Sunday, December 13, 2009

"The Lost City of Z" by David Grann

Summary: In the early 20th century, much of the world was still unexplored (at least by Western civilizations), and the Amazon was one dangerous and unknown area that attracted explorers looking for adventure, fame, and treasure.  One famous explorer was Percy Fawcett, who was known for his determination and single-mindedness; he believed the Amazon was once home to a large and complex civilization, the "Lost City of Z."  After many successful expeditions into the Amazon, Fawcett and his two fellow travelers (his son and his son's friend) suddenly disappeared, never to be heard from again.  Since then, many people have been lured to the Amazon in hopes of finding the truth of Fawcett's end.

Musings: In the age of endless information and interconnectedness, it's easy to believe that all portions of the earth have been thoroughly observed and categorized.  Even isolated villages often have frequent contact with the "modern" world and technology.  Yet The Lost City of Z not only brings us to a time when much of the world was unknown, but it also questions our basic assumption that all that is out there has already been discovered.

During the time of Fawcett's career, exploration was a glamorous and exciting field to much of the world.  I had chuckled at the "quaint" adoration of exploring depicted in Up (the movie clearly drew on stories like Fawcett's for its premise), but Grann shows just how alluring and intriguing this field was.  Just look at the current proliferation of science-fiction and fantasy series.  What's more exciting than the unknown?  And the ability to go "where no man had gone before" just by traveling to another continent?-- how tempting.

It's perhaps not surprising, then, that so many people would risk their lives attempting to explore such dangerous areas as the Amazon.  Grann does an excellent job in detailing Fawcett's and others' journeys into the Amazon, acknowledging both the appeal and the inherent dangers.  These were trips when many people frequently died or disappeared--from illness, disease, animals, insects, dangerous Indian tribes, accident--yet more continued to attempt such quests.

Fawcett is an intriguing character.  He believed fully in himself and his quest, shunning any kind of comfortable life (and his family) in pursuit of his dream.  He was so convinced of his own invincibility (he rarely became ill or injured during his trips), that when he disappeared in 1925, it was almost impossible to believe he was really gone.  No wonder that so many have gone after him.

I typically stick to fiction, but I am really glad I picked up The Lost City of Z.  Weaving history and interviews into a compelling narrative, biography, and personal odyssey, Grann allows the reader to also journey through the excitement of the unknown.  Unlike some nonfiction books, the pace was fast and the information rarely was dull.  Fawcett never located the "Lost City of Z," but Grann also offers new archeological evidence that a large civilization may have existed in the Amazon after all, raising the question of what else we have yet to discover.

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