I (Ben) started reading Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder about a month ago. The novel follows a pharmaceutical researcher named Dr. Marina Singh into the Amazon, where a colleague of hers has mysteriously passed away. Waiting in the jungle, Kurtz-like, is Singh’s former mentor, Dr. Anneck Swenson, who is on the verge of developing a miracle drug that can extend a woman’s fertility into old age. Singh must face her past with Swenson as well as the basic inconvenience of surviving in the Amazon, with its bugs, its snakes, its humidity and all the rest.
I was well into the Amazon part of the book when, through no fault of its own, I set it down. I was so intrigued by Patchett’s fictional backdrop that I decided to first read two non-fiction books set in the Amazon that have long been on my radar: David Grann’s The Lost City of Z and Candace Millard’s The River of Doubt.
Growing up, I loved a show on Nickelodeon in the 80s called “The Mysterious Cities of Gold.” You may recall the killer theme song.
Doo do da do da do, cities of gold!
The show’s main character was a Spanish boy named Esteban who comes to the New World to find both the mysterious cities of gold (specifically El Dorado) and his father. I couldn’t tell you a lick of the plot anymore — there was a solar-powered ship and mechanical condor, as well as run-ins with the Maya, Inca and Olmec tribes — but I made it a point to wake up at six o’clock every morning just so I wouldn’t miss an episode. (The thought of doing this for any TV show now strikes me as ludicrous.)
A couple years later, when Arachnophobia came out, I was just as captivated (and terrified) by the jungle scenes as I was anything involving the spiders set loose back in California. Yes, the spiders were scary. But I kept thinking, If that’s what they found in the jungle, just imagine what they didn’t find.
Almost ten years ago I was on the Amazon River, albeit a good distance from the actual Amazon Rainforest. I was in Ecuador with my youth group working in a remote Indian village east of Quito. My brief stint on the river (and a side trip to an animal sanctuary) was as thrilling, alien and claustrophobic as I imagined. We saw some freaky animals — I remember being especially disturbed by a caiman that I was certain wanted to kill me — but thankfully we never encountered any animal like this:
The tiny, almost transparent catfish known as the candiru … is the only other animal besides the vampire bat that is known to survive solely on blood. Most species of candiru are only about an inch long, and they usually make their living by swimming into the gill chambers of larger fish. … When it comes to parasitizing people, a very rare occurence, the candiru’s modus operandi is to ender through an orifice — from a vagina to an anus.
That’s from The River of Doubt. I had to put the book down after that passage and collect myself, only to read this sentence next:
It is most famous, however, for wiggling its way into a urethra.
What should happen if a candiru parasitized your urethra, you ask?
For the person whom the candiru has parasitized, the situation is potentially just as dire, and the cure can be as bad as the affliction. The candiru soon dies where it is, but its body continues to block the urethra, causing excruciating pain and, if not removed, death.
Millard, a former writer for National Geographic, lovingly details the exotic creatures of the Amazon as a backdrop for her book’s central subject: Theodore Roosevelt’s expedition down the unmapped River of Doubt, just months after his failed presidential bid for the Progressive Party. Roosevelt is a biographer’s dream, but Millard captures what many of his biographers miss: TR’s irrepressible spirit, even in his bleakest moments. Wracked with fever and infection, Roosevelt was brought to the brink of suicide by this expedition. Others on the trek died by Indian attack, drowning and even murder within the party.
Millard deftly weaves letters and journal entries together to recreate this harrowing trip, and it’s to her credit that she delivers so much historical detail but still maintains a sharp, narrative snap. (The book reads much like a thriller.) The Lost City of Z, by David Grann, is not nearly as tightly focused, though it has its own virtues. Grann’s book is an account of an Englishman named Percy Fawcett, an explorer obsessed with finding his own mysterious city of gold, which he dubbed Z. After numerous expeditions into the Amazon with varying success (and countless close calls with death), Fawcett embarked on his final journey in 1925, leaving with his son Jack and one of his son’s friends. All three disappeared and were never heard from again.
Grann, like many others before him, falls into “the grip” of solving the Fawcett riddle. He digs around, discovers some of Fawcett’s unpublished diaries and log books, and then, before he knows it, takes out an extra life insurance policy and tells his wife (and first-time mother) he’s following Fawcett’s trail into the jungle. You can probably guess how that conversation went over.
The pleasures of Grann’s book are more subtle, and while he doesn’t solve the riddle, there are several startling discoveries along the way. He twins Fawcett’s insatiable curiosity with his own obsession to find out what really happened to the intrepid explorer, and if Z really existed. “I was so consumed by the story that I did not think much about the consequences,” Grann said of his quixotic journey to the Amazon, “and one of the themes I try to explore in the book is the lethal nature of obsession.”
I have a recommendation for you: If there’s something mysteriously appealing to you, as there is to me, about the Amazon, don’t take out a life insurance policy and fly there. Just read one of these two books. Or both. It’s cheaper, and your odds of living are significantly better.
State of Wonder review to follow soon.