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As I take over as Editor of History Matters from Caroline Dodds Pennock, I’m pleased to introduce our new Best Books feature. Best Books will ask a historian to recommend the most important books to read in order to get started in their subject area. We think these occasional posts will be of interest to a wide variety of readers, but perhaps especially useful to school teachers and A-level students who are looking for the logical place to start with a new topic. All of these blogs will appear here, as they’re posted.

Now, who could possibly be better to kick off the Best Books feature than our outgoing editor Caroline Dodds Pennock?

Happy Reading,
Casey Strine


Last week, a teacher tweeted me to ask about ‘must read’ books on Central American history for an A-level student. And so, I’ve finally got around to putting together my list of the top ten books on Latin American (okay, mostly Mexican) history (or at least the best ten to occur to me!). 1 The following list is entirely subjective and unashamedly the choices of an indigenous-Mexican historian who doesn’t know enough about the modern world, but hopefully should provide some readable starting points. Have I missed your favourite? Please do let me (and everyone else) know in the comments.

1. Inga Clendinnen, Aztecs: An Interpretation (1991) 2
Absolutely unparalleled as a work of cultural history, this offers the most fabulous insights into Aztec life and experience. This book is a big part of the reason I’m an Aztec historian. Read it. And then read all of Clendinnen’s other books.

2. Hugh Thomson, Cochineal Red: Travels Through Ancient Peru (2006)
I learned a lot about Moche archaeology from this book, which strikes a great balance between accessibility and expertise. Written from a personal perspective – following Thomson’s own archaeological expeditions – this also sheds light on ancient Peruvian cultures which are often neglected in English-language writing.

3. Miguel León-Portilla, The Broken Spears: The Aztec Account of the Conquest of Mexico (1962)
I don’t actually believe that this is how Aztec people saw the conquest happen. These are sources from the colonial period, written by indigenous people trying to rationalise how they were conquered. But this hugely famous book is a really readable and accessible way to dip into the primary sources from the conquest from an ‘indigenous’ point of view.

Cortez_&_La_Malinche4. Camilla Townsend, Malintzin’s Choices: An Indian Woman in the Conquest of Mexico (2006)
A hugely readable account of the Spanish conquest of Mexico, told from the perspective of Cortés’s indigenous interpreter Malintzin (also known as Doña Marina and La Malinche). This does a great job of flagging up issues with the sources, our understanding of the indigenous perspective, and women’s roles, without letting it overburden the narrative. 

5. John Chasteen, Born in Blood and Fire: A Concise History of Latin America (2001)
An excellent, briskly written, introduction to the history of Latin America from the European invasion to the present day. Especially notable for including Brazil, which is often mysteriously absent from such texts. Very readable, and a great starting point for students.

6. Earl Shorris, The Life and Times of Mexico (2004)
Covering 3,000 years of history, this eloquent ‘big book’ on Mexican history interweaves history and experience into a far-reaching and very readable history of Mexico, seen through the lives of key figures and personal adventures. It isn’t perfect in every detail, but a great read. (And there’s a surprise appearance by one of my former students in the photos!)

7. Jon Lee Anderson, Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life (1997)CheHigh
An exemplary biography of the extraordinary life of Latin America’s most iconic revolutionary figure. Anderson obtained unparalleled access to Guevara’s personal archives, as well as winning the trust of many people who knew him personally, so this contains a wealth of detail not published elsewhere. A fascinating and balanced account which recognises Guevara’s high points without shying away from his darker moments. 

8. Eduardo Galeano, Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent (1971)
Galeano himself said that he was not experienced enough when he wrote this book, but this is a lively and sharply critical account of the effects of European and US exploitation on Latin America. Even though the author now finds his old writing style a bit ‘stodgy’, it has been hugely influential: Hugo Chavez gave a copy to Barack Obama in 2009, and the book remains a bestseller.

9. Ed Vulliamy, Amexica: War along the Borderline (2010)
This searing account of suffering communities and brutal conflicts is a fascinating introduction to the bloody ‘war on drugs’ along the Mexico/US border. As with any personal ‘journey’, there are omissions, and not everyone will agree with the interpretations (or the Spanish translations…), but this is an absorbing account of a truly horrifying situation.

10. Octavio Paz, The Labyrinth of Solitude (1950)
Hardly an ‘easy read’, but one of the most enduring works on Mexican history, by one of Mexico’s most famous writers. This is a beautifully written reflection on the nature of Mexican identity and attitudes. Maybe a book ‘of history’ rather than ‘about history’, but indispensable for anyone interested in modern Mexico.

Caroline Dodds Pennock is Lecturer in International History at the University of Sheffield. She is the author of Bonds of Blood: Gender, Lifecycle and Sacrifice in Aztec Culture (Palgrave, 2008; PB, 2011). Her current research focuses on indigenous American travellers to Europe in the 16th century. You can read Caroline’s other History Matters blogs here, and find her on twitter @carolinepennock.

Header image: Incunables Biblioteca Personal de Carlos Monsiváis [ProtoplasmaKid via Wikicommons].
Image 1: Hernán Cortés and La Malinche meet Moctezuma II in Tenochtitlan, November 8, 1519. Facsimile (c. 1890) of Lienzo de Tlaxcala [via Wikicommons].
Image 2: Guerrillero HeroicoChe Guevara at the funeral for the victims of the La Coubre explosion [via WikiCommons].

Notes:

  1. Yes, I know the teacher asked for Central American history. Mexico is in Central America. And Central America is in Latin America. So there.
  2. Dates are for first publication. There are often later editions. Links are to publisher websites. Other (cheaper or more local) options may be available.
Tags : aztec historybest booksCentral American historyChe Guevarahistory of Latin AmericaLatin American historyLatin American history readingtop ten books

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