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December 2007What the Dead Know

Counting Crocodiles

"How many crocodiles can you see?" Enos asked.

We were standing at Crooks Corner, where the Limpopo and Luvuvhu rivers meet, at the Zimbabwe-South Africa border. The Limpopo was dry, but the Luvuvhu was still flowing, although seemingly quite shallow. We had been up since 4:30 a.m. and a cool morning had given way to what would be a scorching day, about 106 degrees. The river looked darn inviting.

"None," I answered honestly.

"One," said another member of our group.

"I see seven," Enos said.

And suddenly, there they were -- a pair of eyes at water level, a long body on the opposite shore, a baby in the bulrushes. Where once I had seen sticks and stones and shadows, there were crocodiles. Nine, in fact. I took a few steps back from the river's edge.

I am just home from three weeks in Africa, where I went to game parks in South Africa and Botswana, toured Cape Town and stood at the Cape of Good Hope, discovered Piri Piri sauce in Maputo, felt the spray of Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe, stuck my feet in the Indian Ocean, and even found myself profoundly grateful for Mimmo's pizza near Sasolburg, South Africa, a place not on most travelers' wish lists.

But, fact is, the whole of Africa was never on my mental list of places I must visit in my lifetime. China, yes. Eastern Europe, absolutely. Australia and New Zealand. Scandinavia, Spain. Montreal. Japan. Portugal. Africa didn't crack my personal top ten. But an unusual opportunity put South Africa on my agenda, so I went. And had the time of my life, even with a 33-pound luggage limit*, which meant that I traveled with only two pairs of shoes, two pairs of pants that converted to shorts and virtually NO books**, although my iPod included: Bill Bryson (I'm a Stranger Here Myself, Neither Here Nor There), Garrison Keillor (Lake Pontoon), Beowulf (as read by Seamus Heaney), the Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats, Chekhov's short stories and multiple episodes of This American Life.

This is a time of year when critics make lists, to paraphrase a favorite piece by one of my favorite writers. I have been gratified to appear on some lists so far. But standing at Crooks Corner, counting crocodiles, I realized our lists include only what we've allowed ourselves to see. If two crocodiles evade the expert eye of a guide such as Enos, even for a few seconds, won't good books escape the notice of the best critics?

Yet such lists are a valuable exercise -- emphasis on exercise -- because of the debates they engender; by the time everyone gets through responding to a best-of or a shortlist, readers have literally dozens of titles from which to choose.

I won't attempt a best-of list this year; I am simply not well-read enough. Instead, I'll throw out my literary highlights of 2007, going completely with impulse, seeing what ten things come to mind first.

  1. Meeting Daniel Woodrell. Winter's Bone is one of the best books I've read in the past ten years.
  2. Lush Life, by Richard Price. In bookstores everywhere in March 2008.
  3. Death Message, by Mark Billingham -- and every other book I read by a good friend, but Mark's book came to mind first, possibly because it's faced out in every bookstore I visited in South Africa.
  4. Discovering Bill Bryson. A year ago, I hadn't read any Bryson, but that changed with The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid. I've since read Notes From a Small Island and A Walk in the Woods and listened to most of the two books I have in audio format. In fact, Bryson helped me through the inevitable jet lag-induced insomnia upon my return; awake at 2 a.m, I put Neither Here Nor There on and spent the rest of the night drifting in and out dreams about Italy and Sarajevo.
  5. Breaking up with a literary writer with whom I have had a long-standing abusive relationship. And I'm putting another one on double-secret probation. Sorry, guys. It's not you, it's me.
  6. "Airport" reads - that is, delightful discoveries in airport bookstores: The Gathering, by Anne Enright, (Milan Malpensa); A Three Dog Night, by Abigail Thomas (New York's Kennedy Airport); The Famous Writers School, by Steven Carter (Johannesburg O.R. Tambo); the aforementioned Thunderbolt Kid (Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport).
  7. Interviewing Harlan Coben at Harrogate and uncovering the secret behind his middle name.
  8. "Sex Devil" -- and everything else by Jack Pendarvis, including his blog. Hat tip to Tom Franklin for the introduction.
  9. Going public with my dislike of The Catcher in the Rye.
  10. The True-Life Adventures of Blue House and A Year in November. Actually, these books don't exist yet, except in the oral tradition, but they were as good as anything else I read in 2007.

See you in 2008.

*   The limit was because one leg of the trip was on a VERY SMALL charter plane, something else I never intended to do in my lifetime. Beforehand, I tried to imagine the worst-case scenario, and decided it would be like the plane in the original The In-Laws. The plane in which I flew was smaller.

**   I got around this, of course. I bought paperback books and jettisoned them before the charter flight, reading: Atonement, A Three Dog Night, Temptation. I found a mass market version of The Gathering and figured I could afford the extra ounces. Then, once the charter flight was safely in my past, I bought: True Story: Murder, Memoir, Mea Culpa; Famous Writers School; Arlington Park; Three Bags Full; The Murmur of Stones; and Disgrace. Meanwhile, I had my emergency hardcover, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Diaz.

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