I just finished reading The Lost City of Z by David Grann yesterday for my book club, and I have to give it a qualified glowing review. Why qualified? Because there are some rather graphic descriptions in the book of horrific things that were done to the people of the Amazon basin as well as detailed descriptions of the myriad ways insects and other wildlife in the Amazon can kill you. So for those who are squeamish I would not recommend it. Otherwise, I found it to be a fast and entertaining read.
The book is a nonfiction account of the explorer "Col." Percy Fawcett, who along with his oldest son and son's best friend, disappeared in the Amazon jungle in 1925 while searching for El Dorado, and all of the subsequent people, including the author, who went in search of any evidence of the missing explorers. And there were tons of them, most of whom didn't make it out of the jungle themselves, or if they did, died shortly afterward from the illnesses and wounds they sustained in such an unforgiving environment.
I had never really given much thought to the Amazon, other than disapproving of the deforestation that is taking place there, and not harboring any desire to venture inside of it. (The comparatively benign variety of insects we have here in the states already think I am an all you can eat buffet. I would be devoured within minutes in the Amazon. No really. If you read the book you will realize this is not hyperbole on my part.) I knew (and still know) very little about it other than a passing knowledge of some of the more notorious types of wildlife and the fact that the Amazon river runs through it. It really is a fascinating place, and although I still don't harbor a desire to visit it, I do wish to learn more about it.
For me, that is one of the hallmarks of truly great nonfiction. It opens up an aspect of our world that you had never given much thought to and makes you desire to learn more. And in truth, that is one of the best things about my book club. It makes me read books that I would never have picked up on my own (or ones that it was very unlikely I would read it on my own), and more often than not I find I really enjoy them. Such is the case with this book. It was well written and entertaining. Grann cleverly interspersed the oldest part of the narrative, that concerning Fawcett and his history of amateur exploration, with his modern day quest to discover as much as he could about Fawcett's secretive route before setting out on his own. This could have been annoying, but instead made each section more interesting and vibrant. Additionally, Grann was able to breathe life into these long dead characters, as well as many others, not only through the use of their personal letters*, but also through his deft turn of phrase. Here is one of my favorite passages:
"Now, as Fawcett slipped away from the secluded base in Ceylon with his treasure map in hand, he suddenly found himself amid verdant forests and crystalline beaches and mountains, and people dressed in colors that he had never seen before, not funeral blacks and whites like in London, but purples and yellows and rubies, all flashing and radiating and pulsating-a vista so astonishing that even the arch cynic Mark Twain, who visited the island around the same time period, remarked, 'Dear me, it is beautiful!'"
While he didn't succeed in making me want to visit the Amazon, I certainly would like to see Ceylon (present day Sri Lanka). The Lost City of Z is an excellent read, and I highly recommend it. Just be careful if you're squeamish.
*I find the disappearing art of letter writing to be most distressing and disappointing. I know it is cheaper and more environmentally friendly to use email, but the romance and personalization of letter writing is lost with it.