- The Brazil Reader: History, Culture, and Politics edited by Robert M. Levine and John J. Crocitti, 1999 (English)
This book is a collection of articles and short stories about Brazil. It is an excellent overview of the country, its culture, history and social and economic trends. The editors devote chapters to different periods of history, to Brazilian women, race and ethnic relations, slavery, "realities" and "saudades" (nostalgia). It is an excellent way to gain a great snapshot of the country and to learn about both important historical facts and also lesser known interesting cultural trends, like about the indigenous movements.
- Culture Shock!: A Survival Guide to Customs and Etiquette in Brazil, by Volker Poelzl (English)
This book is Brazil in a nutshell, giving you all the essential information in a condensed fashion about everything you ever needed to know about Brazil, including Brazilian history, culture, food, holidays, regional differences, and vital information you need to know when visiting or moving to Brazil. Includes a section on Brazilian Portuguese and a nice little cultural "Dos and Don'ts" section that include such fun advice as: "Don't be alarmed by people randomly talking to you in public," or "Don't use the American OK sign. It is considered an obscene gesture."
- Futebol: The Brazilian Way of Life, by Alex Bellos, 2002 (English)
One of my absolute favorite books about Brazil, and one of my favorite books in general. Alex Bellos did extensive research and interviews about Brazilian soccer and managed to show, in his charming British way, just how incredibly intertwined soccer is with absolutely every aspect of Brazilian life: politics, the economy, popular culture, immigration, sociology, the media, religion, and much more. Here are a few key tidbits:
- About 5,000 Brazilians play soccer abroad, not only in Western Europe but even in "Armenia, Senegal, China, Jamaica, Lebanon, Vietnam, Australia, and Haiti."
- Brazilians love soccer so much they have invented new sports using football as the base, including something called "autoball" that involved men in cars knocking around a huge ball. It is now outlawed.
- Many professional Brazilian soccer teams have a personal Candomble priest who tries to provide the team with luck from the spirits, though this fact is not well-publicized.
- Brazil: A Traveler's Literary Companion, edited by Alexis Levitin, 2010 (English)
An interesting collection of short stories by Brazilian authors divided into sections based on region. A great overview of Brazilian literature in translation.
- Deu no New York Times, (The New York Times Had It) by Larry Rohter, 2007 (Portuguese)
A collection of the former New York Times Brazil correspondent's most important articles about Brazil, including the best of culture, society, politics, the Amazon, and science/economy. He also provides interesting insight in the introductions, giving a unique outsider perspective from a foreigner who knows Brazil and Brazilians after decades of living and working in the country.
- O Rio é assim, (That's Rio) by José Carlos Oliveira, 2005 (Portuguese)
The absolute best non-fiction book on Rio de Janeiro, though only available in Portuguese (as far as I know). A collection of essays and columns written between 1953 and 1984, it's a fascinating look at a changing city with a mixture of pure love and complete frustration. He casts a critical eye on the city's problems (many of which still persist) and also poetically expresses his adoration for all there is to love about Rio.
- O que faz o brasil, Brasil? (What Makes Brazil, Brazil?) by Roberto da Matta, 1999 (Portuguese)
A non-fiction book that summarizes most of his major works, this short work by a famous Brazilian anthropologist helped shed light on some of the things I didn't understand about Brazilian society and culture and confirmed in a very astute and concise way the things I did understand.
- Brazil on the Rise, by Larry Rohter, 2010 (English)
Larry Rohter analyzes Brazil, this time in English. It's a must-read for any foreigner interested in Brazil, and is one of the best non-fiction reads you'll find in English about Brazil. You'll learn about Brazilian history, economy, and politics as well as important cultural idiosyncracies. Plus, there's fun reading on music, film, soccer, and interesting perspectives on race and religion.
- The New Brazil, by Riordan Roett, 2010 (English)
An excellent non-fiction account by one of the great Brazilianists, this book focuses on Brazilian history and also on current events, outlining political and economic changes that have transformed the country in the last decade. It's more on the academic side, but fascinating nonetheless.
- Gabriela, Cravo e Canela (Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon), by Jorge Amado, 1958 (Portuguese; translated editions in English and Spanish)
One of Brazil's most famous novels about the shift from the old-fashioned to modern Brazil. It takes place in Ilheus, Bahia and has a Dickensian amount of characters. One of the best fictional books you can read to understand Brazil.
- Memórias póstumas de Brás Cubas, (The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas) by Machado de Assis, 1881 (Portuguese, available in English)
One of the greatest works of Brazilian literature, this novel provides a look into 19th century Brazil, including social classes, slavery, and life in Rio. It's one of Machado de Assis' most famous works that's required reading for Brazilian high school students.
- Rio de Janeiro: Carnival on Fire, by Ruy Castro, 2003. (Portuguese, available in English)
A quick and easy read about the history and spirit of Rio de Janeiro. While it actually subscribes to a lot of Rio stereotypes, there are some great stories about Rio's history and important characters from the city, as well as an explanation of why certain things are the way they are in Rio. It's a good read as long as you also read some more realistic visions of the city, too.