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8 Books You Should Read to Understand Brazil

Jorge Sette By Jorge Sette Published on December 3, 2015

Congratulations, you've got a new job! Oh, you'll be relocated to Rio? How exciting. How did you manage to snag such an interesting post? You must already know a lot about Brazil and speak good Portuguese! Oh, maybe you were just the only person who could move to Brazil? 

Whatever the reason, and regardless of how much you might already know about Brazil, I would strongly recommend you read the books listed below as a crash course in the country. They are all fun to read and will contribute in their own small way to your understanding of the country.

I’m Brazilian myself, have spent most of my life here, and still benefited from reading these books. 

Joseph Page: The Brazilians

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This is one of my favorite books about Brazil. It’s clearly written by someone who loves the country. Despite a very objective and sometimes hurtful analysis, it makes you feel appreciated and liked as a local. That aside, it covers many different aspects of the country's culture and history, including the national religions and the nuances of the current power structure, all written in a light and pleasant style. 

I particularly appreciate the way it analyzes the interactions between Brazil's different social classes, with all the hypocrisy and paternalism that underlies their relationships. However, the book was written way before the passing of a new set of constitutional amendments in 2013(PEC 478, known as "PEC das domésticas"), regulating the working  life of the "empregadas domésticas" (live-in maids; a very typical Brazilian institution). These broadened the professional rights of these underpaid and exploited workers more than 100 years after the abolition of slavery in Brazil.

Buy here.

Larry Rother: Brazil on the Rise, The Story of a Country Transformed

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Written around the time of the now infamous cover of The Economist showing an illustration of the statue of Christ the Redeemer as a rocket on its way to glory and economic power, this book gives the historical and economic background necessary to understand how we got where we were by the end of the two terms of the Labor Party under president Luís Inácio da Silva (Lula). 

The book focuses on the economic and political, as well as the obstacles the country had to overcome on its path towards democracy and the reasonable level of economic stability we had some five years ago. Of course, things aren't looking as great now 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.

Buy here.

David Goldblatt: Futebol Nation: A Footballing History of Brazil

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The English writer does not sound very sympathetic to the country and its people. This 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. 

While it has become clear since World Cup 2014 that football seems to have lost a lot of its importance to Brazilians (particularly given the sense and irony most of the population demonstrated after the historic loss to Germany with a scoreline of 7:1), the book makes it clear that football was Brazilians' greatest source of pride, especially from the 1950s to the 1990s. Goldblatt also examines how strongly we identified the values of the nation with this foreign sport, allowing and making it easy for politicians to tap into the 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 social unrest and popular demonstrations of June 2013, 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.

Euclides da Cunha: Backlands: The Canudos Campaign

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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 the size of a town. The settlement was composed 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 cinematic style the four military incursions into the settlement of Canudos, defended fiercely by the backlanders (sertanejos and jagunços, the latter considered bandits that had infiltrated the community).

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Mario Vargas Llosa: The War at the End of the World

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While Backlands was meant to be an objective report of the Canudos War in Brazil, this book by Peruvian writer Llosa is a fictionalized account of the events. It tells the same story, but it adds the thrill and emotional twists of a novel. 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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Peter Robb: A Death in Brazil

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Australian writer Peter Robb's thrilling account of 500 hundred years of Brazilian history reads like a novel. Robb lived in Brazil and offers authentic and knowledgeable insights into the country, its people, and its culture. He also talks very candidly and passionately about the country's problems and inequalities. 

The 'death' referred to in its title is the mysterious assassination of PC Farias, fixer and bagman to the corrupt President Collor of the early 1990s, but the book does not focus on this. It covers, among other things, the brutal system of slavery the country had 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 our literature. A must-read.

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Laurentino Gomes: 1808: The Flight of the Emperor: How a Weak Prince, a Mad Queen, and the British Navy Tricked Napoleon and Changed the New World

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Written by one of the most influential journalists in Brazil, this is the first instalment 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 historic events, Gomes offers the reader a sprawling overview of those times in the colony.

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

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Jorge Amado: Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon

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This and The War at the End of the World are the only novels included on our list of top eight books for readers looking to understand Brazil. Written by Jorge Amado, Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon takes place in the small town of Ilheus, in the state of Bahia, during the cacao boom 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 Gabriela, who becomes his cook and mistress. The second story is the confrontation between the backward 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 underdeveloped rural and conservative region. 

Readers will be delighted to have all their senses engaged, as well as their intellects, as they immerse themselves in the world of Gabriela. Amado describes the tastes, smells, and textures 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.

Buy here.

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

Au revoir

Jorge Sette.

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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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