The More You Know… (Books)

In preparation for our move to Brazil, I tried to read everything I could get my hands on that had anything to do with the country. During my quest for knowledge I’ll have to admit I was a little disappointed in the lack of available information. I found lots of travel books but not many that dealt with the culture and history in more depth. In terms of fiction that has been translated into English, I had an even tougher time finding books. However, there were several things that I came across that I have found helpful. I thought I’d share them with you all and hopefully you will recommend some more for me. (hint, hint)

Non-fiction

1. Culture Shock! Brazil: A Survival Guide to Customs and Etiquette by Volker Poelzl

This was the first and one of the best things I’ve read about Brazil in English. I still have it  and refer back to it at times. It is an excellent starting place for anyone who is considering  relocating or planning an extended stay.  It talks briefly about almost everything concerning Brazil including religions,geography,climates, visas for Americans, what to do next after you get your permanent visa, foods, what to take when you move, illnesses, vaccines, language, history, music, sports, art, literature, grammar, business etiquette, gestures, taxes, holidays, transportation and much more. It’s a lot to pack into a little over 300 pages but Poelzl does it and does it in a clear and concise way. I highly recommend this. Make sure you get the 2009 edition though.

2. The Brazilians by Joseph A. Page 

Think of Culture Shock! Brazil as an appetizer and The Brazilians as your real meat and potatoes. At 560 pages I found this to be the most informative thing I have  read. What’s a shame is that it was published in 1996 so the history stops there but please  don’t let that stop you from reading it. It’s a long but  easy read unlike A Concise History of Brazil  by Boris Fausto (Yawn).  Some things I found most interesting were the history of the telenovelas, Xuxa’s rise to fame, Lula’s history, the story of immigrants to Brazil, the history of Globo and the religions in Brazil including the then (and still now) growing  Evangelical movement.  This book is worth your time. I followed it up (to get my history after 1996) with Brazil on the Rise: The Story of a Country Transformed by Larry Rother. I haven’t finished it yet so to be fair I won’t review it. So far, it’s okay. I’ll tell you more about it later when I’ve finished.

3. A Death in Brazil: A Book of Omissions by Peter Robb

For post 1996 Brazilian history and culture, one book I loved was A Death in Brazil: A Book of Omissions. This book is confusing, complex, non-linear, falls back passionately on itself while trying to move forward and is absolutely brilliant because of all those things. The more I get to know Brazil, the more I understand Robb’s book. A Death in Brazil is a fascinating sense driven nonlinear narrative  about Robb’s  time in Brazil and the rise and fall of  Fernando Collor. It’s  a brutal, senseless at times, hot  and corrupt over-saturation of  the senses. It’s a lurid, jumbled, beautiful mess. It is Brazil.

This book also helped fuel my then growing  interest in the historical events at  Canudos.  I tried to read Mario Vargas Llosa’s The War of the End of the World but I felt something got lost in translation with that book. I found  it dry and boring. Robb’s retelling of the story, the events that surrounded it and came after are worth reading A Death in Brazil:A Book of Omissions in and of themselves.

Mixing history and travelogue, this book is a must on my recommendation list.

Fiction

1.The Seamstress: A Novel by Frances de Pontes Peebles 

Somewhere along the way I became fascinated with the history of the cangaceiros, Lampião and Maria Bonita. Luckily I (ok, it was MGFI) found this wonderful book which both  feed my need for fiction about Brazil and added entertaining and  heartbreaking color and texture to my imagination about the real historic events. The Seamstress: A Novel, is  fiction but weaves in bits of Brazilian history with names changed and much creative license taken.  It’s a story of two sisters born in the interior of northeast Brazil in the 1920’s.  It follows their lives and is a bit of a sweeping epic novel  in the same vein as Gone with the Wind in the sense that it deals with real historic events and their effects on the characters’ lives. It’s an excellent novel on many levels and even if it had absolutely nothing to do with Brazil I would still recommend it. I say skip State of Wonder (although it does pick up a little in the end) and go for this instead.

2. The Inspector Espinosa Mysteries (series) by Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza

The first book of this series that I checked out from the library back in Richmond (sigh, I miss good public American libraries) was, Blackout: An Inspector Espinosa Mystery. Something about it interested me. I can’t say  it was life changing. It’s a basic detective novel but set in the  Copacabana neighborhood of  Rio de Janeiro. It was a quick read,  they had more and I had nothing  but time. So, shortly before we left for Brazil I had read 6 out of 7 books of the series. The 7th was in the library but had very odd looking stains and pages stuck together.  I couldn’t do it. Yes, not reading it is still haunting me but I will … someday.

I like this series and I grew to really like Chief Espinosa. When MGFI and I  finally went to Copacabana one day to visit one of her friends I jokingly asked to go to the 12th precinct to see Espinosa. To be honest though maybe part of me did secretly hope to find him there and looked for him even though I knew he wasn’t real.  The stories and their descriptions had indeed made an impression on me. Although they are fiction, they are written by a Brazilian author. So somewhere underneath and between lines about murders, jumpers and pushers you do get feel for Rio de Janeiro. I don’t know if I’d recommend them but I do know that they taught me something about Brazil that might be a little hard to explain and would also be spoilers. Let’s just say that a country’s popular fiction tells a lot of it’s facts as well. Law is not always orderly and order isn’t always lawful around these parts. The white and black hats aren’t clearly defined and in the end justice being served is sometimes… or maybe mostly questionable. Then again, I learned that too from A Death in Brazil.

Ok there’s my first list of books I liked and learned from about Brazil. If you have any recommendations, I’m all ears… or should I say eyes. Hmmm.. all eyes sounds kind of creepy like Ed Mort looks…. Anyway, let me know your recommendations or what you have read and didn’t like as well. Knowledge is power…  The more you know … (cue  shooting star)


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