Exploring obsession with David Grann and The Lost City of Z

The Lost City of Z is a non-fiction account of author David Grann’s research of, and consequent obsession with, the story of Colonel Percy Fawcett and his mysterious search for an ancient lost city in the depths of the treacherous Amazon.

I rarely read non-fiction but this found its way onto my reading list thanks to my bi-monthly book club. I’m pleased it did. Grann mastered the ability to switch his narrative from Fawcett’s story to his own, and back again between chapters, keeping me interested and never annoyed. Most books that switch between narratives too often can get tiresome to read and break the thread of the story but The Lost City of Z didn’t suffer that problem.

The story itself was intriguing. I know a writer has captured my imagination when I hop onto Wikipedia the moment I finish a book in order to read further into the topic. I’d never heard of Fawcett and, ignorantly, didn’t realise that there was still enough earth left to explore in the 1920s!

The Lost City of Z focuses on Fawcett and his character. Grann studies Fawcett’s first tastes of exploration when he was stationed in Ceylon and follows his life from then on. Fawcett starts exploring and mapping South America and quickly develops a reputation for being the most resilient explorer in the world, with no patience for slow walkers or injured members of the exploration party. Through Grann’s research into letters and interviews we discover some unsavoury snippets of Fawcett’s personality. We see how this approach leads him to his fateful final expedition, where he takes his son and his best friend in the hopes of discovering the city of Z and along with it, fame fortune and the eternal glory of his name in the history books. They never returned.

For would be explorers, this story alone is interesting enough but what really pulled me in was the fact that an estimated 100 people lost their lives looking for Fawcett after he and his party went missing. Why, why did they do this? Why risk everything? Then it occurred to me that we live in a different age now, there is little real exploring to do on earth, and the world is so small. But if someone offered me a trip to space, would I turn that down, what with all its risks and unknowns? Of course not, and neither would I hold back a family member if that’s what they chose to do. That’s why Fawcet’s wife, Nina, didn’t ever dream of stopping her husband and son from embarking on the perilous journey but rather spurred them on and raised their profiles with the media. Human curiosity is a natural thing, and is to be celebrated.

Speaking of Nina, there’s a story I would like to hear more about. Nina sacrificed everything for Fawcett’s adventures. She went from a comfortable life with a wealthy family to almost living in poverty whilst Fawcett spent years away at a time exploring. She raised their children alone and never floundered in encouraging his explorations. She expressed wishes to accompany him but this never happened. I can’t help but feel sad for Nina, after years spent supporting her husband and never getting a chance at exploring herself, she spent her life after the disappearance of her husband and son still eagerly believing that they would be found.

One criticism I might level at the book is that the author never seems to face up to his own obsessions. Grann pursues researching Fawcett’s story extensively, to the point where he leaves behind his wife and newborn in order to look for  Fawcett and Z himself. Grann does not train or prepare himself for this undertaking, he can’t even pick out his own equipment in a shop. Although its apt that in his research and writing Grann himself becomes one of the obsessed, (and it is a very tidy way for the story to work out), it does seem irresponsible. Although Grann gets a local guide, and, due to extensive deforestation, is able to drive down much of the path that Fawcett would have had to trek through, his blind pursuance of the story seems  a little mad. Grann’s linking of Fawcett’s story to his own, and the way the switching of the narratives feels like Grann is chasing Fawcett through the pages of the book, is a sure sign that Grann too had become a little obsessed, he never actually owns up to it, never just says, wow, what I thinking!

All in all though, this is an absorbing read and I learnt a lot about the history of the Amazon. I’d highly recommend this if you’re looking for some non-fiction to read but still want a story out of it.

Girl Up by Laura Bates

As a feminist, I’ve never felt the need to read feminist theory. I didn’t think that I needed persuading to be a feminist. Now I realise reading this sort of writing isn’t just about being persuaded, it’s about awareness and arming yourself with facts.  Girl Up has taught me things that I needed to know right now, and certainly needed to know when I was a teenager.

I never read Everyday Sexism, Laura Bates’ first book, but I took great interest in The Everyday Sexism Project , both online (http://everydaysexism.com/) and on twitter (@Everydaysexism). I listened to Laura’s Tedx talk (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LhjsRjC6B8U). Laura is a great role model and really inspirational. I only realised that she was coming out with another book, Girl Up, when I saw a talk and book signing advertised at my local Waterstones.

I really enjoyed watching Laura speak. She’s not presidential or authoritative in tone the way a teacher might be; she’s just natural. You could see that she was a little nervous as she took to the stage, but that was charming. It is her relatability that makes her such a great ambassador for the Everyday Sexism project. Laura isn’t preachy at all, all she does is, without being patronising, guide the listener or reader to remember that life, and feminism, is really all about choice. As long as the choice is something that you want and are comfortable with, then it’s ok. That sounds simple, and I always thought that I knew it too, but Girl Up really enlightened me to the times where actually, a choice maybe wasn’t mine but was foisted on me by media or society’s idea of the ideal woman.

The other great thing about Laura is the passionate way in which she speaks and writes. There was a point in the talk, and many points in the book, where Laura reels off a long list of statistics to illustrate why gender inequality is still very much present in the UK. Statistics, long lists of them, are often dull. Not in this case. Laura speaks with such passion, and writes with such frank honesty, that you can feel the tension building as you read the reel of stats…

“The way that ‘he’ is the automatic default for a person. That fact that insults, from cunt to motherfucker to bastard to pussy, are all, at their root, derogatory towards women. The fact that only seven FTSE 100 companies have female bosses. That women only write one fifth of front page newspaper articles. That they’re 50 per cent of chemistry undergraduates but only 6 per cent of professors. That 400,000 women are sexually assaulted in England and Wales every year, and 85,000 raped.”

…until you just want throw the book down, run to the nearest rooftop and scream at the top of your voice at the unfairness of it all. This is exactly the reaction that feminist writing should elicit. We all need this wake up call.

Girl Up is probably aimed at the younger market, and the writing often directly addresses teenagers. Please don’t let that put you off. I learnt so much. Laura covers off a variety of topics, from social media and body image, to consent and sexual health, and how to own the word feminism.

I really hope teenage girls can get their hands on this book. I think it would be a great manual to dip in and out of and remind anyone suffering from sexism, or perhaps feeling attacked for speaking out about it, that they are not alone. That’s exactly what listening to Laura speak at my local Waterstones (coincidentally one of my ‘happy’ places) did; it made me realise that I’m not alone.

My worry is that teenagers won’t be able to access this book. The book is fierce and direct and I can see that high schools in the UK might ban it from their libraries. For one, they may consider that some of the topics are too mature for teens or that the dancing vagina cartoons are inappropriate. (Yes, dancing vaginas! The idea behind it is that there is penis graffiti everywhere; on walls, school desks, public toilets! So let’s raise awareness of what a vagina looks like and balance this out a bit!) But this is a book to give to your children, whatever their gender identity.  These are ideas and thoughts to be discussed, explored and broadcasted. There is actually nothing particularly revolutionary in this book, this isn’t a new type of theory. It’s feminism for beginners and it’s a great place to start.