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Friday Reads: 5 Rings, 5 Books For Rio

As the world turns its eyes toward Rio in preparation for the 2016 Olympic Games, people everywhere are immersing themselves in Brazil's cultural offerings—food, art, music, and, of course, literature. For decades, readers have taken to the poetry and fiction of Machado de Assis and Jorge Amado and the stories of experimental giants like Clarice Lispector and Hilda Hilst.

These are essential voices in the country's extensive literary canon. But there is also much to discover, especially if — understandably — your familiarity with modern Brazilian writers stops at Paul Coelho, whose flat-footed, quasi-inspirational mush has sold hundreds of millions of books across the world. Eager readers, do not be dismayed: There are many fresh and exciting new voices that are truly revitalizing the landscape of Brazilian letters.

Here are notable books from five of Brazil's best and brightest.

Friday Reads: Five For Rio

Brazillionaires: Wealth, Power, Decadence, and Hope in an American Country

by Alex Cuadros

The Portuguese-speaking American journalist and writer Alex Cuadros' new book grew from his experiences dissecting the lives of the ultra-rich in São Paulo, where he spent years reporting on the billionaire class for Bloomberg News. It's a thoughtful and deeply reported account of Brazil's economic rise and fall, which has boiled over in the worst recession the country has ever seen. "In Brazil, you can't cut straight to the chase," Cuadros writes. "You need to ease into business, glide through some small talk, something about soccer, the weather, traffic." With a sharp and commanding eye, Cuadros illuminates Brazil's beauty as well as its flaws, shining a much needed light on its most influential people and their insatiable quest for wealth and power. Smart and wildly entertaining.

Blood-Drenched Beard

by Daniel Galera

One of Brazil's most lauded young novelists, Daniel Galera's English debut is a captivating, slow-burn of a book. Translated by Alison Entrekin, it centers on a nameless protagonist who suffers from prosopagnosia (commonly known as face blindness), a condition that does not allow him to recognize faces, including his own. After his dying father reveals to him the hard truth surrounding his grandfather's death, the young man embarks on a mission to find answers, but his rare condition only complicates matters. Galera (who is also an acclaimed translator, having rendered the fiction of Zadie Smith, John Cheever and David Foster Wallace into Portuguese) has achieved something lasting here. Blood-Drenched Beard is an all-together wonderful and seductive novel.

The Head of the Saint

by Socorro Acioli

For young adult fans looking for a quick yet mesmerizing read, The Head of the Saint by Brazilian writer and journalist Socorro Acioli is a treat of the magical realist variety. Translated by Daniel Hahn, it's Acioli's U.S. debut, and the story of how it came about is almost as interesting as the story itself. In 2006, Acioli was chosen to participate in a workshop conducted by the most important writer in her life, Gabriel García Márquez. Márquez chose her submission based on the strength of the synopsis — a 14-year-old homeless boy who can hear the private prayers and longings of villagers in a small town in Brazil. It's an enchanting read that you'll find difficult to put down.

Diary of the Fall

by Michel Laub

Michel Laub's novel is, true to its title, a diary of sorts. Written as a series of ruminations by an unnamed narrator, it ranges from stories and anecdotes to short, numbered meditations on the Holocaust and its survivors. A visionary and oftentimes dazzling book, Diary of the Fall recalls the forcefulness of memory and examines the horrific events of the Holocaust from new and striking perspectives. In the end, it compels us to look at our own pasts and decide if — and how — we will allow them to shape us and the decisions we make.

Crow Blue

by Alison Entrekin and Adriana Lisboa

Award-winning Brazilian writer and poet Adriana Lisboa lays it all on the line in her gripping coming-of-age novel Crow Blue. She delves into the complex underpinnings of Brazilian politics through the eyes of 13-year-old Vanja, who leaves Rio for America in search of her biological father after her mother dies. "Being thirteen is like being in the middle of nowhere," Vanja complains. "Which was accentuated by the fact that I was in the middle of nowhere. In a house that wasn't mine." What follows is a heartfelt and lyrical trek down the path of discovery, identity, and what it means to belong in the world.

Juan Vidal is a writer and critic for NPR Books. He's on Twitter: @itsjuanlove

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Juan Vidal