Publishing Info: Doubleday, February 2009
Book Specs: 299 pages
Book Category: Non-Fiction
The Lost City of Z combines true-life adventure, history, biography and travel narrative in one book. The book chronicles journalist David Grann’s investigation into the mystery of what happened to British explorer Percy Fawcett, who disappeared in the Amazon in 1925 while searching for the Lost City of Z — the remnants of an ancient civilization that Fawcett was convinced lay within the jungle of the Amazon.
Grann was not the first person to become fascinated — perhaps even obsessed — with Fawcett’s fate. Hundreds of others tried to find out what happened, and the majority never returned. As recently as 1996, a Brazilian explorer attempted to find out what befell Fawcett — and his party ended up being abducted by one of the indigenous Indian tribes that populate the Amazon. Despite the dangers and his unpreparedness for such an undertaking (he had never been camping before!), Grann becomes increasingly obsessed with uncovering Fawcett’s fate as he investigates the explorer’s life and the clues Fawcett left behind documenting his belief in the existence of Z — despite many scientists arguing that an advanced civilization could not possibly live and thrive in the Amazon (which many believe to be a “counterfeit paradise”).
The book moves back and forth between the past and the present — alternating between Fawcett’s life and Grann’s investigation. Along the way, the reader is treated to many interesting historical tidbits (e.g., how the Royal Geographic Society was formed and its contributions to mapping the planet, the influence that Fawcett had on the works of Arthur Conan Doyle) and numerous “adventure tales” about explorers — as well as the reasons why scientists disagree about whether a city like Z could exist in a place like the Amazon.
Does Grann find the answers he is searching for? Was he able to discover what fate befell Fawcett — or did he come up empty-handed like everybody else? Is there really evidence of a Lost City of Z? Well, I’m certainly not going to tell you — you’re going to have to read the book and find out for yourself!
I read The Lost City of Z as part of my Summer Reading Challenge– and if there is ever a place where you should be an armchair traveler, it is the Amazon. For me, one of the most fascinating aspects of the book was the horrible things that can happen to you in the Amazon. Aside from the hostile native tribes (still a very real threat today), here is just a small sampling of what you might find or what might befall you:
- Bees drawn to sweat (called “eye lickers” by the Brazilians)
- Espundia — an illness caused by a parasite transmitted by sand flies that destroys the flesh around the mouth, nose and limbs as if the person was slowly dissolving
- Sauba ants that can reduce clothes or equipment to threads in a single night
- Parasitic worms that cause blindness
- Red hairy chiggers that consume human tissue
- Kissing bugs — whose bite transfers a protozoan that might cause your heart and brain to swell 20 years later
- 6-foot electric eels that can electrocute you to the point of losing consciousness and drowning.
There was also a description of a fish that lives in the Amazon river that attaches itself to the penis or vagina and sucks the blood out of you. I couldn’t find the page with that description — probably because I fainted dead away after reading about it and didn’t mark the page. (Just kidding … about the fainting, not the fish.)
I’ve always been fascinated with stories of people (almost always men; women just don’t seem to do this kind of stuff!) who live through horrific conditions and risk their lives for the possibility of discovering something that may or may not exist. The Lost City of Z (also known as El Dorado) is one of those explorer myths — like the Fountain of Youth — that drives men to the point of madness. To give up your life for something like this is beyond me — but this type of personality almost always has a compelling biography. Fawcett is no exception.
Fawcett’s story is truly engrossing and fascinating, and you begin to understand why so many people were drawn to the stories of his exploits and explorations. As Grann writes:
He was the last of the great Victorian explorers who ventured into uncharted realms with little more than a machete, a compass, and an almost divine sense of purpose…[he] was believed to have such unrivaled powers of endurance that a few colleagues even claimed he was immune to death. An American explorer described him as “a man of indomitable will, infinite resource, fearless”; another said that he could “outwalk and outhike and outexplore anybody else.”
Yet the flip side to this personality is the toll it takes on the person’s family. The book does explore Fawcett’s rather unconventional and tragic home life, and I just couldn’t help but feel sorry for his wife, sons and daughter who ended up suffering because of his need to return again and again to the Amazon. In fact, his youngest son accompanied him on his final journey into the Amazon.
The book is filled with so many interesting facts, stories and history lessons that I could go on and on about all the fascinating things I learned while reading this book. But it seems silly to keep going on about it here. If what I’ve talked about here has piqued your curiosity, then my suggestion is to get a copy of the book for yourself!
My Final Recommendation
I thought the book was an excellent read — exciting, repulsive, enlightening, educational, tragic, and mysterious. Like so many before, the reader is drawn to the mystery of what happened to Fawcett. Was he really on the trail of the Lost City of Z when he disappeared? Is there any evidence such a city even exists? If these questions intrigue you and you enjoy real-life adventure books with a bit of history and biography mixed in, then this book is a must. And if you are considering a trip to the Amazon, I suggest you read this book first and then decide whether you want to go. My guess is you’ll change your mind and go somewhere a little more hospitable!
I won my Advanced Reading Copy (ARC) as part of a giveaway from Caite’s always entertaining and informative blog …A Lovely Shore Breeze.
And I saw that there is a movie being made of this book — and guess who is slated to play Fawcett? Brad Pitt! Not quite who I imagined but hey — if I’m going to vicariously explore the Amazon, I’d just as soon go with Mr. Pitt.
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