Book Look - The Lost City of Z, by David Grann

The 100+ year long quest to find the fabled “Lost City of Z” proves a handy frame for this larger story of the Glorious Era of Victorian Exploration: a time when men armed with little more than 60-pound packs, rudimentary navigation equipment, and iron wills pitted themselves against vast deserts, towering mountains, frigid arctic expanses, and – in the case of Colonel Percy Fawcett – the lush and pitiless Amazonian jungle.

I loved pretty much everything about this book. I loved learning more about these driven (some would say obsessed) explorers, motivated by little more than a desire to prove their courage and earn – if they were fortunate enough to survive – the admiration of their Royal Geographical Society peers. I loved learning more about the fascinating life of Colonel Fawcett, which intersected with such notables as Roosevelt, Darwin, Lawrence, Haggard, and Doyle. I loved learning more about the history of Amazon region, from the conquistadors who were among the first to penetrate those deadly woods in search of “El Dorado” through the rubber robber-barons whose ruthlessness very nearly exceeded the cruelty of those who had come before. I loved learning more about the role of yellow journalism in promulgating exploration and transforming explorers into international celebrities. And if I didn’t quite love the overarching story – in which the author, David Grann, follows in Fawcett’s footsteps in search of Z, at least the author never lets his own narrative distract from the book’s other pleasures.

Lest you be fooled by the first person narration, however, make no mistake: the real protagonist of this tale is the Amazon itself. The author does a terrific – some would say terrifying – job of making the teeming wilderness come alive: the exotic wildlife, the pitiless insects, the grotesque diseases, the cunning (sometimes perilous) natives, swollen rivers teeming with piranha, towering trees teeming with life, the harrowing juxtaposition of abundance and death.

My only regret? Wish I hadn’t left this sitting on my shelf so long before finally picking it up.

(P.S. Any book clubs out there? Pair this with Anne Patchett’s State of Wonder and avail yourselves of an ideal opportunity to contrast fact and fiction.)

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