Audiobook Review: The Lost City of Z by David Grann

by Kim on June 24, 2010 · 22 comments

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Title: The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon
Author: David Grann
Genre/Format: Literary Journalism/Audiobook
Year: 2009
Acquired: Library
Rating: ★★★½☆

Summary: New Yorker journalist David Grann set out to solve one of the biggest exploration mysteries of the last 100 years: What happened to explorer Percy Fawcett when he headed into the Amazon to find the mythical Lost City of Z?

According to Grann’s website:

In 1925, Fawcett ventured into the Amazon to find an ancient civilization, hoping to make one of the most important discoveries in history. For centuries Europeans believed the world’s largest jungle concealed the glittering kingdom of El Dorado. Thousands had died looking for it, leaving many scientists convinced that the Amazon was truly inimical to humankind. But Fawcett, whose daring expeditions helped inspire Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, had spent years building his scientific case. Captivating the imagination of millions around the globe, Fawcett embarked with his twenty-one-year-old son, determined to prove that this ancient civilization—which he dubbed “Z”—existed. Then he and his expedition vanished.

For years, explorers followed Fawcett’s route and scientists looked in the Amazon for lost cities, but didn’t find much of anything. Grann, a journalist who describes himself as obsessed with obsessions, caught the Fawcett bug and too chose to follow the lost explorer into the jungle to find Z.

Book Review: Some parts of The Lost City of Z are quite good, but the whole isn’t as entirely satisfying as I hoped it would be.

I liked learning about Percy Fawcett, the Livingston of the Amazon, a prototypical adventurer trying to map the world. And Fawcett’s connections to the National Geographic Society and their efforts to figure out what the planet looks like and then draw it out were unexpectedly interesting details.

In fact, I really enjoyed the whole theme of discovery and adventure and the quest for knowledge that ran through the book. I thought Grann did an artful job weaving together a lot of different storylines without losing track of the narrative.

But what the book lacks is the big reveal or flash of insight that pulls it together. I mean, it’s fairly obvious Grann isn’t going to find Fawcett in the jungle or stumble across El Dorado, but as interesting as Grann’s story is, there isn’t a resolution.

Well, that’s not exactly true. Eventually, Grann gets the chance to speak with Michael Heckenberger, a researcher living in the Amazon who is the expert on early Amazonian culture. Heckenberger has some really fascinating things to share about potentials for civilization in the Amazon. It gives some credibility to Fawcett’s theory of Z, but those insights are limited to just a few minutes of the story. After spending so much time searching, this wrap up felt abrupt.

So while it’s not Grann’s fault that there is no actual ending to the story of Z, I think the ending he tried to use was wrapped up too quickly to be effective.

But overall The Lost City of Z was a good book. I learned about the Amazon, got shocked by how many awful things can happen to you while you’re there, and got the bug to do some more reading about lost civilizations.

Audio Review: This book was narrated by Mark Deakins, who I felt did a good job. He had some sort of accent that worked well for Fawcett and the British explorers, but wasn’t so obvious that it felt odd when narrating for Grann (an American) and his experiences.

One challenge for this book on audio is that the chapters flip back and forth in time, sometimes following Fawcett and sometimes following Grann. It takes a little while to figure out where in time the story is at each time the chapter switches, but it’s not such a big deal. It actually brought me back in focus a bit if I drifted off.

Overall, I recommend this book if you can stomach a few gory details about life in the Amazon and enjoy a true-to-life adventure tale, but don’t expect to find answers to some of the biggest questions.

Other Reviews: S. Krishna’s Books | Birdbrain(ed) Book Blog | Fyrefly’s Book Blog | At Home With Books | Book Sexy Review |

If you have reviewed this book, please leave a link to the review in the comments and I will add your review to the main post. All I ask is for you to do the same to mine — thanks!

{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

Care June 24, 2010 at 5:48 am

Already on my wishlist, looks so interesting!

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Kim June 27, 2010 at 8:58 pm

Care: It was interesting, even if not exactly perfect. I do know a lot of random stuff about the Amazon now.

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tolmsted (BookSexy) June 24, 2010 at 7:14 am

Thanks for linking my review… I found the reveal anti-climactic as well. I didn’t listen to an audiobook, from what I remember it really must have been tough to follow.

I remember reading a piece in The New Yorker that Grann wrote on the murder of a Sherlock Holmes enthusiast and it was very good. I’ve been looking for it – I’d love to see that in book form.

If you enjoyed the exploration aspect of Lost City of Z, I can recommend ‘Brother Gardener’s: Botany, Empire & the Birth of an Obsession’ by Andrea Wulf. It’s about how the British gardening obsession was actually fueled by the expansion of the empire… it was really fascinating. (I linked the review to this comment). And ‘Bounty: The True Story of the Mutiny on the Bounty’ by Caroline Alexander is also very good. Poor Captain Bligh really got a bad rap!

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Kim June 27, 2010 at 8:59 pm

tolmsted: Thanks for the recommendations. Every time I finish a book on one topic, I automatically want to start reading a bunch of things about it.

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Steph June 24, 2010 at 7:25 am

I picked up a copy of this a few weeks ago on a total whim, and now I’m seeing it everywhere! I remember being somewhat frustrated with the less than tidy ending in Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven, so I’ll be aware that the same might be true for me here. But I’m really looking forward to it as I’ve been on a bit of a travel kick lately!

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Kim June 27, 2010 at 9:01 pm

Steph: It’s a great travel adventure, especially when you contrast Grann with Fawcett and how both of them prepare for their adventures. And in some ways it was sort of silly to expect a truly clean conclusion, so it’s hard to critique the book for that.

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bermudaonion (Kathy) June 24, 2010 at 1:08 pm

Since it has some gory bits, I better stick with the print version of the book.

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Kim June 27, 2010 at 9:02 pm

bermudaonion: Lol. The gory stuff works on audio for me because sometimes I miss it, then of “What!” but then it’s already passed by and I get to let it go. But life in the Amazon was pretty rough — it is not something I’d ever want to do.

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Andi June 24, 2010 at 2:18 pm

I think I’m the last person on earth to have no idea what this is about. Well, I do now, but I didn’t until I got here.

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Kim June 27, 2010 at 9:03 pm

Andi: Good! I like being able to write reviews and have someone have not heard of the book before. I feel like I’m being a productive blogger that way.

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Trisha June 24, 2010 at 3:27 pm

I have picked this up and put it down so many times in Barnes and Noble it’s not funny. I probably should just buy it and read it to spare me the indecision. :)

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Kim June 27, 2010 at 9:04 pm

Trisha: Lol. I’d been back and forth on it too, although I’m not sure if I’d ever almost bought it. But then it was there as an audiobook at the library when I was going on a long drive and it seemed perfect. I’ve “read” some great books sort of serendipitously on audio.

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Jen - Devourer of Books June 25, 2010 at 10:42 am

I’m glad to know it isn’t the be all and end all of adventure books, that might help me temper my expectations a bit for when I actually get around to this someday.

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Kim June 27, 2010 at 9:05 pm

Jen: Yeah, I think it will. Like I said, it was sort of foolish to expect a clean ending, but I think with tempered expectations this is quite a good book.

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Lisa June 26, 2010 at 9:43 am

This one’s been on my radar for a long time. I’m sorry to hear that it doesn’t live up to expectations.

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Kim June 27, 2010 at 9:06 pm

Lisa: It lived up to most expectations, just slipped a bit in the conclusion (which is the first thing I remember when I sit down to write a review!).

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Fyrefly June 27, 2010 at 12:32 pm

I really liked this when I read it, and I don’t remember being particularly dissatisfied with the ending at the time. Looking back on it now, though, I do agree that maybe another chapter or two dealing in more depth with current research on Amazonian civilizations might have helped to balance the end a bit.

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Kim June 27, 2010 at 9:06 pm

Fyrefly: I would have loved just a little be more about exactly that. Some of the things we do know about the Amazon sounded fascinating, just a little hurried at the end of the story.

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Esme June 27, 2010 at 9:42 pm

I really enjoyed this book-I read it last year-as I was almost finished it-a huge wave came onto the shore and just soaked me and the book-I dried it out-but it was full of sand-I passed it on to my dad with the caveat not to read it in bed.

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Kim June 29, 2010 at 6:21 pm

Esme: Yikes! That’s a fun memory to have with a book, and sand between the pages seems to fit this one :)

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