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The Last Great Victorian Explorer's Final Quest

There are two things a person comes away with after reading David Grann's ridiculously entertaining book about Amazon explorer Percy Fawcett and his disappearance in the jungle in 1925: Nature is, at best, indifferent toward you (and at worst, outright hostile); and the true lost civilization under discussion here is not the fabled land of El Dorado, but the Victorian age, of which Fawcett was an exotic, exemplary specimen.

The Lost City of Z is Grann's vivid retelling of Fawcett's remarkable life, one characterized by physical courage, bloody single-mindedness and limitless curiosity. A tall, handsome Brit possessing nearly superhuman stamina, Fawcett embodied all the manly traits admired by his era. In the early 20th century, he had successfully, if harrowingly, explored regions of the Amazon on behalf of the Royal Geographical Society. In this final expedition, he was setting out to prove definitively that the "green hell" of the Amazon basin could nurture a large-scale civilization. Embarking only with his 21-year-old son and his son's best friend, the 50-something Col. Fawcett hiked into the jungle. They were never heard from again.

Grann, a staff writer for The New Yorker, traces Fawcett's last steps and in doing so treats us to fascinating discussions on, among other things, the nightmarish suffering incurred by Amazon explorers and the brilliant achievements of the Victorians. Among the latter, he counts theosophy and occultism, the fiction of Arthur Conan Doyle, and the maps derived from the Royal Geographical Society's incredibly costly mission to account for every crag in the world. (Grann is judicious enough to balance the scales of Victorian accomplishment: For every scientific breakthrough and altruistic mission, there's an ugly complement to reckon with.)

Written as an adventure novel (though Grann provides source notes for all the colorful material in his book), The Lost City of Z thrills the heart and mind. Its tales of grotesque peril and unbending duty leave one feeling lucky to have to, at worst, navigate cluttered cubicles and 10-hour workdays, yet feeling the lesser, too, for leading such a pedestrian life.

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Oscar Villalon
Oscar Villalon is book editor at the San Francisco Chronicle. A member of the board of directors of the National Book Critics Circle, he's also a long-time juror of the California Book Awards, sponsored by the Commonwealth Club. His writing has appeared in the Virginia Quarterly Review and The Believer, and his reviews have aired on KQED's The California Report. He lives with his wife and son in San Francisco.