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David Grann – The Lost City of Z

January 23, 2009

9. The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon by David Grann (2009)

This book will be published by Doubleday on 24 February 2009; you can preorder a copy from Amazon.

Length: 302 pages

Genre: Non-Fiction – Biography/History/Travelogue

Started: 20 January 2009
Finished: 22 January 2009

How long has it been on my TBR pile? Since 18 November 2008
Verdict? Keeper for now, although it’s not the sort of book I usually get the urge to re-read

Lost cities, bug hordes,
a missing explorer, and
jungle adventures.

Summary: In the Victorian era, while cartographers had abandoned putting dragons in the unknown areas of maps, there were still large swaths of land that were uncharted and unexplored by Europeans. Into these regions went the explorers – amateur archaologists, anthropologists, geographers and natural historians who survived the planet’s most grueling conditions with little but the most primitive equipment and their own survival skills. Perhaps the least-known area of land was the Amazon basin, and perhaps the best-known explorer to penetrate that land was Percy Fawcett, who is reported to be the model for Indiana Jones.

Fawcett was intent on finding what he called the Lost City of Z – a pre-Columbian civilization with echoes of El Dorado, which was larger than what most archaeologists believe the local ecology could support. In 1925, he and his son left on one final expedition to find Z, walked into the jungle, and never returned. Although countless enthusiasts have tried to find out what happened to Fawcett, and been driven mad, died, or simply disappeared in the process, David Grann embarks on a similar journey: to learn what he can about Fawcett’s life, his perilous final journey, and what happened to him once he stepped off the edge of the map.

Review: I will say upfront that the biography genre is not typically a favorite of mine – I like journalistic non-fiction, but biographies often feel like they’re striving too hard to make all of the events in someone’s life relate to some culminating apex, which sometimes they do, but more often they don’t. In The Lost City of Z, however, Grann manages to make a biography feel like an adventure story and a mystery, and combined it with his own personal travelogue and detective story to result in an exciting and captivating read. It wasn’t particularly a fast read, but even though I knew the ending, I still pushed forward, wanting to know what happened. Fawcett is such a larger-than-life character that I spent most of the book hoping that Grann would head into the Amazon and find him alive… until I realized that hardy as Fawcett may have been, it’s still pretty unlikely that he’d be alive and kicking at the ripe old age of 137.

Grann had access to many of Fawcett’s personal papers and letters than had not previously been available to scholars, and I wish the book had focused a little more heavily on his process of discovery – more travelogue and somewhat less biography. Still, I thought this book did an excellent job of describing the Amazonian forest and portraying the difficulties of jungle exploration both then and now (although “difficulties” seems too mild a word for some of the torments the Amazon has to offer). I also thought that the ending, while not whiz-bang-spectacular, satisfactorily resolved the mystery of Fawcett’s fate, and that of Z, while making me curious to read more about Amazonian archaeology and anthropology. Ultimately, it made me glad that there are still some places in our overpopulated, satellite-photographed world that retain some mystery.

As a final note, the ARC version of this book did not include a map, although I sorely wished it did – but according to the author, the final published version will have maps as well as archival photos, some of which you can see at the book’s website. 4 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: A fascinating piece of history and an exciting, compelling story that should be interesting to anyone who wishes they’d been born in the age of exploration, or who gets sad when they think that all of the map lines have been filled in.

This Review on LibraryThing | This Book on LibraryThing | This Book on Amazon

Additionally, the movie rights to this manuscript have been bought by Brad Pitt’s production company, and it’s going to be made into a movie staring Pitt as Fawcett. I find it kind of incredible that the movie rights are bought before the book’s even published, but for those of you who, like me, prefer reading the book before seeing the movie, it’s time to get crackin’. :)

Links: Official Book Website, with excerpt, author bio, maps and pictures, etc.

Other Reviews: The Book Catapult, A Writer’s Pen, Books by TJ Baff, Kittling: Books
Did I miss your review? Leave a comment with the link and I’ll add it in.

First Line: I pulled the map from my back pocket.


  • p. 38: “And there were people: astrologers, peddlers, dhobis, jaggery sellers, goldsmiths, tom-tom beaters, and beggars.” – washermen that operate from door to door collecting dirty linen from households; a coarse, dark sugar, esp. that made from the sap of East Indian palm trees.
  • p. 49: “Three stories high, it had red-brick walls, sash windows, Dutch pilasters, and an overhanging copper roof that came together, along with several chimneys, at various jumbled points, like a child’s vision of a castle.” – A rectangular column with a capital and base, projecting only slightly from a wall as an ornamental motif.
  • p. 291: “He said that Fawcett was easy to dismiss as “a crank”; he lacked the tools and the discipline of a modern archaeologist, and he never questioned the shibboleth that any lost city in the Amazon had to have European origins.” – a common saying or belief with little current meaning or truth.

**NOTE: All quotes are from an uncorrected proof edition and may not reflect the final published text.**

14 Comments leave one →
  1. January 23, 2009 7:35 pm

    I love biographies – this may be right up my alley.

  2. January 23, 2009 7:56 pm

    Thanks for the link! The author has added maps & pictures to his blog at I had a great time looking at the maps and pictures after reading the book. Nice blog, it’s so organized.

  3. January 23, 2009 9:02 pm

    bermudaonion – The closest book that I can think of (bearing in mind that this isn’t a genre I read much of) is Devil in the White City… if you liked that, you’ll almost definitely like this.

    K. Andrews – Oh, those are great photos… I wish I’d had those maps up on the screen next to me as I was reading.

  4. January 23, 2009 9:25 pm

    I reviewed this book, too, and had pretty much the same reactions as you. Here’s my review.

  5. January 24, 2009 10:06 am

    This was a very reassuring review. I have this on my shelf and I’m reassured both that you enjoyed it pretty well (good sign for me enjoying it) and that it hasn’t been released yet, so I’m not way behind on the times.

  6. January 24, 2009 10:15 am

    Good review…let’s me know what I’m in for. Too bad about the map…I would have like to have seen that (I have the arc, too).

  7. January 24, 2009 10:46 am

    Cathy – I’ve added your link, thanks for letting me know!

    DoB – Heh. I’ve been doing my best to stay on top of my relatively moderate stack of ARCs, but I don’t know how people who read tons of ARCs manage to keep track of everything.

    Michele – There are two maps at the author’s website; I’d definitely recommend keeping that page open, or maybe even printing out a copy to use as a bookmark while you read.

  8. January 25, 2009 11:10 am

    I have this one on the shelf and can’t wait to get to it. I’m sad about the ARC not including the pictures/map that the published copy will. Bummer!! Good to know about the website, though…thanks for the tip.

  9. January 26, 2009 12:14 am

    It sounds neat and I bet the movie would be too (I have to read the book first as well)

  10. January 26, 2009 9:23 am

    Trish – Yeah, the ARC version is one of the more “rough” uncorrected proofs I’ve seen… no index, dedication, or author bio yet, in addition to the pictures. Ah, well, beggars can’t be choosers and all that, eh?

    Ladytink – The movie’s not going to be out for a while, considering the rights were only purchased recently, so I think you’ve got time. :)

  11. February 13, 2009 10:53 am

    Thank’s for the link – much appreciated!

    This was a great book – should be the nonfiction book to beat this year, I would think.


  1. The Literary Horizon: The Lost City of Z, The Sheen on the Silk « The Literary Omnivore
  2. Audiobook Review: The Lost City of Z by David Grann
  3. Review: The Lost City of Z by David Grann « Birdbrain(ed) Book Blog

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