Brazil’s beautiful books

Cycling along the very touristy Tambau Beach on his way to the money changer on Avenida Nego, Kris stopped to check out a camelô (street vendor with a rolling/moveable cart) selling cheap little pocketbooks on the esplanade. With ugly paper covers and dark grey paper inside, the tiny books are just something for people to read as they lie on their towels in the sun, and then throw away before leaving the beach. Just seeing books for sale on the beach was weird: to think that people would choose to read! Kris assumed they would be nasty little romance, crime, or espionage novelettes— bite-sized disposable pulp fiction for the masses, but when he browsed the covers he was amazed to find authors he knew well: Julio Cortazar. Mario Vargas Llosa. Dostoevsky. Joseph Conrad. Dickens. Chekhov, of all people. It was astounding. To occupy themselves while sunbathing, Brasileiros read the classics. God almighty.

I found the same thing when I went to check out the bookstores in João Pessoa’s shopping malls; what strikes us is the high quality of the books available.

Livraria LeituraI mean two things by “quality”. First, the selection of titles/ authors is delightful. Charles Bukowski’s poetry, for instance, is conspicuous. I saw the complete essays of Virginia Woolf, in a gorgeous edition, with a jacket covered in velvet-flocked scarlet leaves and flowers; a massive tome of Edgar Allan Poe’s stories, with all the fantastic illustrations Harry Clarke did for them. The Complete Odes of Pablo Neruda (this one had me sorely tempted.) Just hundreds of the best literature, art, philosophy books, all beautifully presented and prominently displayed at the front of the bookstores, not just relegated to a small shelf in the back.

I also mean the physical forms of the books themselves, the books as objects. Fine publishing seems to be alive and well in Brazil; there were so many really beautifully produced books: embossed jackets, stamped foil titles, gilt or coloured page edges, ribbon bookmarks, sometimes a mix of different papers in one book, coloured printing on thick, soft ivory paper like cloth. Sometimes the text was printed in colour, too. Some of the books had deluxe finishing touches, like embroidered fabric bellybands, or clamshell boxes with leather straps and buckles. Some of the art books were oversized, nearly two feet long and a foot wide, with black & white photographs printed in silver halide.

A bookstore here is like a church for people who worship good design and beautifully made things. I spent hours in every one, looking at everything, though I could hardly buy these books (and I really longed to be able to buy these books in English. Some titles, like Neruda’s Complete Odes, are out of print in English. Very sad, as they are poems rich enough to eat…)

Once or twice I found a pretty book and was pleasantly surprised to find that it cost the same as a cheap hole-in-the-wall lunch, so I skipped lunch, bought the book, and snuck it home.

Po de Lua (Moondust) by Clarice Freire

Books from Brazil

Ivory pages with blue edges, this pretty book looks like someone’s Moleskine sktchbook, with all the text written by hand, and little drawings in coloured pencil. Not sure if it’s a poem, but the subtitle is “To lighten the seriousness of things”; I think it’s light, inspirational philosophy.

Freire is a young Pernambucana, from Recife (just two hours away from here). She plays with the way words are made up, connecting different parts to each other like Lego, coining new ideas and meanings.

Books from Brazil

Books from BrazilClarice Freire’s Po de Lua website has more of her drawings and poems.

Books from Brazil

Por Que Oxala Usa Ekodide by Descóredes M Dos Santos, with illsutrations by Lenio Braga, 1966.

Books from Brazil

Ekodide is a feather from an Amazon parrot, used in the initiation rituals of Orixa (Orisha) and Candomblé. This beautiful book, with its quirky handwritten text and powerful drawings by Lenio Braga, tells the story of how the ekodide came to be used in the rituals.

Books from Brazil

Books from Brazil

Fantasias by Flávio de Carvalho, with poems by Katia Canton

These gouache paintings were done by Carvalho, an architect and designer, as costumes for the ballet performance A Cangaceira, in 1953. Contemporary poems by American Katia Canton accompany each of the 15 designs.

Books from Brazil

Books from Brazil

Books from Brazil

Books from BrazilBuying brand new books is A Big No-No on this trip. Our budget can’t handle such extravagance and the rule is self-imposed. We are supposed to stick to second-hand bookstores, or (better yet) swap the books we’ve finished reading for different ones on the yacht club’s shelves (usually a dismal, ragtag selection of pulp novels), but I simply couldn’t resist these three art books, and bought them as my souvenirs of Brazil, as well as for the inspiration.

Woodwork : Casa do Artista Popular

Casa do Artista Popular
More folk arts from the Casa DO Artista Popular…woodwork, this time.
We love the little wall-hung dioramas featuring the workspaces of various craftsmen, such as those who repair the facades of the many old buildings in the city,
Casa do Artista Popular
Madeira (wood) folk art
the pharmacists
Madeira (wood) folk art
the cachaça (rum) makers
Madeira (wood) folk art
and leatherworkers.
Madeira (wood) folk art
Also, this little view of a home interior, with a tiny radio on the shelf, and a sewing machine:
Casa do Artista Popular
Madeira (wood) folk art

street art, João Pessoa (Brasil)

street art around Joao Pessoa

street art around Joao Pessoa

street art around Joao Pessoa

street art around Joao Pessoa
street art around Joao Pessoastreet art around Joao Pessoa
street art around Joao Pessoa
street art around Joao Pessoa
street art around Joao Pessoa

street art around Joao Pessoa
street art around Joao Pessoa

street art, Olinda (Brasil)

Olinda street art1
Carnaval em Olinda

Olinda street art3

DSC_0187

Carnaval em Olinda

DSC_0187_2

DSC_0142

Carnaval em Olinda

street art around Joao Pessoa

sketchwalk

26 Feb sketchwalk1
We went on a proper sketchwalk yesterday…left the camera at home to avoid the temptation to be lazy and use the excuse that I’m going to draw from photographs, later (really, really not the same…and you can see it very clearly in the drawings). I took a homemade brown paper bag sketchbook, a sepia felt-tip pen, a water brush and my watercolors, a white Steadtler Omnichrom pencil for highlights.

We took the 7:35 train into the Centro Historico, walked up the hill to the same mustard-yellow church, Igreja de São Pedro Gonçalves, that I’d photographed last Monday, and I found a cozy corner to sit in, right next to the Hotel Globo, a grand first subject. Kris walked off toward the train crossing to draw the little shacks and people on the other side of the tracks (European-style architecture doesn’t stir his soup, he grew up drawing castles and medieval buildings in Prague).

An hour and a half later we wandered up a cobbled street so steep that it was astounding (the aptly named “Ladeira de São Francisco” or Slope of Saint Francis) till we came to a stone bunker, the Casa da Pólvora (Gunpowder House, where they kept the gunpowder to defend the city). From this high vantage point I sketched the church we’d just left behind, looking over the brick roofs of its abandoned abbey buildings, the city, mangroves and hazy river lying behind.
26 Feb sketchwalk2

I only got two drawings done…I think I was trying too hard to accurately draw the Hotel Globo, and got mired in the details of perspective for far too long. We stopped at noon, when the sun beat down on the cobbled streets and there were no patches of shade to hide under in the Historical Center. We had lunch at a little open air rodizio (you are given a plate piled high with black bean stew, rice, and spaghetti noodles…and a waiter walks around with huge skewers of various char-grilled meats, and slices of the pieces you choose. He will keep on coming around, to pile more meat on your plate, until you ask him to stop. We pay $5.50 for two)

Then we went home.

The train runs from Cabedelo to Sta. Rita, along the ancient sugarcane-hauling route; João Pessoa and Jacaré are just two stations apart. One ride on the train, from anywhere to anywhere, costs 50 centavos…that’s 17 US cents. Mass transport is heavily subsidized by the Brazilian government. The trains are old, but very clean, extremely safe (two armed military police walk the length of the train during every single trip it makes) punctual, and never crowded. With going into the city so easy and cheap, I would like to go on sketchwalks several times a week…I have found that nothing makes me happier, while here, than sitting for a few hours and drawing what I see.

A city’s historical center

As casas do colonial

I sure hope you like the colonial Portuguese style of colorful, baroque houses as much as I do…because here are some more, and I suspect there will be months and months more of these confections.

As casas do colonial

We took the train into João Pessoa the other day, and walked around the city’s Centro Historico. This is where the city was founded in 1585…not at all near the beaches on the coast, overlooking the Atlantic ocean, but a good way inland, along the sleepy banks of the Rio Paraiba, where ships could dock and load up on sugar and extremely valuable brasil wood coming from the interior (hence the proximity of the railway to the Historical Center).

As casas do colonial

Unlike Olinda, with its very narrow streets and its air of a museum and residential area, the “wedding cake” buildings of João Pessoa are actively used as business premises.

As casas do colonial

At seeming variance with the vivid colour combinations, the frilly plaster mouldings, and the wrought iron balconies, the businesses housed in this area are mostly hardware and construction supplies, industrial spare parts, automobile parts and garages.

As casas do colonial

And while there are pockets in the area where the houses have been restored and done up to please the tourists and to live up to the bright images in the brochures, most of the buildings are succumbing to a slow decay. On some streets, entire house blocks have not been touched since the houses were built, 500 years ago. These houses are stripped to bare brickwork. The roofs are gone. The doors have been boarded up (sometimes the entire house has been filled in, with rubble and concrete, to discourage squatters). Trees grow inside the houses, vines creep up the once-ornate baroque facades.

DSC_0051

And much as I love the candy-coloured houses restored by money from benevolent societies in Switzerland and the UNESCO, I am more affected by the untouched buildings that stand as they have since they were built.

As casas do colonial

As casas do colonial

I think of what glorious, grand homes for the wealthy Portuguese traders they must have once been, and what an amazing little city João Pessoa must have been at the height of its commercial and political eminence, when it was the “CBD” of the state, and not just a patchily preserved wreck, propped up by historical societies.

As casas do colonial

Sink or Swim : : Learning a new language

Falar Portuguese
You can be physically present in a new country, yet find yourself completely cut-off from anything real by several invisible barriers. Language is always the first hurdle…years of studying Spanish didn’t help me in Brazil, where too many words are dissimilar, and the few that are similar are often pronounced differently, mean something else, or are conjugated differently. It soon became clear that we were going to have to learn Portuguese.

After a week in Jacaré I was feeling very depressed: there was no one to talk to but Kris, and I was too nervous to venture into the town on my own. I was too vain to use the few words I’d learned at home in actual encounters with locals…self-conscious of the way I was sure to mutilate and mispronounce their musical, sibilant language…terrified that no one would understand a word I was saying.

Then something broke inside me…I was miserable inside this cage of my own fear, and I simply had to make contact with another human being. So I set off on my own for a day, to buy some clothes better suited to the tropics, and I armed myself with a dozen words for things I needed, and the life-saving sentence “I’m sorry, I don’t speak Portuguese.”

I imposed one rule on myself: I was not allowed to ask the question “Do you speak English?” Even though it’s possible that some people do, there’s no reason why they should. I am the one who has presumed to visit their country, after all, and it is for me to speak their language (or make a fool of myself, trying).

I had a fantastic time. People were so patient with me, and corrected my pronunciation, or taught me how to say things better. They encouraged me, and tried different ways of saying something when I didn’t, at first, get their meaning. I accepted that I would sound like an idiot, banished my fear of blurting things out, and gave myself up to learning from others, instead of trying to come across as someone who knew what she was doing. I tried on and bought clothes, found some wonderful art books, a couple of drawing pens and ink, a map of the city. I got a crash course on local music from a taxi driver. I felt a little more like a normal human being (then I went to Olinda the next weekend, got happily drunk, and couldn’t be made to shut up!)

The experience filled me with hope, and I have thrown myself into studying the language with renewed enthusiasm. Most days in Jacaré are uneventful…we don’t run around doing tours or ticking all the tourist must-see-spots off a guidebook list. We do the groceries, the laundry, check the internet, cook our meals on the boat, write a few letters, and then hunker down for 2 hours of language study every day.
sink or swim

I split my study time between studying grammar (regular verb conjugations), vocabulary (memorizing 10 words for everyday things like the names of vegetables), and pronunciation (one Pimsleur Brazilian Portuguese audio lesson per day…mainly because Portuguese has many nasal and throaty sounds that are unfamiliar to me)

Brazil journal spread

Brazil spreadStarted this two-page spread the day we arrived, filling in each letter as I experienced more of the place.

Brazil spread

T


P.S. The Wi-Fi at the marina we’re using as land base is terrible…I have had to scale the quality down of my uploads. Sorry ’bout that.