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Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter
by Mario Vargas Llosa

Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, one of Vargas Llosa's best known novels, is set in Lima in the 1950s. Partly autobiographical, the story intrigues with its masterful interweaving of stories and unexpected cast of characters. Entertaining, comic and full of scenes of a vibrant and fascinating city. Named as one of the three best books of the year by the New York Times Book Review.

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"Funny, extravagant. ...xA wonderfully comic novel almost unbelievably rich in character, place and event." – Los Angeles Times Book Review

"Uproarious entertainment. ...xFor sheer wit, imagination, and high style, this soap opera of love can't be beat." – The Christian Science Monitor

"On one of those sunny spring mornings in Lima when the geraniums are an even brighter red, the roses more fragrant, and the bougainvillaeas curlier as they awaken, a famous physician of the city, Dr. Alberto de Quinteros – broad forehead, aquiline nose, penetrating gaze, the very soul of rectitude and goodness – opened his eyes in his vast mansion in San Isidro and stretched his limbs ... and felt that sense of well-being that comes from eight hours of restorative sleep and a clear conscience." – Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1997 edition.

I the Supreme
by Augusto Roa Bastos

Latin America has a history of both strong and weak dictators. Although Garcia Márquez captured the quintessential dictator in his novel, The Autumn of the Patriarchs, the novel by Bastos is of a different stripe. The main character, Jose Rodriquez de Francia is the dictator of Paraguay who was made Supreme Dictator for Life in 1814. Although fictionalized, the novel draws from his life and actions. Bastos gets inside the man of power and displays the complexity and cruelty at the center. Full of rich vocabulary and imagination. Considered a Latin American classic.

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"An elaborate and erudite opus saturated in the verbal bravura of classic modernism." – John Updike, The New Yorker

"Hum. Ah! Funeral orations, pamphlets condemning me to be burned at the stake. Bah! They're daring to parody my Supreme Decrees now. They imitate my language, my handwriting, trying to infiltrate by way of it; to get to me from their lairs. Shut my mouth with the voice that thundered against them. Bury me in words, in effigy. An old trick of tribal witch doctors. Post more guards to watch over those who labor under the delusion that they can replace me once I'm dead." – I the Supreme, Dalkey Archive Press, 2000 edition.

The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt's Darkest Journey
by Candice Millard

Theodore Roosevelt, after losing the election in 1912, decided to continue his other life of exploring and adventure. However, this time he took on more than he had imagined. The River of Doubt describes the journey with his son and famous Amazonian explorer, da Silva Rondon, to discover an uncharted tributary of the Amazon. Along the way they discover unknown tribes of dangerous Indians, snakes, disease, as well as the incredible lush beauty of the Amazon. Candice Millard has done a first rate job with this story of adventure, its thrills and frights and sorrows. The nature writing is superb. You will marvel at Roosevelt's tenacity and love of wild adventure. A riveting book.

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"In her debut book, Millard, a former writer and editor for National Geographic, combines high adventure well told with dazzling passages of nature writing that illuminate the darkest, steamiest sections of the Amazon forest." – Bruce Barcott, The New York Times

"In a lifetime of remarkable achievements, Roosevelt had shaped his own characterand that of his country – through sheer force of will, relentlessly choosing action over inaction, and championing what he famously termed 'the strenuous life'. ...xOn the banks of The River of Doubt, the same unyielding will and thirst for achievement brought him face to face with the absolute limits of his strength. The exotic splendor of the unexplored jungle had captivated Roosevelt and his men as the journey began. 'No civilized man, no white man, had ever gone down or up this river, or seen the country through which we were passing,' he wrote." – The River of Doubt, Broadway Books, 2005 edition.

Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon
by Jorge Amado

Who wouldn't love a book with this title? This is a novel full of life, love and the sounds and scents of Brazil. Amado, one of Brazil's most beloved authors, has written several books, all to be recommended. However, this is a fine one to start with. Here is a town in Brazil in the 1920s, a booming cacao industry pushing it toward modernization. Here are wonderful characters, especially Gabriela, who live full and passionate lives. The role of women in Brazil is explored through the characters and their choices. A delicious book.

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"Gossipy, funny, very much alive." – The New Yorker

"A twentieth-century Charles Dickens. ...xA master craftsman." – The Nation

"In that year of 1925, when the idyll of the mulatto girl Gabriela and Nacib the Arab began, the rains continued long beyond the proper and necessary season. Whenever two planters met in the street, they would ask each other, with fear in their eyes and voices: 'How long can this keep up?' Never had they seen so much rain. It fell day and night, almost without pause. ...xThe crop gave promise of being the biggest in history. With cacao prices constantly rising, this would mean greater wealth, prosperity, abundance. It would mean the most expensive schools in the big cities for the colonels' sons, homes in the town's new residential sections, luxurious furniture from Rio, grand pianos for the parlorsx...x." – Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon, Vintage, 2006 edition.

The Sea and the Jungle
by H.M. Tomlinson

H.M. Tomlinson took a journey in 1909 and 1910 on a tramp steamer 2000 miles from Swansea to the wilds of the Amazon and the Madeira Rivers, to the San Antonio Falls; then onward to Barbados, Florida and back to England. Full of adventures in a true wilderness few fellow Englishmen could imagine. An enjoyable read which is considered a masterpiece of travel literature.

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"For me, I was in no mood to discuss whether balm is to be got in Gilead, when we come to the place; but stumbling among the lumber on the deserted deck of the S. S. Capella, I found a cabin, fell into it, and remember nothing more but the smell of hot bread, eggs and bacon, and coffee, which visited me in a beautiful dream. Then I woke to the reveille of a tin whistle, which the chief engineer was playing in my ear; and it was daylight. The jumble of recollections of the night before were but dark insanities. But the smell of that aromatic food, I give grace, did not pass with the awakening, for next door I heard lively sizzling in the galley. Already Fleet Street was hull down." – The Sea and the Jungle, Marlboro Press, 1996 edition.

The Motorcycle Diaries: Notes on a Latin American Journey
by Ernesto Che Guevara

Here is another book that should be read before seeing the movie. The now famous revolutionary figure that we know as Che took a seventh months motorcycle trip through South America when he was 24. The book captures the people and land in poetic and fresh detail. Written by a young man, the older Che comes through now and then. But this is really a book about an exciting adventure through the lands the author loves.

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"A Latin American James Dean or Jack Kerouac." – Washington Post

"The Motorcycle Diaries mixes lyrical observation, youthful adventure and anti-imperialist political analysisx...x" – Publishers Weekly

"There in Lima, the art is more stylized, with an almost effeminate touch: the cathedral towers are tall and graceful, maybe the most slender of all the cathedrals in the Spanish colonies. The lavishness of the woodwork in Cuzco has been left behind and taken up here in gold. The naves are light and airy, contrasting with those dark, hostile caverns of the Inca city. The paintings are also bright, almost joyous, and of schools more recent than the hermetic mestizos, who painted their saints with a dark and captive fury." – The Motorcycle Diaries, Ocean Press, 2003 edition.

One Hundred Years of Solitude
by Gabriel Garcia Márquez

No list of Latin American writers is complete without Gabriel Garcia Márquez. One could choose almost any of his books. All are rich in the atmosphere and background of South America. However, One Hundred Years of Solitude stands out above the others in my estimation. Be prepared for a wild ride of magic realism. Macondo, the fictional jungle village, and the marvelous characters that inhabit this world are larger than life. Sad, comic, ironic, and both believable and unbelievable at the same time, Garcia Márquez's masterpiece is as close to the beating heart of South America as one could get.

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"One Hundred Years of Solitude is the first piece of literature since the Book of Genesis that should be required reading for the entire human race. ...xMr. Garcia Márquez has done nothing less than to create in the reader a sense of all that is profound, meaningful, and meaningless in life." – William Kennedy, New York Times Book Review

"Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aueliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice. At that time Macondo was a village of twenty adobe houses, built on the bank of a river of clear water that ran along a bed of polished stones, which were white and enormous, like prehistoric eggs. The world was so recent that many things lacked names, and in order to indicate them it was necessary to point. Every year during the month of March a family of ragged gypsies would set up their tents near the village, and with a great uproar of pipes and kettledrums they would display new inventions. First they brought the magnet. A heavy gypsy with an untamed beard and sparrow hands, who introduced himself as Melquiades, put on a bold public demonstration of what he himself called the eighth wonder of the learned alchemists of Macedonia. He went from house to house dragging two metal ingots and everybody was amazed to see pots, pans, tongs and braziers tumble down from their placesx...x." – One Hundred Years of Solitude, Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2006 edition.

Evita: The Real Life of Eva Peron
by Nicholas Fraser and Marysa Navarro

If you are heading to Argentina this is a biography that will be well worth the read. Evita, the wife of Juan Peron, is a Greek figure all to herself. One of the sights in Buenos Aires that I will never forget was seeing her grave in the famous cemetery, La Recoleta, and the hundreds of bouquets of flowers left for her. Well written and researched, this biography of Evita will help you understand the complicated history of Argentina and the legend of Evita.

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"(The authors) have separated out the truth from the sinner/saint legend of Eva Peron – and most impressively, produced a work of great political sophistication. ...xFactual, nuanced and absorbing." – Kirkus Reviews

"Even in the center of the village the streets were unsurfaced, dusty in the dry season, impassable during the winter rains. The plaza was nothing more than a large space of crushed brick surrounded by crude likenesses of nymphs, war heroes, the Virgin and the national emblem. On one side was the church, on the other the two stores. The houses were low, one-story brick boxes identical in structure and arranged on a grid. ...xIn the distance were cattle, standing singly or in groups, and trees, which had been planted as windbreaks for the isolated farms. ...xAt five o'clock on 7 May 1919, an Indian woman went on foot to a house west of the village to deliver a child." – Evita: The Real Life of Eva Peron, W. W. Norton & Company, 1996 edition.

Tales of a Shaman's Apprentice: An Ethnobotanist Searches for New Medicines in the Amazon Rain Forest
by Mark J. Plotkin

Mark Plotkin spent thirteen years in the Amazon rainforest. This book is a fascinating look at the Amazon Indian culture he explored and the way the Indians use herbs and products from the rainforest as medicine. You will come away from this story with great appreciation of the Indians and their culture. The tragedy that is descending upon us in losing the rain forest year by year is gripping and frightening. Learning to treasure this amazing and diverse area for our future is imperative. This book brings the biologist's search for new drugs to our attention and hopefully will help the world understand the importance of this rich area.

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"'Every time a shaman dies, it is as if a library burned down,' Plotkin reminds us. No one could convey the potential tragedy of this statement more convincingly than this author, who has done something to remedy itx...x." – Kirkus Reviews

"A first-rate travel and adventure tale in which passionate advocacy of conservation and literary gifts are combined." – Publishers Weekly

"I had followed the old shaman through the jungle for three days and, over the course of our trek, we had developed an enigmatic relationship. The medicine man obviously resented my desire to learn the secrets of the forest plants that he knew and used for healing purposes. Still, he seemed pleased that I had come from so far away – he called me the pananakiri ('the alien') – to acquire the botanical wisdom that the children of his tribe had no interest in learning." – Tales of a Shaman's Apprentice, Penguin Books, 1994 edition.

 

The Saddest Pleasure: A Journey on Two Rivers
by Moritz Thomsen

An early Peace Corps volunteer, Thomsen has written a beautifully sensitive memoir about his life in Brazil and the Amazon. A very personal recounting of the people and land, as well as of his own memories and disappointments, this book will lodge in your memory. Not well known but one of the most compelling travel books I have read. It is a book to savor. You will laugh and cry with the author as he opens up the marvelous vistas of his world, both inner and outer.

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"An intensely personal, captivating exploration." – Kirkus Reviews

"Immediately a Negro who has been standing against the wall and made invisible by some large potted plants appears by the next table and with the fierce power of his concentration impales me with his look. He stares into the bowl of salad, brings one hand to his mouth, and implores me with the other hand, the palm up, open and vulnerable. ...xI offer him the salad, he takes it and sits at the next table, hunched over the food, eating rapidly. We do not look at each other again for there is something unspeakable in that desperate hunger that lies between us like an accusation. ...xWalking in the street I consider with confusion that good feeling I had had at offering a hungry man my garbage." – The Saddest Pleasure, Grey Wolf Press, 1990 edition.

The Pleasure of Eliza Lynch: A Novel
by Anne Enright

A rich and exotic novel based on the true story of a 19th century Irishwoman who falls in love with Francisco López, soon to become dictator of Paraguay. Although she was never his wife, she was very much involved in the decisions he made, many of which led to upheavals and wars resulting in huge losses of life. We see her as the people saw her, pushing for war, accumulating wealth. Yet now and then we see her sympathetically as well, through the eyes of the doctor who attends her at childbirth. A sad and brutal piece of South American history, colorfully invoked by Enright.

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"Water, an element as silvery and unpredictable as Enright's extraordinary prose ... transports Eliza from Ireland to Europe ... to Paraguay and back to Britain." – The New York Times Book Review

"There's something of (Angela) Carter's sensual, self-fashioning adventuresses in Eliza." – London Review of Books

"Many people would come to regret this moment. You might say that everyone came to regret it – except for the two participants, Francisco López and Eliza Lynch, Il Mariscal and La Lincha, Paco and Liz. Already unreal. They were the kind of people who attracted stories – not to mention bias, rumors, lies, rage: the whole tangle pulled into a knot by time, made Gordian by history. The details cannot be unpicked. But this much we may not doubt: there was a joining of parts, and it happened in springx...x." – The Pleasure of Eliza Lynch: A Novel, Grove Press, 2004 edition.

Jungle of Stone
by William Carlsen

The subtitle of Jungle of Stone is: The True Story of Two Men, Their Extraordinary Journey, and The Discovery of the Lost Civilization of the Maya. Whew! However, the subtitle says it all. The two amazing men the book records, U.S. diplomat John Lloyd Stephens and British artist Frederick Catherwood, are so extraordinary one comes away feeling the world we live in pales beside the adventures of these men. The book follows the men as they become interested in finding the Mayan cities hinted at by many, and the difficulties they have on their journeys: illnesses, recalcitrance of mules, getting lost and more. I can hardly speak highly enough of this book. Not only is it well told, and descriptive, it is also a huge adventure tale. I couldn’t put the book down. If you are heading to see the Mayan ruins, you must read this book and contemplate the mysteries and the difficulties of their discoveries.

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"Full of astonishing adventures and breathtaking discoveries, Jungle of Stone is, best of all, a true story.” – Colette Bancroft, Tampa Bay Times

“In a battered Toyota, Carlsen followed their footsteps, as he evokes in palpable detail the tangled forests, punishing deserts, and cliffhanging mountain paths that they traversed.x… A captivating history of two men who dramatically changed their contemporaries’ view of the past.” – Kirkus Review

“José, their guide, took them along a narrow path some distance from the ranch, across a large field planted with corn. They tied their mules at the edge of the jungle. Using his machete, José methodically worked his way into the forest through the tangled underbrush. After a time, they emerged on the eastern bank of the Copán River. As they approached, Stephens and Catherwood looked through the treesAnd were stunned by what they saw.x… They had been expecting scattered stone ruins, at best. But what appeared on the other side of the river was a massive stone wall that rose to a height of nearly one hundred feet … the enormity of the wall in front of them took their breath away.” – Jungle of Stone, William Morrow, 2016 edition.