A look back at 2012, on the shelf


Until last year, when I thought of great American nature writers, I thought of people like Aldo Leopold, Henry David Thoreau and Annie Dillard. Now I also think of Dayton O. Hyde, an Eastern Oregon rancher who spent decades just a couple of hours from Bend.

Hyde’s “Don Coyote: The Good Times and the Bad Times of a Much Maligned American Original” — sadly, out of print — was one of the best books I read in 2012.

I picked up a used copy on a visit to Powell’s, in Portland. Immediately, I was engrossed in Hyde’s charming story of learning to ranch with — not despite — coyotes.

By the time I finished this slim paperback, I wondered why Hyde, a rancher who also happens to be an environmentalist and keen observer of nature, isn’t a household name, especially here in Oregon. “Don Coyote” was some of the most captivating nature writing I’ve ever come across.

I did something in 2012 that I’d never done before: kept a list of the books I read. This wasn’t a resolution-like goal. I simply noticed that I often struggled to remember what books I’d read even weeks earlier. And I’d recently joined www.goodreads.com, a social networking site for book lovers that makes it easy to track what one reads. Now that 2013 is here, looking over my list feels a little like flipping through a photo album of my year. I had a baby last January, so for the first few months, I read paperbacks that I could hold in one hand while cradling my baby with the other.

For a while, marathon nursing sessions allowed me to finish almost a book a day. In retrospect, that makes it tough to discern whether I was absorbed in these stories because of the writing itself or because of the luxury of reading for hours and hours.

Either way, I adored Kate Christensen’s “The Great Man,” a fast-paced novel about a late fictitious artist and his many admirers, who find themselves piecing together his mysterious life story.

I have to admit that “A Big Storm Knocked It Over,” by Laurie Colwin — a writer I’d intended to read for ages — didn’t impress me at first. Then I found I couldn’t stop thinking about this tale of marriage and motherhood, perhaps because it paralleled my own life in obvious ways.

Later, when both hands were free to read hardcovers, I tackled some of the year’s commercial juggernauts. I loved “Gone Girl,” a dark psycho-thriller by Gillian Flynn, and “Wild,” a complicated memoir that centers on Cheryl Strayed’s solo hike of the Pacific Crest Trail. Both books kept me up past my bedtime, rapt, though for very different reasons.

I also enjoyed Bend’s “Novel Idea” pick, “Rules of Civility,” by Amor Towles, which transported me to my former home, New York City, albeit in the 1930s.

I devoured “The Wilder Life,” by Wendy McClure, as if it were the literary equivalent of jelly beans. It’s a fun read for anyone who, like me, grew up worshipping at the altar of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House on the Prairie” series.

I’m glad I found time to re-read Katha Pollitt’s “Learning to Drive,” a book of witty essays on far-ranging topics such as cyberstalking an ex-boyfriend and the FBI’s error-riddled files on her communist parents. Her shortest entry, “End Of,” about nostalgia, is one of my all-time favorites.

As a new parent, I optimistically read four sleep-related advice books. I learned from each of them. Alas, my son did not. If anyone can recommend an obscure title that helped their tots sleep soundly, I’d love to hear it.

I’ve already started a list of books to read in 2013. On top is “What the Robin Knows: How Birds Reveal the Secrets of the Natural World,” by Jon Young. A friend recently recommended it. And who knows, reading it could help me become a better, more observant hunter, too.

Whatever I end up reading, I’ll be sure to keep a list. For an avid reader like me, it’s almost as good as a journal.