The best books to understand the astonishing history of Mexico

Why am I passionate about this?

A French emperor, nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte, Napoleon III who dreamed of an empire in Latin America and invaded Mexico; an Austrian aristocrat, the Habsburg Ferdinand Maximilian, ruling Mexico as a monarchy; Benito Juárez, who was born into an impoverished Mexican village but later became president, defying and defeating these European emperors. These are the extraordinary characters and events that led me to fall in love with Mexico’s history, and write my book, The Last Emperor of Mexico.


I wrote...

The Last Emperor of Mexico: The Dramatic Story of the Habsburg Archduke Who Created a Kingdom in the New World

By Edward Shawcross,

Book cover of The Last Emperor of Mexico: The Dramatic Story of the Habsburg Archduke Who Created a Kingdom in the New World

What is my book about?

In the 1860s, Napoleon III, intent on curbing the rise of American imperialism, persuaded a young Austrian archduke and a Belgian princess to leave Europe and become the emperor and empress of Mexico. They and their entourage arrived in a Mexico ruled by terror, where revolutionary fervor was barely suppressed by French troops. When the United States, now clear of its own Civil War, aided the rebels in pushing back Maximilian’s imperial soldiers, the French army withdrew, abandoning the young couple. Maximilian was executed by a firing squad and Carlota, secluded in a Belgian castle, descended into madness.

Assiduously researched and vividly told, The Last Emperor of Mexico is a dramatic story of European hubris, imperialist aspirations clashing with revolutionary fervor, and the Old World breaking from the New.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of News from the Empire

Edward Shawcross Why did I love this book?

It is often said that history is stranger than fiction and a disastrous French invasion of Mexico in 1862 to establish a European-style monarchy certainly fits the cliché. The then-French emperor, Napoleon III, rescued the Habsburg archduke Ferdinand Maximilian from a life as a dilettante in the shadow of his older brother, Franz Joseph, emperor of Austria. Maximilian was offered a throne propped up by French bayonets across the Atlantic. The only problem was that most Mexicans supported the legitimate president, Benito Juárez. After a vicious civil war and a desperate last stand, Maximilian was captured tried and executed in 1867. 

Months earlier, his wife, Charlotte, had broken down and lost her mind pleading for Catholic support in the Vatican before the Pope. Put simply, you couldn’t make it up and, for the most part, Fernando del Paso’s brilliantly researched and readable novel doesn’t. Having written my own non-fiction account of this operatic moment in Mexican history, it was a delight to see characters so vividly brought to life by such a talented author.

By Fernando Del Paso, Alfonso Gonzalez (translator), Stella T. Clark (translator)

Why should I read it?

1 author picked News from the Empire as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

One of the acknowledged masterpieces of Mexican literature, Fernando del Paso's News from the Empire is a powerful and encyclopedic novel of the tragic lives of Maximilian and his wife, Carlota, the short-lived Emperor and Empress of Mexico. Simultaneously intimate and panoramic, the narrative flows from Carlota's fevered memories of her husband's ill-fated empire to the multiple and conflicting accounts of a broad cast of characters who bore witness to the events that first placed the hapless couple on their puppet thrones, and then as swiftly removed them. Stretching from the troubled final years of Maximilian's life to the early…


Book cover of Fifth Sun: A New History of the Aztecs

Edward Shawcross Why did I love this book?

Mexico has a long history prior to the sixteenth-century Spanish conquest, none more fascinating than that of the Aztecs. Their story, however, is too often told from the point of view of the conquerors with historians accepting at face value the bloodthirsty and fantastical stories of the Spanish invaders. Camilla Townsend, on the other hand, uses Nahuatl (the language of the Aztecs) sources to write a wonderfully intricate, nuanced, and imaginative history of these indigenous peoples.

By Camilla Townsend,

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked Fifth Sun as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In November 1519, Hernando Cortes walked along a causeway leading to the capital of the Aztec kingdom and came face to face with Moctezuma. That story-and the story of what happened afterwards-has been told many times, but always following the narrative offered by the Spaniards. After all, we have been taught, it was the Europeans who held the pens. But the Native Americans were intrigued by the Roman alphabet and, unbeknownst to the newcomers, they used it to
write detailed histories in their own language of Nahuatl. Until recently, these sources remained obscure, only partially translated, and rarely consulted by…


Book cover of Santa Anna of Mexico

Edward Shawcross Why did I love this book?

Mexican history is full of abrupt reversals. The life of Santa Anna, many times president and dictator of Mexico, is a wonderful example. Infamous in the United States for the Battle of the Alamo, where he gave no quarter to the defenders fighting for Texan independence, the general was vilified in Mexico for the far more heinous crime of losing Texas, once Mexican territory.

Two years later, his political career over, he lost his leg repelling French marines who were trying to seize the port of Veracruz. Santa Anna was now the saviour of Mexico, returning to power in 1841 and, for good measure, having his amputated leg buried with full military honours. Soon, however, he was forced to limp from office while an angry mob exhumed the leg, dragging it round Mexico City to humiliate their former leader. Yet this was far from the last time he held power. He lived until the age of 82, and Santa Anna’s life is a history of the first decades of independent Mexico. Will Fowler’s magisterial biography charts the extraordinary rises and falls of a man who did much to shape nineteenth-century Mexico.

By Will Fowler,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Santa Anna of Mexico as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna (1794-1876) is one of the most famous, and infamous, figures in Mexican history. Six times the country's president, he is consistently depicted as a traitor, a turncoat, and a tyrant-the exclusive cause of all of Mexico's misfortunes following the country's independence from Spain. He is also, as this biography makes clear, grossly misrepresented. Drawing on seventeen years of research into the politics of independent Mexico, Will Fowler provides a revised picture of Santa Anna's life, with new insights into his activities in his bailiwick of Veracruz and in his numerous military engagements. The Santa Anna…


Book cover of The Dope: The Real History of the Mexican Drug Trade

Edward Shawcross Why did I love this book?

For many outside Mexico, the country is synonymous with the war on drugs. There is, of course, much more to Mexico than the view ossified in popular TV dramas like Netflix’s Narcos; however, organised crime has wrought horrifying levels of violence, and shaped the country in many ways. Making sense of all this is Benjamin T Smith’s book on the history of the drug trade. Combining the writing style of James Ellroy with in-depth research that puts most historians to shame, the book is, without doubt, the best English-language work ever produced on the topic.

By Benjamin T. Smith,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Dope as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The Mexican drug trade has inspired prejudiced narratives of a war between north and south, white and brown; between noble cops and vicious kingpins, corrupt politicians and powerful cartels. In this first comprehensive history of the trade, historian Benjamin T. Smith tells the real story of how and why this one-peaceful industry turned violent. He uncovers its origins and explains how this illicit business essentially built modern Mexico, affecting everything from agriculture to medicine to economics-and the country's all-important relationship with the United States.

Drawing on unprecedented archival research; leaked DEA, Mexican law enforcement, and cartel documents; and dozens of…


Book cover of Under the Volcano

Edward Shawcross Why did I love this book?

English-language authors have long been fascinated with Mexico. A series of travelogues emerged between the 1920s and 1940s, although most say more about the writers than the country. In Graham Greene’s Lawless Roads, for example, we learn he has little sympathy for Mexico, Mexicans, and even less for its (magnificent) culinary traditions. Evelyn Waugh, DH Lawrence and Aldous Huxley all got in on the act, with varying degrees of success. Greene’s novel, The Power and Glory, remains an outstanding classic; however, it is Malcolm Lowry’s hypnotically captivating, tragic and deeply personal Under the Volcano that is the best English-language fiction set in Mexico that I have read.

By Malcolm Lowry,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Under the Volcano as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

One of the twentieth century's great undisputed masterpieces, Malcolm Lowry's Under the Volcano includes an introduction by Michael Schmidt in Penguin Modern Classics.

It is the fiesta 'Day of the Dead' in the small Mexican town of Quauhnahuac. In the shadow of the volcano, ragged children beg coins to buy skulls made of chocolate, ugly pariah dogs roam the streets and Geoffrey Firmin - ex-consul, ex-husband, an alcoholic and a ruined man - is living out the last day of his life. Drowning himself in mescal while his former wife and half-brother look on, powerless to help him, the consul…


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Book cover of Liddy-Jean Marketing Queen and the Matchmaking Scheme

Mari Sangiovanni

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What is my book about?

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