: What Everyone Needs to Know, by Julia Sweig: "Informative, easy reading."
  • On Becoming Cuban: Identity, Nationality, and Culture, by Louis A. Pérez Jr.: "A terrific look at the inextricable relationship between the U.S. and Cuba."
  • Cuba and Its Music: From the First Drums to the Mambo, by Ned Sublette: "A wonderful history of Cuba's soundtrack."
  • Havana Nocturne: How the Mob Owned Cuba and Then Lost It to the Revolution, by T.J. English: "The mob! Here it is, in literary color."
  • The Boys from Dolores: Fidel Castro's Schoolmates from Revolution to Exile, by Patrick Symmes: "Whatever happened to Fidel's schoolmates?"
  • Without Fidel: A Death Foretold in Miami, Havana and Washington, by Ann Louise Bardach: "A look at binational politics, inside out."

Movies

  • Buena Vista Social Club: "See the documentary, listen to the album, get a sense of easy-going Cuban music from the eras of Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista, the man Castro overthrew, and President Gerardo Machado before him."
  • Strawberry and Chocolate, by directors Tomás Gutiérrez Alea and Juan Carlos Tabío: "A film that reveals Cuba's gay underside and made homosexuality much closer to respectable. This film was nominated for an Academy Award in 1994."
  • Death of a Bureaucrat, by director Tomás Gutiérrez Alea: "Released during the early years of the Castro regime, Gutiérrez's second film in this list mocks the country's bloated bureacracy."

Music

  • Anything by Los Van Van: "The best dance band north of the South Pole."