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10 Books You Should Read to Understand Brazil Better

Jorge Sette By Jorge Sette Published on December 22, 2015

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Congratulations, you got a new job. You will be relocated to Rio? How exciting. How did you manage to grab such an interesting post? You must know a lot about Brazil and speak good Portuguese. Or maybe you are just the only person who had the availability to move to this country. Whatever the reason, or despite how much you might already know about Brazil, I would strongly recommend you read the books listed below to get a crash course in the country. They are all fun to read and will contribute in their own way a small piece of understanding to complete the puzzle.

I’m Brazilian myself, spent most of my life here, and still profited a lot from reading these texts. Here they are:

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1.The Brazilians, by Joseph Page.


This is one of my favorite books about Brazil. It’s visibly written by someone who loves the country, and despite its very objective, and sometimes hurtful, analysis, makes you feel appreciated and liked as a local. Besides, it covers many different aspects of the culture and history of the country, including the national religions and the nuances of the current power structure, all written in a light and pleasant language. I particularly liked the way it analyzes the way the different social classes interact with each other in Brazil, with all the hypocrisy and paternalism that underlies these brutal relationships. However, the book was written way before the passing of a new set of Constitutional amendments (PEC 478 - known as PEC das Domésticas) in 2013, regulating the working  life of the "empregadas domésticas" (Live-in maids; a very typical Brazilian institution), and therefore broadening the professional rights of these underpaid and exploited workers more than 100 years after the abolition of slavery took place in the country.


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2. Brazil on the Rise, The Story of a Country Transformed, by Larry Rother.


Written around the time when the now infamous cover of the magazine THE ECONOMIST showed an illustration of the statue of Christ the Redeemer in Rio taking off to the skies as a potent rocket on its way to a future of fully developmental glory and economic power, the book gives us the historical and economic background necessary to understand how we got to where we were by the end of the two mandates of the Labor Party, under president Luís Inácio da Silva (Lula). It focuses on the economic and political aspects and the obstacles the country had to overcome on its path towards democracy and to arrive at the reasonable level of economic stability we had some 5 years ago. Of course, things are not looking now as great as when that issue of THE ECONOMIST came out, but corrections are being made along the way and I firmly believe we will realize the bright potential we have been predicting for the past 500 years.


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3. Futebol Nation: A Footballing History of Brazil, by David Goldblatt.


The English writer does not sound very sympathetic to the country and its people. The writing is a cold and dispassionate account of the importance football gained in Brazil since its introduction in the early years of the 20th century and its ramifications through the history of the country. Although it became clear after the last World Cup (2014) that football seems to have lost a lot of its importance to Brazilians - given the sense and irony most of the population demonstrated after the historic loss to Germany with a scoreline of 7x1, the book makes it clear that, especially from the 1950s to the 1990s, football was Brazilians' greatest source of pride. It is also evident how strongly we identified the values of the nation with this foreign sport, allowing and making it easy for politicians to tap into this people's naive passion to advance their own agendas. Although the book does not take into account the World Cup of 2014, it covers the June 2013 social unrest and popular demonstrations directed mainly against the realization of the over-budgeted upcoming event. All in all, it’s a very interesting read, even for those who are not really into the sport.


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4. Backlands: The Canudos Campaign, by Euclides da Cunha.


Considered one of the most important books of the Brazilian canon, this text is a journalistic account of the conflict of Canudos - supposedly a civil war between monarchists and republicans at the end of the nineteenth century - which took place in the arid and difficult geographic region known as the backlands in the interior of Bahia. The official story says that a group of backlanders (sertanejos), led by a religious fanatic, Antônio Conselheiro, the Counselor, built up a settlement constituted of thousands of huts forming a kind of overcrowded slum spreading over the valleys and hills of the region. The book reads like a novel, once you manage to get through the slow and dragging geological, topographical and climactic minutiae used to describe the region in the first couple of chapters. Then it finally gets to the action, depicting with cinematographic vigor the 4 military incursions into the settlement of Canudos, defended fiercely by the backlanders (sertanejos and jagunços, the latter considered bandits infiltrated in the community).


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5. The War at the End of the World, by Mario Vargas Llosa.


While Backlands was meant to be an objective report of the Canudos War in Brazil, this book by Peruvian writer Llosa is a fictionalized version of the events. It tells the same story, but as novels go, adding the thrill and emotional twists of the format. The book depicts characters on both sides of the war, offering a balanced perspective of what happened. It’s considered one of the author’s best books. Llosa himself considers it his most accomplished novel, and it features in Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon.



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6. A Death in Brazil, by Peter Robb.


A thrilling account of 500 hundreds years of Brazilian history, Australian writer Peter Robb’s book also reads like a novel. The writer lived in Brazil and offers authentic and knowledgeable insights into the country, its people and culture. He also talks very candidly and passionately about the country’s serious problems and inequalities. The death of the title is the mysterious assassination of PC Faria’s, fixer and bagman to corrupt President Collor in the early 1990s, but the book does not focus on this. It covers, among other things, the brutal slavery system we had in the country until 1888 (longer than anywhere else in the Western world), the destruction of the fugitive slave settlement of Palmares, the Canudos war, Brazilian cuisine and literature. A must-read.


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7. 1808 – How a mad queen, a coward prince and a corrupt court fooled Napoleon and changed the History of Portugal and Brazil, by Laurentino Gomes.


Written by one of the most influential journalists of Brazil, this is the first installment of a trilogy that covers the history of the country from the transfer of the Portuguese royal court to Rio de Janeiro in 1808, in a maneuver to escape the Napoleonic wars, to the events surrounding the Proclamation of the Republic in 1889.

It took 10 years of research for the first volume to come to light. It’s a well- written, direct and very readable account of the story of the arrival in Brazil of D. Joao VI, his wife, Carlota Joaquina, and their entourage, changing the destiny of the colony forever by paving the way for the declaration of independence 14 years later. Mixing the personal anecdotes of these characters - some of them very funny - with important historical events, Gomes offers the reader a sprawling overview of those times in the colony.

1808 was awarded two Jabuti Prizes, in the categories of best reportage-book and non-fiction book of the year.


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8. 1822 – How a wise man, a sad princess and a money crazy Scotsman helped D. Pedro create Brazil, a country that had everything to go wrong, by Laurentino Gomes.


This is the second volume of the trilogy we mentioned above. Now we are focusing on the story of D. Joao VI’s son, Prince Pedro, and the role he played in the declaration of the independence of the country, culminating in the historic Cry of Ipiranga, and then becoming the first Emperor of Brazil. The book reads like a thriller, depicting the highly charged political events, the confronting factions and the many different interests that led Pedro to decide to stay in the country and cut its ties with Portugal. It portrays D. Pedro I as a wild, sensual and determined young man, who did not refrain from playing the role history reserved for him. 1822 added two other Jabuti Prizes (the third and fourth) to Laurentino Gomes’s collection, again in the categories of best reportage-book and non-fiction book of the year.


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9. 1889, 1889 – How a tired emperor, a vain marshal and a wronged teacher collaborated for the end of the Monarchy and the Proclamation of the Republic in Brazil, by Laurentino Gomes.


The third volume of Gomes’s acclaimed trilogy revolves around the Proclamation of the Republic in Brazil, bringing down the Empire, which had been the most stable and solid government in the region for 67 years. Emperor D. Pedro II – 0ne of the most educated man of his time – was banned from Brazil with his family, being exiled in Europe. Marshal Deodoro da Fonseca, a former anarchist and a friend of the deposed emperor’s, was in charge now, despite his old age and debilitated health.



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10. Gabriella, Clove and Cinammon, by Jorge Amado.


Besides The War at the End of the World, this is the only other novel I included on our list of top 10 choices for the reader who wishes to understand Brazil. Written by Jorge Amado, Gabriella takes place in the small town of Ilheus, in the state of Bahia, during the economic boom of the cacao in the 1920s. The book consists of two intertwined stories: the first is the romance between the bar-owner Nacib, of Syrian origin, and the drought immigrant worker Gabriella, who becomes his cook and mistress; the second story is the confrontation between the backward-oriented plantation colonels (powerful heads of landowner families) and the wealthy young man Mundinho Falcão, who represents the arrival of modernity, efficacy and urban values in the rural underdeveloped and conservative region. Readers will be delighted to have all their senses and intellect arrested, as they immerse in the world of Gabriella: Amado describes the tastes, smells, and texture of the local foods; the funny, and sometimes violent, local customs; the hypocrisy of a narrow-minded and provincial society; the brutality of machismo; and the bright colors of what is supposed to be a microcosm of Brazil and Latin America. 


I guess these 10 books will give newcomers enough introductory background and information on the beautiful, challenging and diverse country I’m lucky to live in. Welcome, good luck with your new job, and don’t forget to rate and comment on this post.


Jorge Sette.

Jorge Sette is Bookwitty's Regional Ambassador for South America. He represents the company, writing relevant content for the region, recruiting contributors, contacting partners and ... Show More

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