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Reading is probably the best way of traveling without leaving the comforts of home. And reading about a place as suggestive as Brazil can be particularly enthralling, as you can easily let your imagination run wild. With that in mind, we’ve put together a list of the 20 best books about Brazil to help you discover the South American giant through words.
Contemporary Brazilian novels
Ever since Romantic authors first started writing novels in the 19th-century, Brazil has been giving birth to an endless amount of top-notch writers. Oddly enough, most are still obscure in the English-speaking world precisely for writing in Portuguese. With readers’ ever increasing interest in the country, though, versions of great books like the ones below have become widely available.
1. City of God by Paulo Lins (1997)
It’s ironic to start off a list of famous Brazilian books with one that originated a movie more well-known than itself. But that’s exactly why many readers will feel compelled to read it.
Lins, born and raised in the favela that lends its name to the novel, tells the deadly story of the rise of drug trade in his community with scathing humor. This is without a doubt a modern classic of historical fiction.
2. House of the Fortunate Buddhas, by João Ubaldo Ribeiro (1999)
Like fellow Bahian Jorge Amado (see no. 11), Ubaldo Ribeiro explored in his stories the full spectrum of his home state’s colorful charm. A recipient of the highly prestigious Camões Prize and a member of the Brazilian Academy of Letters, he might seem the kind of author least likely to write an erotic novel.
Except he did, in no uncertain terms. To his credit, he swore that all he did was transcribe the statements of a rather unique 68-year-old lady. Whether you believe him or not, you shouldn’t miss this lovely book.
3. Ponciá Vicencio by Conceição Evaristo (2003)
A late-blooming writer, Evaristo added much of her own story into “Ponciá Vicêncio”, her disconcerting and brilliant magnum opus. In it, the author narrates the hardships and the journey of self-discovery of an Afro-Brazilian woman who moves to a bigger city in order to escape from poverty.
4. Spilt Milk by Chico Buarque (2009)
One of Brazil’s most successful singer-songwriters, Chico Buarque first took to writing novels in the 1970s. But it wasn’t until the early 90s that he started publishing a streak of bestselling books.
“Spilt Milk” is the fourth of the six novels he’s written since. A sort of Brazilian “One Hundred Years of Solitude”, memoir-style, it tells the story of an old man tracing his lineage back to colonial times.
Foreign authors’ novels set in Brazil
It’s not hard to understand why non-Brazilian writers would choose to set one of their stories in Brazil: it’s an intriguing place that yet doesn’t get a lot of airtime in the English-speaking media. If reading about Brazil as defined by Brazilian authors might be a tad too specific for you, these three books by British and American novelists are just what you’re looking for.
5. Brazil: A Novel by John Updike (1994)
After 23 novels and two Pulitzers, John Updike needs no introduction. He’ll have you read this book from cover to cover in no time. Updike created a modern retelling of Tristan and Isolde’s love story set between Rio and western Brazil. This is hands down one of the most emotional books about Brazil on our list.
6. Heliopolis by James Scudamore (2009)
Scudamore tells the story of Ludo, a boy born into poverty who’s eventually adopted by a wealthy family. Using a first-person narrative — a brave choice for a foreign author writing an entirely local story — the author explores São Paulo’s sharp contrasts and inequalities in this thrilling novel.
7. State of Wonder by Ann Patchett (2011)
Award-winning Ann Patchett wrote one of the most poetic of our 20 books set in Brazil. While on a journey into the depths of the Amazon forest, an American pharmacologist faces a thread of surprises, dangers, and goes through an arc of self-discovery. The novel’s intense plot and superb writing make for an awesome read.
Timeless Brazilian books
With all due respect to Mark Twain, a classic doesn’t have to be something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read. The following novels by Brazilian writers stood the test of time because they’re compelling and still have things to tell us today.
8. Dom Casmurro by Machado de Assis (1899)
This novel prompted the most notorious unanswered question in all of Brazilian literature — “Did Capitu cheat on Bentinho?”. (It doesn’t really matter.)
A marvelous example of Realist prose by literary genius Machado de Assis, it’s written as a memoir focusing on the central character’s youth and marriage. Though bitter in tone, “Dom Casmurro” is a deliciously dark comedy that offers a glimpse into life in late-19th-century Rio.
9. The Sad End of Policarpo Quaresma by Lima Barreto (1915)
Policarpo Quaresma is a slightly extravagant if well-meaning patriot. Convinced of Brazil’s and his own higher purpose, he’ll try his best — in the most awkward ways — to help his country achieve its rightful glory. “The Sad End…” remains a fitting satire and a soothing and engaging read for trying times.
10. S. Bernardo by Graciliano Ramos (1934)
In the 1930s, a radical change in Brazil’s political landscape triggered a literary revolution. A Neorealist wave with a regionalist approach took over the country. Graciliano Ramos is one of the most celebrated writers from this period.
“S. Bernardo” is perhaps less famous than Ramos’ masterpiece “Barren Lives”. Yet its somewhat lighter plot will please readers coming in contact with Brazilian books for the first time. Set in the countryside in northeastern Brazil, it tells the story of Paulo Honório, an ambitious self-made man, and his relationship with idealistic Madalena. Their conflicting worldviews set the tone for an enduring novel.
11. Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon by Jorge Amado (1958)
Before Paulo Coelho (whom we didn’t include here because we wanted to look beyond the obvious), Jorge Amado was the absolute bestselling Brazilian author. Setting most of his stories in his home state of Bahia, a place as sunny as it’s laden with history, Amado deftly interwove social criticism, romance, and comedy in his works.
“Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon” tells the love story between its namesake, a naïve cook from the Bahian hinterland, and Seu Nacib, her good-natured boss. Interestingly, it can be read as a portrait of the fast-changing Brazilian society of the 1920s as well. Spawning two hit soaps and a movie starring Marcello Mastroianni and Sônia Braga, it’s as classic as it gets when it comes to Brazilian literature.
Brazilian poetry books
The most fascinating thing about poets is that they put their message across in an indirect yet crystal clear way. So the next three Brazilian books are perfect for readers in search of a symbolic grasp of Brazil, one almost as large as the country itself.
12. Of Death. Minimal Odes by Hilda Hilst (1980)
Hailing from a small town in the state of São Paulo, Hilst, a multi-skilled writer influenced by Joyce and Becket, went on to become one of the most revered authors of the Portuguese-speaking world. She ventured into poetry, novels, and screenplays, and has since been translated into six languages.
“Of Death”, one of her more mature works, boasts a mystical, sensuous set of poems about its subject matter. It might as well be the densest of the books about Brazil we’re presenting here.
13. Multitudinous Heart: Selected Poems by Carlos Drummond de Andrade (2015)
No serious list of Brazilian poetry could skip Carlos Drummond de Andrade, outright the most popular Brazilian poet of the 20th century. Rio, Drummond’s adopted city, built a bronze statue in his honor at none other than Copacabana Beach. That’s to show how huge he is in his home country.
I’d say this anthology of works by the poet from Itabira, as literature aficionados affectionately call him, makes for a truly indispensable read.
14. This Earth, That Sky by Manuel Bandeira (2018)
A pioneer of modernist poetry in Brazil, Manuel Bandeira was writing free verses while it was still largely scoffed at by the Brazilian intelligentsia. This bilingual anthology, first published in 1989, is the translation of another 1968 poem collection. Made up of colloquial and irreverent works, characteristic to Bandeira, it’s overall a great introduction to the much-beloved poet.
Short-story collections by Brazilian authors
For those of you either weary of novels or lacking the time to read one, short stories might be the way to go. We’ve selected three of the best Brazilian books of this genre on the market.
15. The Third Bank of the River and Other Stories by Guimarães Rosa (1962)
Because we don’t want to scare you off, we’re not recommending Rosa’s Joycean masterpiece novel, “The Devil to Pay in the Backlands”. Instead, we’d rather have you approach him through this wonderful set of short stories about countryside folks. Artfully mixing social criticism, psychological realism, and thinly veiled humor, these tales are very enjoyable.
16. Oxford Anthology of the Brazilian Short Story, edited by Kenneth David Jackson (2006)
Choosing between the books about Brazil we’re discussing here might be tough if you’ve never heard of any of these authors. That’s why we wanted to add this book to our list: you’ll be able to decide which ones you enjoy the most.
It includes stories by household names Machado de Assis, Graciliano Ramos, Jorge Amado, Hilda Hilst, as well as the two other writers in this section, and 30+ others. Calling it thorough would be an understatement.
17. Complete Stories by Clarice Lispector (2018)
In addition to being a gifted novelist, Clarice Lispector was one of the most prolific Brazilian short story writers. She’s famous for providing her characters with rich inner worlds and sudden revelations. This anthology, with works spanning her entire career, is guaranteed to make you a fan of hers.
Non-fiction books about Brazil
We thought it might be a good idea to include a couple options for readers who want the real deal. What do we mean by that? Basically, learning about the culture and history of Brazil without the rose-tinted glasses of fiction.
18. Brutality Garden: Tropicalia and the Emergence of a Brazilian Counterculture by Christopher Dunn (2001)
The late 60s were as pivotal in Brazilian history as pretty much everywhere else. A group of artists led by soon-to-be-legends Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil changed the course of Brazilian pop music for good. Their achievement: fight a vicious dictatorship with satire and nonconformism.
They came up with a new sound for a new age. What’s more: inspired by sources as distinct as The Beatles, Carmen Miranda, and João Gilberto, the creator of Bossa Nova. This fantastic essay by Christopher Dunn will tell you the whole story.
19. Carnival under Fire by Ruy Castro (2003)
Informative yet fully engaging, this is a personal favorite of mine. Ruy Castro, the author, is a very talented urban chronicler. He seems determined to let you know just how much he worships his hometown, Rio (and maybe make you fall in love with it too).
This book is much more than a collection of curious anecdotes spanning the city’s 450+ years worth of stories, though. It’s literary-journalism-meets-microhistory at its finest.
20. Futebol Nation: The Story of Brazil through Soccer by David Goldblatt (2014)
Despite being more serious than its title might reveal, “Futebol Nation” makes for a highly entertaining read about the history of Brazil. Goldblatt takes a sociological approach to the subject. But he also makes sure to discuss how the peculiar way Brazilians play soccer charms so many people around the globe.
Even if you can’t hop on a plane for Rio right now, your Brazilian adventure doesn’t have to wait. Hopefully, our list of the 20 hottest books about Brazil will have you daydreaming about your next trip. On top of that, you can get acquainted with such a fascinating country.
And in case you’re still looking for reasons to visit Brazil asap, don’t forget to check out our post on what Brazil is famous for and the finest Brazilian souvenirs to bring home. You’ll feel like you don’t have enough room in your luggage to fit such mouthwatering food and stunning accessories!