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Hi, I'm cross posting to see if that will help getting some answers. Having lived for the last 23 years in South America, I have done a very poor job of reading books about this continent. A little over 3 years ago my husband started a new vocation which takes him around the world. When he went to St. Petersburg I read Peter the Great: His Life and World by Robert K. Massie. I found it fascinating even though I wasn't going to go with him. I knew he wouldn't have time to digest the 900 pages so I wrote a 9 page typewritten summary which he said helped him understand a lot of things. I got hooked.
I do get to go on some trips (Central America, Europe and India--and did some reading before the latter two trips) and next summer we are taking the whole family on an overland trip in which we will probably visit Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and Argentina and possibly Paraguay, Uruguay and Chile (though the latter is less likely). We begin our trip in Colombia.
What I am looking for are books about these countries, preferably non-fiction, that will help me understand the people and the why they think and act the way they do. I don't really want books that explain that, but books that tell of the history and background, culture and norms, written in a very readable style. I'm not looking for textbooks, but histories, biographies, autobiographies or insights from authors who have lived in or visited the countries and really studied them.
Any help you can give me would be much appreciated. I'm also willing to try to express my wants better if it's not clear! Thanks.
It has been a long time since I read it but The Saddest Pleasure: A Journey on Two Rivers left an impression on me. The author was an early Peace Corps volunteer in Ecuador.
That might be an interesting one. Any other suggestions? I named a lot of countries.
At the limited library of my kids' small private American school here in South America, I found a book called The DMZ by Jeanette Windle. It's a novel about the drug war in Colombia and so far she's got a lot right about Bogota (where I live). Funny, because she also has some kids books out, the Parker Twins series, and Captured in Colombia has some definite location mistakes. So does her mention of Bogota in her other book Crossfire.
Anyway, The DMZ (which Touchstones can't seem to find for some reason) has a lot of information about life here if anyone wants to find it out, remembering that it was written 6 years ago at the height of the terrorist problems. They aren't gone, but things are much calmer now, relatively speaking.
Whispering in the Giant's Earby William Powers, a current look at Bolivia's indigenous people and their battle to save the rain forest.
Thanks, gemellicook, that book looks like it would be a good one to read. One of the great things about suggestions is that at Amazon and other places there are lists of what others have bought when they bought the one I'm looking at and those have other lists and...well, you get the idea. I just need the starting points, so keep the book suggestions coming!
(Mis)adventure on the Amazon river, both very good.
The mapmaker's wife : a true tale of love, murder, and survival in the Amazon Robert Whitaker
River of doubt : Theodore Roosevelt's darkest journey Candice Millard
Cabeza de Vaca is an excellent choice if you're looking for history and good reading. If you're looking for something not so old, try Gabriel Garcia Márquez, Borges, Érico Verissimo and Jorge Amado. If you can read spanish the best book (in my opinion) is Antologia critica del cuento hispanoamericano del siglo XX.
I appreciate the suggestions. I guess I wasn't clear on what I am looking for. I don't necessarily want books written by South Americans, but books that will help me understand South America and South Americans. For this reason non-fiction is probably the best, but novels that explain the true background of the country, maybe even some history work too.
The book you're looking for is "The Old Patagonian Express" by Paul Theroux. He went on a journey from Boston to the Patagonia by train in the late 70's and describes Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and Argentina, as well as Colombia en most of the countries in Central America.
I know the book is about 30 years old by as far as I know is a good way of understanding South American people views on liufe in the different countries.
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I see you have been recommended some novels and short stories by S. Am. authors. I actually do think that reading fiction is a good way to get an insight into the country - probably better than "factual" books written by non-natives. South American fiction is particularly rich and imaginative and broke much new ground in the 20th Century. Many works have a strong national flavour to them that I am sure would a helpful way to get at what you want. In addition to your factual reading, why not pick a couple of contemporary native authors for each country you visit? In addition to the suggestions made, for the first four countries you propose, you should not miss Peru's Mario Vargas Llosa (La ciudad y los perros; La casa verde; La guerra del fin del mundo, Historia de Mayta, El hablador, etc.), César Vallejo and Alfredo Bryce Echenique (the wonderful La vida exagerada de Martín Romaña, Permiso para vivir), or Argentina's Julio Cortázar (e.g. Todos los fuegos el fuego), Manuel Puig (especially El beso de la mujer araña), Adolfo Bioy Casares (La invención de Morel) and Juan Jose Saer (e.g. La pesquisa). All these give an insight into aspects of national and regional culture.
I highly recommend Into The Heart: One Man's Pursuit Of Love & Knowledge Among The Yanomami - a true and extremely moving account of an American anthropology graduate student in South America who married a Yanomami girl and brought her back to New Jersey.
John Gimlette's At The Tomb Of The Inflatable Pig: Travels Through Paraguay is certain to transport and inform the reader.
Thanks for the suggestions. I'll be looking into them. I've always had a hard time reading Latin American authors, their styles are so different than my likes. I'm sure that tells me a lot about culture, but why can't they write about something other than illicit sex?
BTW, as I read some of the books I've found I'm posting reviews for anyone interested. You can go through my library to find them. So far I've only read 3, but I'm working on it!
Try W. H. Hudson's Far Away and Long Ago. It's his autobiographical account of growing up in, I believe, Patagonia. It's been a few years since I read it, but I think he was young in the early years of the 20th century. It was quite enjoyable and the insights into the history and character of the people are timeless.
Apart from the books mentioned above, I have some personal favourites. These include Charles Nicholls' The Fruit Palace about Colombia; Wade Davis' One River about ethnobotanists in the Andes and Amazon; Ronald Wright's Cut Stones and CrossRoads about Peru and another great one about the Maya; Joe Kane's Savages about the Huaorani in the Ecuadorian Amazon, Sarah Wheeler's Travels in a Thin Country about Chile and Redmond O'Hanlon's In Trouble Again. For history, John Hemming's books about Brazil and the classic The Conquest of the Incas are excellent, as is Gallardo's Open Veins mentioned above, if a bit dated now.
Hope you enjoy your reading and your travelling!
Two books written by non-South Americans that spring to mind:
In Patagonia by Bruce Chatwin (a personal favourite)
The Jaguar Smile: A Nicaraguan Journey by Salman Rushdie
Btw, in my biased opinion I think Chile should not be missed in your travels...
By a South American, I think a good start would be Memory of Fire by Eduardo Galeano. (I only have the first volume 'Genesis' which was excellent.)
p.s. I'm surprised the tags are not showing up for Chatwin as author or In Patagonia as a text. "In Patagonia" is truly superb and written by one of the best English travel writers of the 20th Century.
(hmm i just changed the tag for only "Patagonia" and now it does come up....)
Off to Brazil on Sunday, taking A Death in Brazil but if anyone has anything else to suggest, it's all good!
If you haven't read River of Doubt I thoroughly enjoyed it, even though I've never been to Brazil. (I've been in 7 other South American countries, though!)
Have a great trip!
The Panama Hat Trail by Tom Miller is an interesting account of his travels through Ecuador, based on the manufacture of Panama hats. His description of "how to avoid bus plunge" is something anybody who has ever traveled on a bus in the developing world will simultaneously laugh out loud at and nod knowingly along with.
While it is fictional, Isabel Allende's House of Spirits is a reasonably accurate view (from a particular political perspective) of Chilean history.
It's not what most people think of when thinking about South America, but Alexander Miles has written a very good book about the history of Devil's Island. (To be fair, I only bought the book because I went to high school with Alex and he was obsessed with the subject at least that far back. So I could be biased in recommending it.)
I just finished The voyage of the beagle. A large portion of it is about exploring South America.
The Testament by John Grisham is an excellent book that looks at the tribes living in the Amazonian jungles of South America and also explores the habitatats and creatures of the area.
I really enjoyed it and was also looking for similar books as I love the setting of South America and the Amazon.
I enjoyed The Testament a lot. I even checked out the audio book for a family car trip. At first I wondered what I'd gotten myself into with the description of the rich man's family, but the book has a good ending/moral and my kids are all teens.
I was just looking at this and realized that at the time I started this thread we didn't have our whole itinerary planned.
We hit 7 countries and had a wonderful time, even traveling with three teenagers! We were gone 7 weeks and did most of our travels by bus. We flew from Colombia to Chile and then to Buenos Aires, Argentina. From there we took buses all the way back up to Quito, Ecuador. (Colombia being the most dangerous part of the trip, we had to fly back into the country from there.) It was fascinating and the best family time we've ever had. The kids loved it too. We spent 7 nights on buses--most with semi-beds--but one, through the Chaco desert of Paraguay, was not much different from a U.S. school bus and we were in it for 22 hours! I read several books (listed in my library) that helped me understand the countries.
Thanks for all your ideas!
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