When I travel internationally, I try to read a fair amount of non-fiction and literature about the country, including works by many indigenous authors. Last year, for instance, I published areading list for Egypt.
This year, I wound up taking two trips to South America, covering sixcountries: Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, Peru, and Uruguay. My biggest trip of the year was to Peru and Ecuador, and then spent shorter amounts of time in the other countries (Uruguay was a last minute day trip from Argentina).
Below are my favorites from each country. I note the specific country that the book relates to if it's not obvious from the title. Others that don't list a country are about the continent or region as a whole.
Links go to Amazon. Especially if you’re in New York City, I’d also highly recommend visiting Idlewild Books for their selection and suggestions on books relating to anywhere you might travel: http://www.idlewildbooks.com/ .
Feel free to share your own recommendations in the comments.
- The Peru Reader edited by Orin Starn, Ivan Degregori and Robin Kirk
- If you’re going to Peru and really want a taste of the history and literature, start with this, a sweeping compilation of historical essays, fictional excerpts, poetry, and other entries to give a sense of the breadth of Peruvian culture. It’s a great starting point to discover what else you’ll want to read, and I discovered several authors here whose works are in this list.
- The Ecuador Reader edited by Carlos de la Torre and Steve Striffler
- See the Peru Reader description. It’s just as good, just Ecuadorian.
- Additional Readers (I haven’t read any of these others):
- You can find many other readers listed on the Duke University Press site for travel books (including Brazil, Argentina, Costa Rica, Cuba, Russia, Mexico, Czech, Sri Lanka, and Alaska Native). Oddly Peru isn’t listed there, but it’s easily available on Amazon. You can find Peru in the Latin American Reader section and others in the World Reader section.
- The Aleph and Other Stories by Jorge Luis Borges (Argentina)
- The mysteries of the universe are revealed under a staircase. A prisoner discovers the power of God. A man embarks on a quest for immortality. These are some of the thought puzzles Borges plays with in this collection. Even as some stories failed to grab me, others ended with dazzling flashes of light.
- At Play in the Fields of the Lord by Peter Matthiessen
- One of the best known books on the list thanks to the feature film based on it (let alone the author’s two National Book Awards), it’s a very dark piece of fiction exploring a series of awakenings, some on the part of Christian missionaries seeking converts in the South American jungle, as well as that of a local who finds a sense of purpose when he joins a native tribe. At its best, this book is a twisted exploration of human nature when people are torn from their usual surroundings.
- Death in the Andes by Mario Vargas Llosa (Peru)
- If you read any Peruvian literature, you have to start with Vargas Llosa, the prolific national novelist who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2010. Death in the Andes is dark and bizarre, and it will help to read up on the Shining Path (Sendero Luminoso) for context beforehand. For a very different read, I’d recommend trying Vargas Llosa’s Conversation in the Cathedral, but it’s so sweeping that it kept losing me (for instance, people would refer to some characters separately by their first and last names and never clarify it’s the same person). It made more sense when I skimmed it again after reading it.
- Deep Rivers by Jose Maria Arguedas (Peru)
- A teenage boy heads to boarding school in the outskirts of Cusco as he tries to figure out to what extent he identifies with his elite, Christian classmates versus the indigenous population. A semi-autobiographical perspective, there’s poetry on every page especially when the protagonist continually reconnects with his natural surroundings. This was one of my favorites.
- Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon by Jorge Amado (Brazil)
- A 1920s Brazilian town is torn asunder by a series of events, from homicide to the arrival of a beautiful woman. It’s a wonderful read, but one of the least memorable for me among those here. Part of my problem with it is that I couldn’t stop comparing it to Gabriel Garcia Marquez, one of my favorite writers, and it just made me want to read 100 Years of Solitude again.
- Lost City Radio by Daniel Alarcon (Peru)
- Norma’s the voice of Peru for those who lost loved ones during the military clashes with domestic terrorists in the 1980, and she’s lost someone herself. A young boy who arrives at the radio station makes her mission all the more personal. Norma’s one of the best protagonists I’ve read about in fiction in some time, and this novel stuck with me more than most others.
- Peruvian Traditions by Ricardo Palma
- Palma used a form of storytelling dubbed a “tradition” to combine history with allegory. Some stories can be considered folklore that incorporates elements of Peru’s history, while other stories can be considered historical sketches with touches of folklore. It is useful to be more familiar with Peruvian history before reading this book, but it’s still easy to appreciate how Palma’s a master of his craft.
- Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair by Pablo Neruda (Chile)
- Want a taste of why Neruda won the Nobel Prize for Literature? This is a great way to start the exploration, and the book’s available with the original Spanish and the English translation side by side, so those who know at least a bit of Spanish will appreciate glancing at the original text. Most surprising: this book was published when the author was 20. Beyond the wonders of Neruda’s talent, how could he know so much about passion, love, and longing at such a young age?
- The Villagers (Huasipungo) by Jorge Icaza (Ecuador)
- In the novel, Icaza describes what was a familiar scenario for many native inhabitants of Ecuador when Spanish or half-Spanish hacienda owners sought new territory and labor. In this story, neither the landlord nor the native protagonist are totally sure what roles they need to play, and it leads to increasingly dire outcomes. It wasn’t my favorite read from a South American author, but it is a quick and often heartbreaking perspective.
- The Accidental President of Brazil: A Memoir by Fernando Henrique Cardoso
- Cardoso led a number of lives before becoming president: sociology professor, exile, and finance minister, to name a few. He was hardly groomed to be the leader of the country but dove headfirst into challenges of stabilizing the economy and improving the quality of life. He’s candid about himself and others, especially regarding his roller coaster relationship with Lula, who succeeded him, so it’s not the typical watered down bore of a memoir we’ve come to expect from our leaders in the US.
- And the Money Kept Rolling In (and Out) by Paul Blustein (Argentina)
- This book is partially about Argentina’s financial crisis and partially about the inner workings of the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Neither gets off easy here, and it won’t bolster confidence in how decisions are made to attempt to prop up economies.
- Four Years among the Ecuadorians by Friedrick Hassaurek
- Abraham Lincoln’s ambassador to Ecuador provides one of the best glimpses into the country in the 19th century. It’s unintentionally funny, as he’s constantly miserable (his first choice was to go to Switzerland), and he claims most of what he admires about the country came from the United States. This proved to be one of my favorite books, as it’s a thrill that we have access to such writing today.
- The Heart That Bleeds by Alma Guillermoprieto
- This internationally acclaimed journalist collects her writings for The New Yorker in this anthology spanning the late 1980s and early 1990s. She discusses Escobar’s terrorism of Colombia, political scandals in Argentina, garbage pickers in Mexico City, the rise and fall of the Shining Path in Peru, Panama City’s love-hate relationship with the United States, and other pivotal moments in modern Latin American history. It’s a crash course from a gifted writer.
- The Last Days of the Incas by Kim MacQuarrie
- This was the first book I read about Peru, a gripping story of the Inca empire and its downfall largely since the day Francisco Pizarro arrived. It was also when I first appreciated that tragic as the Inca story was, it was largely a case of one warring empire trumping another. For those who haven’t read it, it’s worth reading Guns, Germs and Steel for some added context.
- Long After Midnight at the Nino Bien: A Yanqui’s Missteps in Argentina by Brian Winter
- Take a fun romp through Buenos Aires as a young American visits Argentina, tries to learn the tango, and shares the history of various prominent elements of the country’s culture and people. His personal story is entertaining enough, and the history adds more substance, so together it proves to be a good balance.
- Man of Ashes by Salomon Isacovici (Ecuador)
- A Romanian Holocaust survivor recounts life before and during the horrors, and then picks up his story afterwards in Ecuador. It’s often reminiscent of Primo Levi, and nearly as well written.
- The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin (Ecuador)
- Admittedly this wasn’t my favorite read. When Darwin goes on for five pages about some species that I’m not sure whether it’s a bird or plant, it’s tough to stay with him. Yet by reading the original text, you get a sense of all the various disciplines of study Darwin mastered, and all the leading experts around the globe he communicated with to further his own research. Going to the Galapagos is a good excuse to dive into this if you haven’t read it.
- Santiago’s Children by Steve Reifenberg (Chile)
- Reifenberg spent two years in the 1980s working at a small Chilean orphanage. Told as a series of short essays, this fairly short book makes you feel like you know many of the dozen-plus children of the orphanage. An epilogue mentions how they fared twenty years later.
- Viva South America! A Journey Through a Restless Continent by Oliver Balch
- A reporter travels across the continent, often well off the beaten path, to hear stories of those from all walks of life, with a focus on those who haven’t fared as well from the imprisoned to tortured to abused. The breadth he covers is tremendous, and compared with many other books I’ve read lately from reporters traveling internationally, he keeps his subjects at the center and minimizes his own role in the story.
- The White Rock by Hugh Thomson (Peru)
- An aimless, young Brit took up archaeology and emerged as one of the more accomplished explorers of recent decades. He’s also a gifted storyteller, tying together the Inca history with his own modern adventures.