Friday, October 16, 2015

Nonfiction: Dancing with the Devil in the City of God by Juliana Barbassa

I picked up Juliana Barbassa's Dancing with the Devil in the City of God: Rio de Janeiro on the Brink because I have loved the city she focuses on ever since I visited in 2010 for a mission trip. My church has sent small missionary groups to Rio de Janeiro for many years now, and I was always told that the city is all at once one of the prettiest, and one of the filthiest, places in the world. As Barbassa was born in Brazil - and after having moved around a lot her entire life she finally settled there again and continued her journalism career - I was interested to read her thoughts and findings about a country that always seems to be moving forward and backward at the same time, while being both beautiful and sometimes unflinchingly ugly.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a nonfiction book written by a native of Brazil who moved away from the country at a young age due to her father's job. After living all over the world, Barbassa moved from San Francisco back to Brazil in late 2010. Interestingly enough, her new life in Brazil and coverage of Rio starts in the fall after I had visited the city with my church group that previous summer. The city was already preparing to host both the World Cup in 2014 and the Olympic Games in 2016, and many were dubious (and would remain so) that Rio could pull it off. From the story that the first few chapters of Barbassa's book tell, my team got out just in time. In an effort to clean up the city and make it safer, two promises that were made when Rio went after the Olympic bid, the police would make a serious effort to crackdown on the hold drug lords had over pretty much every slum, or favela, across the city. This crackdown would result in the loss of many lives, not just those targeted, and would cost the city a good amount of money. And the clean-up attempt was just getting started. Thousands would be removed from their homes in an effort to make space on valuable real estate for more upscale homes, sport venues, and tourist attractions. And while Brazil's economy had been showing signs of promise for years, things would once again take a dive as the World Cup drew closer, causing social unrest. The book ends just after the World Cup, when Brazil would suffer that humiliating and unforgettable loss to Germany with a final score of 7-1. For Brazil, soccer has always been more than just a sport. But in 2014, to have won the World Cup at home would have perhaps been a marker that everything would turn out okay. The fact that the team lost in their own MaracanĂ£ Stadium left many uncertain, some without hope, and still some continued to simply carry on.

My Verdict: There were no parts of this book that were boring or uninteresting. Even when Barbassa was rattling off numbers and statistics, the book remained engaging and the information was always relevant and helpful. The author painted this picture of a city with such scenic beauty and such promise, but years of corruption and misuse of people and land somehow undermine even the most practical plans for restoration. While plans will be announced to clean up this or put an end to that, the citizens of Rio remain doubtful because they've heard it all before, and aren't much surprised when there is no follow through. Barbassa does not shy away from the parts of Rio that are often unsuccessfully hidden from tourists. Of course there is mention of Ipanema and Copacabana, but there is also mention of the dangerous mudslides that killed thousands and crushed whole neighborhoods; the city's attempts to take land from a favela because they wanted to build it up in anticipation of the Olympics; the bloody war to end criminal control over favelas; and the various environmental issues that plague the city. Although I haven't been there in five years, and even then I was only there for ten days, it seems that Barbassa painted Rio as it is, with both its beauty and its flaws.     

Favorite Moment: Although it is probably painful to actually deal with and I'm sure it was no fun to endure, I most enjoyed Barbassa's description of the bureaucracy she had to endure while getting her first apartment. People who complain about red tape in the US have no clue how bad it could actually be.

Recommended Reading: For anyone interested in nonfiction about locations around the world, I recommend Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China by Evan Osnos. This book gives fascinating insight into the New China and how the country got to where it is today.

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