23 July 2012

Reading English in Brazil

Back on May 14th I wrote about three things I miss about the USA now that I live in Brazil. I realize that I forgot one. I forgot public libraries. I miss my frequent trips to the Jefferson Market branch of the New York Public Library system. I miss the hush of a public library, I miss the anticipation I used to feel walking into one, not knowing what I might find among the rows of books waiting to be read and savored. Since childhood I've always found shelves full of books very reassuring. I find the act of browsing among books calming. And wherever I lived, I made sure to dedicate a lot of wall space to floor-to-ceiling bookshelves.

. . . in Hoboken, NJ
. . . in New York City

. . . and in Búzios

Our sebo home away from home
Unfortunately, I'm unable to continue my romance with public libraries here in Brazil, certainly in Búzios, where the municipal and state libraries leave much to be desired. And although the gorgeous Brazilian bookstores like Argumento, Letras & Expressões, and Cultura fill the browsing need with their books, CDs and DVDs, they're still and all not the same as a free public library. But not to worry! I have found excellent sources of reading pleasure. First and foremost are the fabulous sebos (used-book stores) of Rio. My favorite? Baratos da Ribeiro in Copacabana, run by Maurício Gouveia, who's always happy to see "the Americans from Búzios" settling in for a good, long, bargain-filled shopping spree. Rio usually also has some book fair set up in a park or plaza, and I've managed to make some real finds at these fairs. 
This was someone's vacation read?
Most recently, on our trips to Rio we've been staying at a pousada in Santa Teresa which has shelves full of books that guests from all over the world leave behind. It functions as a book exchange. Mark is still reeling from putting his hands on David Foster Wallace's 981-page Infinite Jest, an amazing find. (Who would read that casually, and then even more casually leave it behind?) My latest coup at the pousada was Stieg Larsson's "Millennium" series. Can't get any more candy for this baby than that!

Strange what washes up here
When I first moved to Brazil I had some idea that I would read one book in English, then one book in Portuguese, then one in English, and so on and so forth. That discipline lasted about a year. I now admit publicly that I've taken to reading four or five books in English for every one I read in Portuguese. But I can't help it. The books in English that turn up here in Brazil are delightfully surprising and compelling. Sure, if you poke around in the sebos you might be lucky enough to find one of "the Jonathans" (that's Franzen, Ames, Safran Foer or Lethem), but you're more likely to find an oddity such as Thorne Smith's Night Life of the Gods. I'd never heard of Smith, but he wrote the Topper novels back in the '20s, and single-handedly created the modern American ghost. I've had the fun of finding a dark satire that's been out of print for 35 years, Stanley Crawford's Gascoyne. I've recently come upon Chester Himes, author of All Shot Up, a novel not quite Raymond Chandler and not quite Dashiell Hammett, but sharing space in that stratosphere. And I couldn't stop laughing at Calvin Trillin's Tepper Isn't Going Out. I knew Calvin Trillin, but I'd never read this book that only a New Yorker who's driven around and around, looking for a precious parking space, could embrace.

My Bromfield collection
I'm always coming across a Louis Bromfield novel. Who? Oh, just one of those fascinating early 20th century American characters, an Ohio farm boy who went off to drive an ambulance in France in WWI, and returned after the war to a distinguished career as journalist, music critic, advertising manager and agricultural expert. He also found time to write some 30 novels, none of which I'd ever heard of but many of which were turned into films that I saw on The Late, Late Show some 45 years ago. When I see his name, I grab the book. I've been struck by the number of Tunisian, Moroccan and Iranian women authors who've been translated into English and whose books have ended up here in Brazil. I grab them, too, when I see them, and have never been disappointed. There's a steady stream of Swedish and Dutch police thrillers that end up here as well, usually in their English versions, but sometimes in Portuguese. The big question, of course,  is just how do these books end up in Brazil? That would be an interesting mystery to plumb, but right now, with the 743-page Millennium III staring me in the face, it's time to settle down with a good book.


  1. Your frustration with lack of libraries here in Brazil corresponds to my fascination with libraries in the UK and in the US.

    After reading your blog for a while, the image I have of your place is of a very peculiar spot. Now that I know there is a library in it, that had past lives in NJ and NY, it has become even more fascinating. Tell me: if one enters your library, can he/she feel the smell of paper?

    Tell me: has the birth of electronic books impacted the growth rate of your shelves? It has impacted mine, and I feel bad about it.


    1. I don't want to break the spell, Renan, but when you walk into our Búzios library you mostly smell mustiness! Not much we can do with maresia...
      I will admit that yes, I have a Kindle, and I read many books on it. But these are books I couldn't have found otherwise, and I'm grateful for the Kindle library. But every now and then I feel the need for a real book in my hands. So we do still go to the sebos, and keep filling our shelves, albeit at a slower rate!