20 Books of Summer #4 + Substitutes & Plane Reading

You’ll have to excuse me posting twice in one day. I’ve just finished packing the last few things for my three weeks in America, and want to get my latest #20BooksofSummer review out there before I fly early tomorrow. What with a layover in Toronto, it will be a very long day of travel, so I think the volume of reading material I’m taking is justified! (See the last photo of the post.)


Four Wings and a Prayer: Caught in the Mystery of the Monarch Butterfly by Sue Halpern (2001)

I admire nonfiction books that successfully combine lots of genres into a dynamic narrative. This one incorporates travel, science, memoir, history, and even politics. Halpern spent a year tracking monarch butterflies on their biannual continent-wide migrations, which were still not well understood at that point. She rides through Texas into Mexico with Bill Calvert, field researcher extraordinaire; goes gliding with David Gibo, a university biologist, in fields near Toronto; and hears from scientists and laymen alike about the monarchs’ habits and outlook. It happened to be a worryingly poor year for the butterflies, yet citizen science initiatives provided valuable information that could be used to predict their future.

The book is especially insightful about clashes between environmentalist initiatives and local livelihoods in Mexico (tree huggers versus subsistence loggers) and the joy of doing practical science with simple tools you make yourself. It’s also about how focused attention becomes passion. “Science, like belief, starts with wonder, and wonder starts with a question,” Halpern writes.

The style is engaging, though at nearly 20 years old the book feels a bit dated, and I might have liked more personal reflections than interviews with (middle-aged, white, male) scientists. I only realized on the very last page, through the acknowledgments, that the author is married to Bill McKibben, a respected environment writer. [She frequently mentions Fred Urquhart, a Toronto zoology professor; I wondered if he could be related to Jane Urquhart, a Canadian novelist whose novel Sanctuary Line features monarchs. (Turns out: no relation. Oh well!)]

Readalikes: Farther Away by Jonathan Franzen & Ruins by Peter Kuper

My rating:


I’ve already done some substituting on my 20 Books of Summer. I decided against reading Vendela Vida’s Girls on the Verge after perusing the table of contents and the first few pages and gauging reader opinions on Goodreads. I have a couple of review books, Twister  by Genanne Walsh and The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt by Tracy Farr, that I’m enjoying but will have to leave behind while I’m in the States, so I may need that little extra push to finish them once I get back. I’ve also been rereading a favorite, Paulette Bates Alden’s memoir Crossing the Moon, which has proved an excellent follow-up to Sheila Heti’s Motherhood.

(What I haven’t determined yet is which books these will be standing in for.) Waiting in the wings in case further substitutions are needed is this stack of review books:

Also from the #20Books list and coming with me on the flight are Madeleine L’Engle’s The Summer of the Great-Grandmother and Janet Fitch’s White Oleander, which are both terrific thus far. The final print book joining me for the journey is Transit by Rachel Cusk. I have attempted to read her twice before and failed to get through a whole book, so we’ll see if it’s third time lucky. It seems like the perfect book to read in transit to Canada, after all.

Finally, in progress on the Kindle are Summer by Karl Ove Knausgaard, the last in his set of four seasonal essay collections, and The Late Bloomers’ Club by Louise Miller, another cozy novel set in fictional Guthrie, Vermont, which she introduced in her previous book, The City Baker’s Guide to Country Living.

It’ll be a busy few weeks helping my parents pack up their house and moving my mom into her new place, plus doing a reduced freelance work load for the final two weeks. It’s also going to be a strange time because I have to say goodbye to a house that’s been a part of my life for 13 years, and sort through box after box of mementoes before putting everything into medium-term storage.

I won’t be online all that much, and can’t promise to keep up with everyone else’s blogs, but I’ll try to pop in with a few reviews.

Happy July reading!

18 responses

  1. Enjoy your time on this side of the pond, and sorry you’re coming when it’s so darn hot most places! Good thing you have the Knausgaard on Kindle–I look forward to hearing how you like his essays. Safe travels!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s been unusually hot over here, too — in the 80s, which is rare, and difficult to deal with because almost nowhere has air conditioning and we don’t own any fans!

      I very much enjoyed Winter from his series; Autumn less so. (I never got hold of Spring.)


  2. Travel safe and Noddy badge for family service. Helen de Witt’s The Last Samurai is one of my top favourite books – I must have read it at least 4 times. I’ll be interested to read your review.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s great to hear. It sounds like those who love it do so passionately. It was recommended by my bibliotherapist re: deciding whether to have children.


  3. I’d recommend the The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt. I read it shortly after Us, Conductors which is also about theremins. Both novels inspired me to go to a (rare) theremin concert earlier this year. It was fascinating!

    Have a safe trip, Rebecca. I hope it won’t be too emotionally disconcerting for you.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Wow, two novels about theremin playing! Who would have believed it? 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I know, and it wasn’t an anniversary either.


  4. Good luck with the trip, and the reading, and the sorting-out-of-possessions-and-feelings; I’ve all my fingers crossed for you.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Have a wonderful time back home: bet you don’t get much reading done!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I hope everything goes well with the move. Leaving a home is never easy, even if you don’t live there any more or never lived there full time. Sounds like you have some great reading lined up, though!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. The Last Samurai is my favourite book of all time. Funny, clever, completely crackers. I would recommend it to everyone, but I’m also pretty sure about 80% of people I’d recommend it to wouldn’t like it. But it’s awesome.

    Hope the move goes well. Sometimes it helps to think more about what you’re moving towards than whatever’s been left behind, or so I find anyway.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hmm, a Marmite book then! We shall see how I react.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. I liked Transit better than Outline, so maybe you will too!
    Have a great trip!!!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I did! I finished it on the plane and actually really liked it. Each chapter felt like a fully formed short story about some aspect or experience of her life. I especially liked the awful downstairs neighbours.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Hope it’s all going well. Bill McKibben wrote one of my favourite books of last year, too!


    1. I’ve only read one of his nonfiction books, a memoir, so far. He’s a hero of my husband’s, though.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. […] Four Wings and a Prayer: Caught in the Mystery of the Monarch Butterfly by Sue Halpern (one of last year’s 20 Books of Summer) […]


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