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Armchair Traveler: 5 Must-Read Books that Define Brazil

June 16, 2014

Once, when fewer people traveled abroad, many had to be content as armchair travelers. Tales of foreign places and exotic lands sold very well, and in them, my parents and grandparents could export themselves all over the world, a sort of literary beaming up. Books are still the best way into the feel of a country, the emotions of a people, the imaginations, the dreams, the terrors.

Here are my picks for five great reads that will transport you to Brazil — perfectly timed, as all eyes are on the country, currently on display with the 2014 World Cup. These books deliver an insider’s look at this vast country, geographically bigger than the U.S., wildly diverse in its culture, economy, and population and best accessed (on the ground or in your armchair) by writers — and readers — with a passion for it.

"Futebol, Soccer, the Brazilian Way" by Alex Bellos

When I travel, the books I read are almost always fiction because novels take you into the guts of a country. But Alex Bellos’ non-fiction tome about football (soccer to us) is a must-read. A foreign correspondent, he attended his first match at Rio’s Macarana, the spiritual home of “Brazilian-ergo world-football.” Bellos says that we love Brazil and its game because its fans are exuberant, its style graceful, and because stars are known by their first names, as if they were friends. In Brazil, football is much more than a sport; it is life itself, a game about the heart and soul of the country, its history, its people.

In his book, Bellos also writes of the Brazilian football disapora; in a country with thousands of players, many export themselves abroad to place as remote as the Faroe Islands. He also reveals what is special about Brazilian style of play that is often described in musical terms. Music and football: Brazil’s great art forms.


"City of God" by Paulo Lins and Alison Entrekin

Set in the most notorious of Rio’s slums, or favelas, known as Cidade de Deus, this novel brilliantly recreates Brazil’s dark side, a world ruled by gangs, drugs, money, and brutality. Paulo Lins’ semi-autobiographical novel follows the lives of three boys — Squirt, Hellraiser and Hammer — from innocent childhood in the 1960s to the bloody gang wars of the 1980s. Based on his own experiences growing up, and years of research, Lins shows a world of poverty and violence with humor and compassion in a novel that encapsulates the lives of the dispossessed who live on the fringes of Brazilian society. 

"Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands" by Jorge Amando

A sweeping panorama of life in the town of Salvador, in northeastern Brazil, Jorge Amado’s witty novel of the 1960s explores social and sexual mores. We visit a brothel where intellectuals meet to discuss dubious poetry. We venture into the supernatural world of Macumba. We learn recipes crab in coconut milk, and hear disquisitions on music. Most of all, it is a paean to life and to Brazil in all its chaotic joy.

"War of the End of the World" by Mario Vargas Llosa

At the end of the 19th century, the mysterious, bearded figure of Antonio Conselheiro arrives in Bahía announcing the end of the world, and preaching love and repentance. The Peruvian Nobelist Mario Vargas Llosa tells the story of colonialism and slavery in the new Republic of Brazil. As the poor and destitute fall under Conselheiro’s spell, he finds an ally in Galileo Gall, a Scottish anarchist. One of the great historical novels of the Americas, this is a masterful book, peopled by a huge cast of unforgettable characters.

"Blood of the Wicked" by Leighton Gage

Chief Inspector Mario Silva has been called Brazil’s Kurt Wallander. In “Blood of the Wicked,” Silva takes on the case of a brutally murdered bishop. A Brazilian Federal cop in a country where there is no FBI or Secret Service, Silva and his men must do it all. Leighton Gage’s crime novels transport you to São Paulo, Manuas, and Brasilia.

Reggie Nadelson writes about travel, fashion, and culture for Travel + Leisure and Conde Nast Traveller UK. She also contributes radio pieces to the BBC’s From Our Own Correspondent and is the author of the Artie Cohen crime novels.

Want more like this? Follow us on Facebook and Twitter and keep coming back every day for Yahoo Travel’s series on the #WorldCup, with guides to the host cities, advice on safety, and great tips and insider information you won’t find anywhere else. You can also check out all our World Cup coverage here.