Saturday, December 31, 2011

THE LOST CITY OF Z by David Grann ✰✰✰✰

Percy Fawcett is often considered the last of the great Victorian explorers.  In an age when the news was dominated by the races to the North and South Poles, he burned some journalistic ink of his own with his exploration of the Amazon region.  David Grann brings this eccentric man to life in this nonfiction look at not only Fawcett’s life, but also his obsession: to find the lost city that would prove once and for all that a great civilization, perhaps even the legendary City of Gold, had once dominated life in the Amazon River region of Brazil.
The book started off strong, but was uneven and dragging in parts.  About half-way through it really lost momentum for me, but I am very glad that I hung in there, as it picked up considerably in the last one hundred pages.  Despite the unevenness, the book has many strong points, which bumped it from three to four stars.  Author Grann paints a vivid picture of trekking through the Amazon (the perfect place to armchair travel, in my wimpy opinion) and of the implacable character of Percy Fawcett.  He also gives a brief nod to Percy’s years serving on the Western Front during World War I; this might be primarily the story of Fawcett and the Amazon region, but it does give a brief outline of other events in his life, making it a complete biography.  In addition, the ending was excellent; many threads which I thought were going to remain unanswered were pulled together, and even items for which there is no absolutely definitive solution were filled in with the latest thoughts and research.
So, is there truly evidence to support the existence of a Lost City in the Amazon basin?  If the subject fascinates you, you will get an answer in this book.  Grann provides a very thorough bibliography, making it very easy to choose further reading if you would like to learn more; one work he used as a frequent source is Thomas Mann’s excellent 1491.  He also used many, many journals and letters of explorers and their families, skillfully weaving them into a smoothly flowing narrative.
This is a wonderful read if, like me, you are fascinated by the region and one of its greatest explorers, but have zero desire to endure the multitude of privations implicit with actually going there.  I also highly recommend it for students of ancient American anthropology and archaeology.  If you have read and enjoyed Mark Adams’ marvelous Turn Right at Machu Picchu, about Hiram Bingham’s explorations, you might enjoy this book as well, although I do not think this one was quite as well done.  Grann’s book on Fawcett is a three and a half star book rounded up to four; Adams’ book on Bingham is a four and a half star book rounded down to four.  If the subject of South American explorers is of great interest to you, I think you would very much enjoy both of these.  If you would like to pick one, I would go with Adams’ Turn Right at Machu Picchu.


  1. I'm interested in anthropology and will have to pick up a copy of this. I was skeptical as to its anthropological vs. personal travelogue content.

  2. I think that there is actually some of both in this one. There is a lot of coverage given to the various tribes, as well as attempts that were made by the Brazilian govt. and missionary organizations to "civilize" the tribes. Grann is very even handed and you can tell that he personally has a good measure of respect for the native people. The natives have been very zealous in defending their lands, so their interactions with foreigners is a major point of the book.