The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon by David Grann

*Warning:  contains spoilers.

The Lost City of Z:  A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon, despite a truly horrendous cover design (compare to the Weekly World News, the sadly defunct supermarket tabloid responsible for such groundbreaking journalism as “Batboy Lives!”) and titillating title, is surprisingly well written. What David Grann lacks in survival skills he compensates for with literary ability.  He also has a journalist’s eye for a story.

See the resemblance?

In 1925 veteran explorer Colonel Percy Harrison Fawcett journeyed into the Brazilian jungle with his son in search of a mythical lost city which he called “Z”.  The party was never seen or heard from again.  Over the following decades expeditions were mounted to find out what happened.  All failed (some disastrously).  The disappearance of Fawcett and the possible existence of “Z” had captured the public’s imagination.  As is usually the case, a cottage industry grew around the story.  Some claimed the explorers went “native” and produced their white/Indian offspring (in reality albinos) as proof.  Artifacts and messages from the doomed party were “discovered”.  Sightings were reported.  Psychics became involved.  As recently as 2005 the Guardian newspaper published an article Veil Lifts on Jungle Mystery of the Colonel Who Vanished claiming that:

According to previously hidden private papers, it appears that Fawcett had no intention of ever returning to Britain and, perhaps lured by a native she-god or spirit guide whose beautiful image haunts the family archive, he planned instead to set up a commune in the jungle, based on a bizarre cult.

Into this circus walked David Grann, a staff writer for the New Yorker.  He was given access to journals by the family that shed light on the route Fawcett’s party had taken.  Based on the new information Grann decided to mount his own expedition into the Brazilian jungles – following an 80-year-old trail and with no wilderness experience to speak of.  Think Survivor meets the History Channel.

It should have been a great story…a lost city, an Indiana Jones-like hero and hostile landscape.  Grann was certainly equal to the task.  He skillfully controls the narrative – jumping back and forth between Fawcett’s life, the stories of those who attempted to find Fawcett, and his own trek into the jungle.  Unfortunately, in the process of reading certain things quickly become apparent.

First – David Grann’s journey was nothing like Fawcett’s (in Grann’s favor he never claims otherwise).   Fawcett macheted his way through unexplored jungle until his animals died and his companions were too sick to continue.  Grann brought a guide, handheld GPS and a Landrover.  He negotiated safe passage through tribal lands prior to entering them.  He had set destinations where people were waiting to meet him.  I’m not trying to take away from what Grann did… or to imply that he in any way cheated or misrepresented… it just wasn’t that exciting to read about.

Second – After 80 years no one is expecting a “Dr. Livingston, I presume?” moment.  Take the jungle out of the equation and Fawcett would now be 142 years old.  While the author never finds a pile of bones with a wallet in the pocket and a blowgun dart sticking out of the ribcage, there are numerous scenarios that have long been discussed which all point to the same conclusion:  Fawcett and party died in the jungle.  It’s a bit anticlimactic.  The reality is, Col. Fawcett made 7 expeditions into the jungle and could have died on any one of them.  Between the insects, maggots, infectious diseases, piranhas, anaconda, hostile tribes, lack of food and the jungle itself – the real mystery is how Fawcett wasn’t killed long before 1925.

Finally – By the people who care, namely archeologists and anthropologists, the existence of “Z” is no longer in question.  Discoveries had been made and books published prior to The Lost City of Z … they just weren’t calling the ruins discovered “Z”.  David Grann acknowledges this and points those interested  in the direction of further reading on the subject.  Which still doesn’t change that fact that the final chapter is disappointing.  Sort of like being shipwrecked on a desert island, believing you have found a tropical paradise and discovering Club Med a few beaches over.

Perhaps I would have enjoyed the book more if I’d picked it up without expectations.  Portions were interesting.  Particularly the present-day research being done by Michael Heckenberger, the archeologist Grann credits with re-discovering the ruins that Fawcett believed to be his lost city.  Yet this is only a small part of the narrative.   In the end I would have enjoyed the story more as a series of articles.  As it stands, The Lost City of Z implies big payoffs that it never manages to deliver.

Weekly Geeks – Why haven’t I read this yet?

WeeklyGeeks.BottomThis week’s Weekly Geeks asks you to choose a book that has been languishing on your bookshelf and ask that age old question, why haven’t I read this yet?

It’s a good meme and a good question.  Because the first step is admitting you have a problem.  I’m a compulsive book buyer.  I’m tempted to go into a long, drawn out explanation touching on my first book memory, visits to the public library as a child, the constant re-arranging & reorganizing of my bookshelf at milestones of my life – but it’s probably safe to assume that most people reading this have the same problem.  So let’s cut straight to the chase…

The Nautical Chart by Arturo Pèrez-Reverte (current shelf life:  1 year, 1 month) – This novel was bought during a vacation on Sanibel Island last year, probably at the same time I purchased The Flander’s Panel.  If the bookmark stuck between the pages 34-35 is to be believed then this novel was engaged at some point.  It’s the story of a hunt for sunken treasure, features a down trodden hero and a beautiful woman with questionable motives.  The mystery is built around a lot of clever puzzles involving nautical maps and equipment.  Overall it is the kind of book I’d gobble up in two sittings.

The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon by David Grann is a different kind of mystery story altogether (current shelf life:  4-6 months).  It’s the true account of  the author’s modern day attempt of find out what happened to British explorer Percy Fawcett, who entered the Amazon in 1925 and never returned.  Grann researches the history of Fawcett’s expeditions (up to & including his last) and examines his obsession with finding the City of Z.   He also tells the stories of the explorers who went in search of Fawcett after his disappearance.   All that alone would have made a good book, but Grann takes it one step further (of course he does, he’s a staff writer for The New Yorker).  After stumbling onto a clue to the location of Fawcett’s last base camp, Grann makes his own journey into Bolivia in search of the man who disappeared  80+ years before.

Mellon:  An American Life by David Cannadine (current shelf life: 1 year, 5 months) – Andrew J. Mellon, along with his contemporaries Rockefeller, Frick and Carnegie, was one of those robber barons at the turn of the century who lived life large.  I love reading about these guys.  They took bold risks, had fabulous homes, and left huge legacies.  They were the great philanthropists of their time, making & giving millions, usually on the backs of their employees.  Of that group I would argue that Mellon is the least well known and for reasons that can be easily understood.  As the treasury secretary for 4 presidents leading into the Great Depression Andrew Mellon’s popularity has waned (let that be a lesson to you Ben Bernanke!).   His part in the 1929 economic collapse has all but overshadowed his other achievements.  These included one of the  greatest gifts ever given to this country:  The National Gallery of Art, which is at the heart of what has become the Smithsonian Collection.

There you have it.  My confession.  While I’d like to say that these are the only books gathering dust throughout my house, that would be a lie.  And as we all know, lying is wrong.

So, I’m interested in hearing what other books are out there being neglected & wrongfully ignored.  Please feel free to leave your confession… I mean comment… below.