Friday, October 21, 2011

Nonfiction | Lost in the Amazon


After a long Anna Karenina-filled end of summer, my Idlewild book club decided on something a little lighter for our October meeting. Enter, the nonfiction bestseller, The Lost City of Z by David Grann. Grann is a writer at The New Yorker, and this first book of his led him deep into the Amazon to investigate the 1925 disappearance of explorer Colonel Percy Fawcett.

Fawcett’s story is notorious. One of the last “gentlemen explorers” of the 20th century, Fawcett was a member of the Royal Geographic Society, an organization that sent explorers to map unknown parts of the world for the advancement of geographical sciences. First of all, take that in for a minute. Less than a hundred years ago, there were still parts of the world unmapped. It’s not a fact easily comprehendible, when we live in a world in which I can currently perform a live street view search via Internet on my suburban house 800 miles away.

Fawcett took several trips to and through the Amazon in his day to map its unchartered abyss, but his 1925 expedition is unquestionably his most famous…because he never returned. Accompanied by his son Jack and Jack’s lifelong friend Raleigh Rimmel, Fawcett entered the forest on a quest for Z, a lost city of grandeur he believed to have been hidden deep in the Amazon.

Imagine this: no phones, no satellites, no GPS, no Gore-tex, no Off, no modern gadgets for ease and convenience. You have none of these things and you’re entering an unmapped territory, populated by possibly hostile natives, where nature rules. And let me tell you, Grann makes it clear that nature is nothing to mess around with—so many bugs that can invade your skin and body, viruses and bacteria that invade your body and mind, things so disgusting that you’ll cringe as you read their attacks on explorers. WHY WOULD YOU SUBJECT YOURSELF TO THAT?

Fawcett wasn’t the first to quest for a lost city. The legend of El Dorado long preceded Fawcett and his crew, but Fawcett believed he’d found proof, had faith, and was just antsy enough to keep trying. A lot of worldwide speculation has been made since Fawcett began his trek in 1925 and never returned—did he die of hunger? Was he killed by natives? Has he been held hostage? Did he decide to stay in the jungle? Grann uses our modern tools of the 21st century to try and follow Fawcett’s path, find out Fawcett’s fate, and see if there ever was a Z that existed.

That all was more of a summary than a review, but that’s kinda how it goes with this book. It’s a fascinating piece of ‘armchair travel’ nonfiction, one of those stories that’s gonna make you want to Google everything and find out more information as you read it. It’s got some good ideas to discuss…like what drives a person to such a quest? And can man ever really conquer nature? Does it need to? Should it? Living in a world that feels pretty domesticated, we’re reminded by The Lost City of Z that nature is King. It’s no joke; it can chew us up, spit us out, and make it look like we never existed—an idea further explored in Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us.

Anyone else read this one?


Jenny said…

I never really had a desire to read this but your review makes it sound crazy! (good). I never really considered that there were parts of the world unmapped possibly with natives there!

Kari said…

I wasn't too thrilled initially about reading it either. A) I think I judged it by the cover because it looks a little cheesy. B) I associated 'Z' with 'World War Z' so there had been this unconscious link with zombies in my head. Therefore, I never would've picked this up on my own, and I'm glad I did. It was a fun read.

steph_h said…

I read this one a few months ago and it's next up to be reviewed on the blog (that's how far behind I am)! I picked it up because the premise sounded really interesting and lately I've been taking a greater interest in reading non-fiction… after Tony read it and raved about it, I knew I needed to actually read it as well!

I wound up having mixed feelings as I definitely found some parts of the story more interesting than others, and I felt like I either wanted it to be a strict narrative that followed Fawcett OR an examination of the Amazon and it's areas, but the blend of the two didn't entirely work for me. Plus there was Grann's own storyline, and personally I just felt like everything got a bit jumbled and sometimes the pacing slowed to a crawl. Overall, though, I did enjoy it… especially all the parts about all the creepy things that can kill you!

Kari said…

I can see how it could feel jumbled. I actually liked how much was thrown in, how many stories were mixed together, but yeah, I wouldn't say it smoothed out the narrative by any means.

Let me know if you have any good non-fiction finds. I'm constantly trying to read more, as well!