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1st November
2011
written by Steph

OK, so I’m a day late when it comes to posting something for Halloween, but I’m going to go ahead and post this anyway. It’s not like it was really all that spooky or holiday appropriate to begin with, but when I started typing this up yesterday, spookiness was in the air. I felt left out as everyone else posted cute pictures of jack-o-lanterns and reviews of spine-chilling reads, and while I have read some pretty scary books in the past few weeks, I’m still dealing with review back-log. So, I decided I would just take the next book on my queue and make it fit with the Halloween theme. But you know what? The Lost City of Z by David Grann was actually not such a bad pick for Halloween! You know why? Because the Amazon is frickin’ terrifying! I am not sure if this book says so explicitly, but the Amazon pretty much has the largest population of weird stuff that can (and will!) kill you. PLUS, all of this stuff really exists, which I think bumps the fear factor up a couple of notches as well. Before I get ahead of myself, let me explain what this book is about for the tiny proportion of people out there who haven’t heard about it. Essentially, The Lost City of Z is the travel memoir of David Grann, who becomes obsessed with British explorer, Colonel Percy Harrison Fawcett. During his lifetime, Fawcett was a real trailblazer, traveling fearlessly into the blank spaces on the map in order to chart them. Where other explorers quavered and failed, Fawcett prevailed; if reality tv had been around in Fawcett’s time, he would have handily won Survivor, several times over. Especially if it took place in the wilds of South America, since that was Fawcett’s preferred niche, and it became a bit of an fascination for him. In particular, Fawcett embarked on numerous treks into the heart of the Amazon, determined to find the novel’s namesake, the lost city of Z. More commonly known in legend as El Dorado, Fawcett believed that Z had indeed existed and could still be found, if only one were brave and savvy enough. Through Grann’s eyes, we learn of legendary Col. Fawcett and his various adventures that ultimately culminate in his trek to find Z. Interspersed with this story, is Grann’s own tale about how he came to learn of Fawcett and the lengths he went in order to track Fawcett’s movements on his final and fateful journey into the jungle, all which took place over 80 years ago. And of course, if there is a third character in this book, it is the Amazon itself, looming and ominous, poised and prepared to claim some lives. I don't think I’ve read a single negative review of this book in the time since it first entered my radar (true story: I picked it up on a whim at McKay’s because the cover was pretty and the premise sounded interesting, but I hadn’t heard anything about it. The very next day, posts started popping up in my feed reader about this very book!), and while you’re not going to find a slam here either, I think I may have been a little more reserved in my enjoyment of this book, because I did ultimately have mixed feelings about it. First, I LOVED the parts about the Amazon itself because no matter how much I read about it, I continue to be amazed by how gross and freaky it is! When I first started to read, I was mesmerized by this exotic locale and was actually quite gung-ho to one day visit this botanical wonder… but the more I read, the more it becomes clear that only masochists visit the Amazon! Behind all its lush greenery and exotic wildlife, I think the Amazon might secretly be the worst place in the world. I mean, it’s cool to read about horrific things from the comfort of your own bed, but to actually have to face clouds of insects that burrow into your skin, or hostile indigenous tribes with a history of aggression towards outsiders, or starvation and predation? No thank you! Despite all the terror that filled me as I learned more and more about the Amazon (a.k.a Hell on Earth), I did enjoy armchair traveling there immensely. In fact, I enjoyed the parts of the book that focused on the Amazon proper so much that I had a harder time getting into the portions of the book that weren’t solely about the jungle. I think part of this might have been simply because Grann kept alternating between three different stories: his story, Fawcett’s history, and then an all-encompassing section that focused on the history of people’s search for Z. With all these different stories arising, the book felt somewhat fractured to me, and at times like it didn’t have much focus. I felt like Grann kept getting sidetracked by some new interesting/cool piece of information, and so the book kept switching paths. I’m not saying that a book can’t be part history, part memoir, part biography and be successful, I just don't know that all three portions were as successfully integrated here as they could have been. I fully understand why Grann chose to intersperse his own story with that of Fawcett’s, having the two searches (his for Fawcett, Fawcett’s for Z) run parallel to each other, but I didn’t think it worked in large part because Grann’s story so boring and unremarkable in comparison! For the bulk of the book, Grann is simply darting from one library to the next, reading from one private journal or map and then another. And look, I love the library more than most, but this is not scintillating adventuring! Especially not when Fawcett is dealing with bandits and foot rot and threats bigger than a paper cut! Even when Grann finally steps foot into the jungle, it’s with the aid of so much more technology and information as compared to his predecessors that it all seems anemic and lackluster. I feel as though Grann included his storyline in order to break up the book so that it didn’t read so much as just a history of the Amazon and a man frozen in time, but I do think there are ways to do “narrative non-fiction” that wouldn’t require Grann to literally insert himself into the story he is telling. The Lost City of Z as a whole had a rather reminiscent fell to Erik Larson’s style of writing, where non-fiction is framed within a story’s framework… I just don’t think that Grann is quite as deft as Larson at pulling off that conceit. I don’t read tons of non-fiction, but one thing that drove me crazy about this book was how many direct quotes there were. I appreciate that the book was well researched (there’s a very thorough Appendix at the back), but to me, it’s really discombobulating when I read things with that much original source material because I find the change in tone and style that results breaks up the flow of my reading. In this case, it felt like Grann was using the quotes as a substitute for dialogue in order to make the book feel more like a novel, but I just felt this was a bit awkward. Again, well-weathered veterans of the non-fiction genre may find this old hat and not at all intrusive, but for me it was a slight impediment. One last thing I should note is that for such a grand adventure, I found the ending SO anticlimactic. I won’t ruin it for you and say whether they find Z or not, but all I can say is that this is definitely one of those books where one must say it’s about the journey and not the destination.  That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy the journey, because I did, but after all the high-adrenaline thrills and chills through most of the book, you’d expect something more than the literary equivalent of a shrug at the end of it all. In the end, though, I really did enjoy my foray through the swamps of the Amazon with Grann as my guide. I learned tons of things I’d never known, and really felt like I gained some insight into a place that I am unlikely to see with my own two eyes. And best of all, I got to do it all from the safety of my home with all of the relative luxuries and comforts it offers! When it comes to places to armchair travel, the Amazon is absolutely at the top of my list and The Lost City of Z took me there and back in first-class style. While I don't read much non-fiction, I love to travel, and this book was a great example of just how vivid and rewarding the travel writing genre can be. Rating: 3.5 out of 5

14 Comments

  1. 11/01/2011

    I really did enjoy this one (though yes, the ending was anti-climactic), but I think listening to it on audio really helped me with the narrative structure. It all came together for me. Of course later I discovered the book format has PICTURES and then I had to get ahold of a copy to see so for myself.

  2. 11/01/2011

    I’ve really been looking forward to this book. I loved his piece on Cameron Todd Willingham, and have been eager to read more by Grann since.

    Here’s the Willingham story if you haven’t come across it:
    http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2009/09/07/090907fa_fact_grann

  3. 11/01/2011

    This isn’t something I would normally pick up but the reviews seem to be overwhelmingly positive.

  4. As far as I’m concerned, there could be no book more appropriate to this spooky season. I read it in January and am still terrified! I am never going near the Amazon. Ever.

  5. 11/08/2011

    @ Amanda: I wonder how I would deal with this on audio… part of me thinks I might have found it worse, simply because I’m really a visual person and I have a harder time keeping track of things when they’re presented strictly aurally. But I agree that I’d be really peeved if I finished a book only to find I’d missed out on pictures! 😉
     
    @ the oncoming hope: Thanks for the link! I’d not read that before, so it was nice seeing another side to Grann as a writer. 😛
     
    @ Stephanie: I think mine is the most lukewarm review of all the one’s I’ve encountered, so it definitely seems to be a book that appeals to a wide majority. Then again, the subject matter really is intriguing, so it’s hard not to get sucked in!
     
    @ Claire: I’m glad you think this was an apt pick! I’ve seen some footage of the Amazon that makes it look kind of awesome, but this paired with State of Wonder by Ann Patchett make it seem increasingly unappealing!
     
    @ softdrink: I actually found the opening to this one pretty slow, and I only had myself to blame for that. Maybe you’ll have better luck if you can get your hands on a paper copy instead?
     
    @ zibilee: Aren’t you my partner in crime when it comes to reading about weird stuff (you also like books about the sea, right?)? I do think you’ll like this one, because even thought Grann is sometimes his own impediment in this book, the topic is inherently really interesting so that’s hardly the biggest hurdle.

  6. 11/01/2011

    Yeah, all that scary stuff has me convinced to NEVER visit the Amazon. Never ever.

    And I made the mistake of buying the audio version…and then not liking the narrator. I think I’m still on chapter 1.

  7. 11/02/2011

    I bought this book awhile ago for the same reasons that you did. I love to read about the strange and unlikely life and creatures of the Amazon, and felt that this book would give me plenty of that. On the other hand, it sounds like the personal aspects of this book weren’t handled as well as the freakier parts, and so that sort of puts me off a little bit. I am not much interested in people puttering about libraries, unless the story is in fact centered around a library, which I feel this one is not. I think perhaps this book will suffer a little in my eyes because of it’s lack of cohesiveness, but am still really interesting in reading about all those gross and wiggly things! Excellent and very eloquent review today, Steph! I really appreciated it and enjoyed reading it!

  8. Have to admit that it’s the first time I’ve heard about this one. Completely agree on the direct quote. I think authors tend to use them a lot as a way to ensure credibility, but most do it at the expense of a fluid story.

  9. This has been on my wishlist for a long time and so I’m sorry to see that you didn’t love it. I have a love/hate relationship with non-fiction so may find I have similar issues to you, but I’m normally a bit more tolerant of facts in a non-fiction book than in over researched fiction. I look forward to finding out which side of the fence I fall with this one soon.

  10. 11/03/2011

    This sounds like something I could really enjoy, though I’ll keep what you said about the ending in mind.

    I’m actually a fan of direct citations in non-fiction (I like getting a glimpse of the primary sources), but of course it has to be done well so it doesn’t read like an endless regurgitation of other people’s words.

  11. 11/03/2011

    Oooh — I do remember wanting to read this when it first came out because I do love a good exploration/excavation story — and I feel like every semester in college I took some course on some Amazonian culture or tribe — it’d be so nostalgic! 😉 Too bad Grann’s insertion into the book wasn’t more entertaining — I don’t mind it when the author acknowledges his presence — but if I dislike the presence, then it really doesn’t work.

  12. 11/08/2011

    @ Alex: I think that simply using a footnote would be enough to establish that one isn’t simply fabricating material, but perhaps I’m just used to the way things are done in the sciences rather than the humanities.
     
    @ Jackie: I don’t think that I have a problem with my non-fiction books having actual facts in them (that’s preferable and perhaps a requisite!), but I just like them to be more organically integrated into the text… Unless I’m reading a book that feels more like a simple stating of trivia, I like my non-fiction to read like fiction!
     
    @ Nymeth: As I said, I can see how some people would appreciate the use of primary source material in the book itself, but I guess because I felt like Grann was going for a more narrative feel, to me it made the text feel choppy. But I don’t think anyone else mentioned this bugging them, so it may very well be an idiosyncratic pet peeve.
     
    @ Audra: I’d be interested to see how much of what Grann shares here is relatively “common knowledge” to those who have studied the Amazon in some fashion. It was all pretty much new (and news) to me, so I found it all pretty fascinating.

  13. The Amazon is terrifying! This book freaked me out, a lot, but I also loved it.

  14. 11/17/2011

    Oh I loved the end! Archaeologically, it totally fascinated me. I think that’s the kid in me that wanted to be an archaeologist coming out.

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