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published on April 20, 2004

Brazil Books: A BrazilMax Reading List

by Bill Hinchberger

CCBNB Fortaleza
Letter to Clarice Lispector writer from her boyfriend Maury Gurgel in 1941
For our Brazil Travel Guide picks, and critical blurbs of competing guidebooks, scroll down to the middle of the page.

Essential Reading

Andrade, Mario de - Macunaima - fantasy that captures some essential elements of Brazilian society.

Assis, Machado de - Epitaph of a Small Winner - possibly the best novel by a world class writer.

Cunha, Euclides da - Rebellion in the Backlands - reportage of the government's brutal suppression of a utopian community 100 years ago; has been called "the Bible of Brazilian nationality."

Damatta, Roberto - Carnivals, Rogues, and Heroes: An Interpretation of the Brazilian - social anthropology by a Brazilian scholar.

Guilhermoprieto, Alma - Samba - Carnival from the perspective of a regular contributor to The New Yorker.

Jesus, Carolina Maria - Child of the Dark - the diary of a shantytown dweller.

Lever, Janet - Soccer Madness - a scholarly account of Brazil's national obsession.

Levine, Robert M. and John J. Crocitti, eds. - The Brazil Reader: History, Culture, Politics - mostly by academics and mostly for undergraduates, it still provides a good overview of Brazilian society for everyone else.

Lispector, Clarice - Hour of the Star - a novel by Brazil's best ever woman writer.

O'Hanlon, Redmond - In Trouble Again - a venerated travel writer visits the Amazon.

Roosevelt, Theodore - Through the Brazilian Wilderness – Teddy’s account of his post-White House excursion through the Pantanal and the Amazon.

Souza, Mauricio - Mad Maria - fictional account of an unsuccessful attempt to build a trans-Amazonian railway.


I’m pretty critical of the major label English-language guidebooks on Brazil. In the spirit of Wal-Mart and network television, they shoot for the lowest common denominator. Many of them manage to reach pretty low.

With very few exceptions, these volumes are written by guidebook specialists, not country specialists. Brazil authors have also written guides about Australia, Eastern and Central Europe, Fiji, Indonesia, Mexico, Peru, Russia, San Diego, Spain, Vancouver and sundry other destinations. One of the more qualified authors boasted of visiting Brazil on assignment “three times in as many years.” Well, I visit Switzerland once a year on assignment. Maybe I should write a guidebook about the Alps.

Given the scanty experience of most authors, the leading guidebooks tend to downplay Brazil’s diversity. All ignore some key destinations. Brotas, the adventure tourism center in São Paulo state, appears in none of the five leading guidebooks. Itacaré, an increasingly popular destination in southern Bahia state, gets mentioned in only one. Not even Paraty, a popular coastal colonial town in Rio de Janeiro state, nor Bonito, gateway to the Pantanal, are consensus picks. The national martial art capoeira is forever typecast into a Bahian spectacle; this may help explain why otherwise well-informed expatriates ask me where they can experience capoeira in Bahia when in fact they can find it just around the corner.

Since these books are generally written by committee, they rarely have a voice. You don’t really know who is talking. Might just be some cubicle-confined Anglophone editor. No wonder that many repeat travelers to Brazil, even some with shaky Portuguese, tell me that they turn to locally-produced guidebooks.

Brazil Travel Guides: Our Picks

Footprint Brazil Handbook: The Travel Guide (3rd Edition, November 2002) - If I were to lug a guidebook around the country, this is the one I’d take. Footprint is easily the most comprehensive, and the only major guide to give a nod to the country’s diversity. Like the perennial arguments about the make-up of the Brazilian national soccer team, one could quibble with its 17 highlights. But at least they’re scattered about the country. It has more and generally better maps. The northeast is divided into two separate sections, each awarded as much attention as Rio and São Paulo.

Eat Smart in Brazil by Joan and David Peterson (Ginkgo Press) – I’d like to see more of this kind of book. Written by experts in a readable style, “Eat Smart in Brazil” provides a succinct but informative overview of the country’s culinary culture. It includes historical, ethnic and regional overviews, recipes, shopping tips (both for local markets and for when back home), a culinary phrase guide, and two Portuguese-to-English glossaries – one to help when ordering in restaurants and the other to clarify definitions of food names and cooking terminology. The Eat Smart series is published independently, under the Ginkgo Press imprint. Joan and David Peterson are literally eating their way around the world with Ginkgo. Besides Brazil, they’ve covered Turkey, Indonesia, Mexico, Poland, Morocco, and India. Next up, Peru. Unlike the run-of-the-mill globetrotting guidebook writer, this couple knows its stuff – which, of course, would be food. Click here to read an excerpt from this book.

Rio For Partiers by Cristiano Nogueira – Finally a guidebook with attitude. Praise Exu! Indeed, the spirit of Exu, divine trickster and door opener, permeates this book. But don’t look here for analysis of his place among the cornucopia of Afro-Brazilian deities. Instead author Cristiano Nogueira offers the Nine Rio Commandments. These include “Don’t Argue with Cops” (they “have the IQ of a mango and the integrity of a daffodil”) and “Don’t Walk Around with Jewelry” (“Ladies and gentlemen! This is not your turf...”). In a market dominated by timid guidebooks written by committee, all aiming for the lowest common denominator, “Rio for Partiers” stands out for its point of view – a POV that is explicitly young and single. Key sections include “How to Deal With Brazilian Boys” (“If you are in a bar or a club, a man may even send over his friend to tell you he thinks you are cute”) and “How to Deal With Brazilian Women” (the beach is one of “the worst places to meet them... they are surrounded by people they know... [They have] frequented the exact same spot their entire lives [and won’t] want to ruin their reputation by seeming ‘easy’ to strangers”). I like the idea that the “Guide will assume you will be waking up at around 10 or 11 a.m.” You might not agree with all its conclusions – Bavaria beer is highly lame – but if partying is your passion, this is the guidebook for you. Remember, the late riser gets no worms.

Philips Guides Series: National Parks, Pantanal & Bonito, The Amazon, The Northeast, and The South - Brazil is a vast country and it needs guidebooks that focus on specific regions and themes. The multinational Philips teamed up with the Brazilian magazine Horizonte Geográfico to address the niche. Each of these volumes includes 300 or more pages of photos and information about a specific region or topic. The National Park book covers 40 parks, 21 of which are officially open to visits from the general public. The book is organized by region. Each park listing contains sections on its history, scenery, and plants and wildlife. There are tips on how to get there, choosing a town for a launching pad, park infrastructure, what to see, and the climate. Practical tourist information - hotels, restaurants, etc. - can be found in a separate section at the back. The photography in these books is excellent. Unfortunately, all the space devoted to photos diminishes the usefulness of the books while on the road. Only 2-3 hotels and restaurants are listed for most cities. Philips apparently skimped on the translating: while one can usually decipher the message, the odd words out can be disconcerting.

Brazil Travel Guides: The Rest

Fodor’s Brazil (2nd edition, sometime in 2002) - The guide of choice for high rollers. Perhaps a bit more sophisticated than the competition, it aspires to the practical but winds up seeming like a list of lists. These lists can be exasperatingly bare and – sometimes – off the mark. Since this is an upscale book, and since I’m an art critic, allow me to use art galleries as an example. All major Brazilian contemporary art galleries are based in São Paulo. (One tried to make a go of it in Rio but eventually gave up and joined everybody else.) Fodor’s lists seven galleries in São Paulo. Of them, only two were considered players in the art scene when the book was published. Of those two, one has since gone bankrupt. Another half-dozen top-notch galleries, all with excellent international reputations, are ignored.

Frommer’s Brazil (1st edition, sometime in 2002) - Exile on Main Street. Mainstream and predictable. Very Rio-centric. Its top four “unforgettable things” to do in Brazil are all in Rio. I’ve done all four, but there’s a lot more to Brazil than Ipanema. Frommer’s might be described as an “air pass” guidebook: you consult it after landing in São Paulo or Rio de Janeiro with plans to use a 15-day Varig or TAM scheme to stop at three or four other obvious places. Except for the sections on Rio de Janeiro and Bahia, there’s no flavor, no detail. The book lists Ouro Preto, the colonial town in Minas Gerais state, as a side-trip from Rio. That’s like calling the St. Louis arch a side-trip from Chicago. Paraty, closer to Rio, doesn’t even warrant an honorable mention. Skimpy on the Amazon. The entire south would seem to be engulfed by the Iguaçu Falls.

Impact Guides: The Treasures and Pleasures of Rio and São Paulo – These guys take shopping to another level, and their overviews of the cities aren’t bad. The “shop ‘till you drop” philosophy seems a bit stuck in the Reagan era, but authors Ron and Caryl Krannich also help show people with money how they can turn bargain hunting into a cultural experience. They probably could have used a copy editor, São Paulo’s Liberdade district comes off as “Liberdades” in a heading, but visitors and shoppers who don’t have full command of Portuguese and can’t use the local resources should find this book useful.

Insight Guides Brazil (Updated 2001) - The tone is reminiscent of an undergrad Brazilian Studies seminar. This one’s for novice travelers who want to cram on Brazilian culture and history during the flight over. It offers some 125 pages of overview chapters written by top foreign journalists who live or have lived in the country. Most are my friends. While generally proficient, there are some obvious oversights. The section “Carnival and Other Festivals” does not even mention the increasingly popular and high profile Parintins festival in Amazonas state, and it gives short shrift to the mid-winter São João festival, even though it rivals Carnival in popularity in the northeast. The “Places” section consists of fewer than 200 pages – a quarter of which are dedicated wholly to Rio de Janeiro city and state. The rest of the country gets cursory attention. There are some excellent photos, many by John Maier. Perhaps the first third of the book should be spun-off and re-released as a companion guide.

Lonely Planet Brazil (5th edition, January 2002) - A Manaus-based expatriate tour operator tells me this is the one he sees most. Yet he makes a point of calling it “the worst written” and “too picky and self-conscious.” Lonely Planet seems to be limping along, using its brand name as a crutch. The book does stand out for its overview of Brazil’s all-important natural history. Yet its description of the Amazon follows a simplistic line that fits foreign stereotypes but hardly meshes with the more complex reality. The book is also top-heavy with detailed information about how to get your bags off the carousel. My sense is that people are getting tired of this stuff.

Rough Guide (Updated 4th Edition, October 2000) - Probably Lonely Planet’s closest rival in the “independent travel” segment, this book is written in a dry style. Like sleepwalking through paradise. It is above average in its presentation of practical information about specific places - less interesting when it comes to cultural background and orientation. Again, there are some glaring oversights. For example, because of the flood cycles, the most common weather-related question that tourists ask about Brazil is, “When’s the best time to visit the Pantanal?” Yet the Rough Guide’s “When to Go” section fails to mention that region.

Turismo Ecológico no Brasil (Quatro Rodas, in Portuguese) - Quatro Rodas has become synonymous with practical travel guidebooks in Brazil. Its national Guia Brasil and its various city guides, the latter with their easy-to-consult comprehensive street maps, are indispensable for any visitor. Like its other products, the ecotourism guide paints its topic with a broad brush but leaves a rather thin layer of information. Many hiking trails are mentioned, for example, but you won't find specific directions to them. Yet the Turismo Ecológico guide remains a good first reference. The book is organized by region and is conveniently cross-indexed by type of activity. There is also a convenient cross-reference section by city, so business travelers with a free weekend can identify cool stuff nearby. Each city section includes a general overview and tips on what to do, when to go, how to get there, what to take, where to stay and what tour agencies to contact. For the really uninitiated, the book offers tips on everything about how to prepare your backpack to how to warm-up with stretching exercises.

If you want to quibble with our selections or make a suggestion, send us a message.

Brazil Stuff

For Books, CDs, crafts, cheap long distance phone calls, capoeira gear and sundry other stuff, click here.

FLIP Paraty 2004

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