Getting to know Brazil – a reading tour

By Jim Shattuck*

When I travel I like to do a bit of reading before I leave to give me a little better insight into the country or countries I will be visiting. Not so much history texts or political primers, but rather rich novels written by native authors, since translated into English. Or maybe a sweeping historical novel that lays out a chunk of the country’s history in an interesting and provocative manner.
When it comes to Brazil I have been all over the map. I’ve read novels, histories, biographies and social anthropological texts. The country is so vast and diverse. It’s history is brief, but rich with fantastic tales of discovery, anguish, struggle and triumphs. The culture is an amazing amalgamation of immigrants, natives, slaves, gay, straight, rich and very poor. Brazil is a land of survivors, by hook or by crook.
What follows is a list of books worth considering, if you are looking to understand more about Brazil, it’s history, politics, people and culture. It is not an exhaustive list, of course, but it should serve to get you started. Suggestions for additional reading and why are welcome in the comments section – what would you recommend?

In no particular order:

  • Anything written by Brazil’s native son Jorge Amado. His novels, set in Bahia, are rich in texture, are written in a fun and lush voice and they always have a sexy hue. Consider: “Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon”, “Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands”, “The War of the Saints”, or “Tent of Miracles”. There are others.
  • Check out “Brazil”, by Errol Lincoln Uys. This is a vast novel which tells the story of a vast country from the early 1490s, just before the arrival of the first Portuguese, to 1960, the year of Brasilia’s inauguration as the new capital. A great read.
  • “The War of the End of the World”, by Peruvian author Mario Vargas Llosa. This is an unforgettable historical novel about the rebellion of the lower-class citizens of Canudos, Brazil, in the late 19th century.
  • Fernando Henrique Cardoso’s memoir “The Accidental President of Brazil” is a personal look at recent Brazilian political history and the various forces that have shaped contemporary Brazilian society.
  • “The River of Doubt; Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey”, by Candice Millard, is a fascinating tale of determination and discovery. After Roosevelt loses his 1912 US presidential bid he decides to overcome his humiliation by taking on a journey into uncharted territory in Brazil. The book, written by a former writer and editor for National Geographic, is a thoroughly satisfying account of a death defying expedition.
  • “Perverts in Paradise” is a fascinating little book about the history of homosexuality in Brazil, written by João S. Trevisan, a leader of the Sao Paulo gay rights movement in the 70s.
  • “Beyond Carnival; Male Homosexuality in Twentieth-Century Brazil”, by James N. Green, takes a hard, honest look at the reality of being a sexual minority (outlaw) in Brazil. This book shatters all the stereotypes of gay men as free spirits in a tolerant society. Excellent social history.
  • “Dance Lest We All Fall Down; Breaking Cycles of Poverty in Brazil and Beyond”, by Margaret Willson, is a touching account of the author’s anthropological fieldwork living in the slums of Salvador. Willson writes with clarity and precision about issues of class, race and gender, as well as the dynamics of sharing power in an internationally structured nonprofit organization. Inspiring.
  • “The Brazil Reader: History, Culture, Politics”, edited by Robert M. Levine and John j. Crocitti, is not for the faint of heart. This volume provides a comprehensive guide to Brazil’s history and culture. It crosses disciplines and contains articles both scholarly as well as popular.
  • Nancy Scheper-Hughes’ “Death Without Weeping; the Violence of Everyday Life in Brazil” is a voluminous ethnographic work that reads like a novel. Scheper-Hughes tells the deeply personal stories of poor women/mothers as they struggle to survive, often out surviving their children. Read this book.
  • “Laughter Out of Place; Race, Class, Violence and Sexuality in a Rio Shantytown”, by Donna M. Goldstein, is another fascinating anthropological work challenging our ideas of culture and poverty. Goldstein helps unravel the seeming incongruity of the absurdist and black-humor storytelling practices poor women employ in the face of trauma and tragedy.

*Born in the US, Jim Shattuck currently lives with his Brazilian partner Luiz in Niterói, Rio de Janeiro. A permanent resident for the past three years, Jim makes his living helping to polish the English of Brazilian professionals and by providing cross cultural business consulting and print translation services. While making a living in Brazil is no easy feat, Jim and Luiz have settled in for the long haul. You can learn more about Jim and Luiz’s daily struggles and triumphs at the blog Qualidade de Vida.

Note from Regina: I interviewed Jim some time ago for the post: Being Gay in Rio, one of Deep Brazil most popular posts.

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3 thoughts on “Getting to know Brazil – a reading tour”

  1. I found very interesting Peter Robb’s “A death in Brazil”, although I can’t check his theories because I’ve never been to Brazil.

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