Dan recommends: The best recreational non-fiction of 2018

2018 has been a stunning year for me when we talk about books and reading, and here’s a selection of recreational non-fiction titles that I have enjoyed in the back half of 2018 and that you too can enjoy over the New Zealand summer season!

Cover of A collection of conversations with Richard Fidler, Volume 3First up; an audiobook! A Collection of Conversations With Richard Fidler Volume 3

Volume 3 is another outstanding collection of conversations with Australian ABC Arts journalist and author Richard Fidler. His genius with interviewing technique unwraps some amazing stories from people who have done amazing things with their lives. The common thread among all of these interviewees is their passion for continued learning, their curiosity about the world, and their passion for life. In this volume we hear from a blind woman who navigates by sonar, a Bundjalung woman who rose to become one of Australia’s brightest lights, a man who spent 10 years alone in the bush before gaining a doctorate while being homeless, the animalistic life of comedian Bill Bailey, and many more fascinating stories. A great summer’s day listening at the bach, maybe with a glass of something refreshing…

Cover of Leviathan, or the whaleNext we have the soon-to-be-considered-classic work of Philip Hoare Leviathan, Or, The Whale

I was lucky enough to see/hear Philip Hoare speak at this year’s Word Christchurch festival, and it was the realisation of a dream that I didn’t know I had – to meet the man who has had me mesmerised with his writing about the sea and natural science too often to count. Philip Hoare writes of the sea in such powerful and beautiful language. This particular book is his own graceful exploration of whales, their place in our world, our human history interacting with them, and the perils that they face at the hands of humanity and environmental changes. A book to read slowly, embracing every sentence for its beauty and poetic brilliance.

Cover of Wisconsin death tripIn completely the other direction, 2018 was the year I discovered this book from long ago – Wisconsin Death Trip

This book is a surreal journey about the real events surrounding the town of Black River Falls, Wisconsin way back in the 1890s. Over a decade or so the townsfolk underwent what can only be called a mass-mania with incidents of murder, arson, infanticide, institutionalisation, and all manner of other horrors. These stories are told through archival newspaper reports and the most astonishing images taken from glass-plate negatives taken during the time. Haunting images and crazy stories… an amazing piece of captured history.

Cover of 11 Explorations into life on EarthAnd perhaps in the lead up to Christmas you could indulge in a British custom and read about the history of the Royal Institute’s Christmas Lectures 11 Explorations Into Life on Earth

A very compelling volume of short accounts of the sessions delivered by many noted British scientists including Richards Dawkins and the great David Attenborough himself. These lectures were aimed to get kids excited about science and they are very entertaining and informative – you’ll love them too!

And the last title I’ll share with you is a micro-history. A micro-history is a work which focuses on one very specific piece of human or natural history. In the past I’ve enjoyed brilliant micro-histories like Salt by Mark Kurlansky – the amazing story of the most popular food seasoning in the world, or The Surgeon of Crowthorne by Simon Winchester (a repeat offender when it comes to micro-histories!) – an account of a madman who made the most significant contribution to the English language dictionary. I may one day write a blog just about the amazing world of micro-histories (Alina has done a very good microhistories list to start with) but for this time it’s all about Krill in The Curious Life of Krill.

Cover of The curious life of krillThis is a fascinating read about one of the most bountiful and important food sources in the Earth’s oceans. Written with an expert’s mind and a writer’s sense of storytelling this is a most enlightening read. Krill; they’re not as small as you think, and they are almost definitely the most important link in the food chain for life on Earth. Great read. Cool creatures. Think of them when you’re BBQ-ing your prawns this Christmas! 🙂

And that’s the back half of my 2018 reading in recreational non-fiction. These are not all the titles that crossed my path but definitely the most interesting and the ones I would like to share the most.

Happy Christmas season to y’all and happy reading for the rest of 2018!

^DevilStateDan

A new whale for a new generation

It looks just like the original.

Many might assume that an old friend has returned to New Brighton.

But it is, in fact, a replica.

At the Whale Pool, 1970. Kete Christchurch. PH14-307. Entry in the 2014 Christchurch City Libraries Photo Hunt. Creative Commons License

Along with the lighthouse, the concrete whale has been an iconic feature of the pool at the New Brighton playground for over forty years. Known as the ‘whale pool’, such is the attachment that local residents have towards it, that when a survey was held in 2016, asking them what they expected from a redevelopment of the playground and pool, 90 per cent of the respondees stated that they wished for the whale to remain.

Children of Christchurch were first introduced to the whale in 1971, when, after years of planning, the playground opened on 16 December.

The origins of the playground lie in the formation of the New Brighton Pier and Foreshore Society which was established in 1964 to save the historic New Brighton pier (built in 1894) from demolition. Although the pier was eventually demolished in 1965, the society continued to serve the community. In 1967 the organisation decided to build a children’s playground and pool.

The northern carpark by the beach was chosen as the location, and in 1968 proposed designs were made. In the following year they were submitted to the Christchurch City Council but these were rejected as inadequate. To remedy this, the society hired a professional architect to bring their plans up to a required standard. Eventually these plans were scaled down, and when presented again to the council in 1971, they were approved. The pool and playground were completed in time for the summer holidays.

Like many of the other paddling pools in Christchurch, the whale pool was damaged during the February 2011 earthquake. Repairs were made and the pool officially reopened on 17 November 2012.

Whale Pool Re-opening Day – 17 November 2012. Kete Christchurch. Whale_Pool_Re-opening_Day_-_17_November_2012__DSCF3403. Creative Commons License

As early as 1998, there had been discussions surrounding the concept of a saltwater hot pool complex at New Brighton. After the restoration of the whale pool, the idea was raised once again. In December 2016 the council approved the funding for the Beachside Playground and coastal protection works to be carried out by Development Christchurch Limited. Construction on the new playground began in August 2017 after a sod turning ceremony was held.

Although it was initially planned to keep the old whale (but with a new water jet installed), an engineer’s assessment found that it would not survive the relocation. Given that it was important for the whale to remain a part of the playground, a fibreglass mould was made and a replica whale produced. The ‘clone’ of the original was set into place on 5 December.

The new playground (complete with replica whale) is scheduled to open on Wednesday 20 December 2017 at 10.30am.

Find out more

Climate Change is Real! says Orca: Idiot Gods by David Zindell

“I am the eye with which the universe / Beholds itself and knows itself divine.”

Percy Bysshe Shelley, Hymn of Apollo

CoverDavid Zindell you have filled my heart to overflowing. This book Idiot Gods is different  – a lyrical story on climate change from the point of view of a whale. An Orca, to be exact, named Arjuna. With Conservation Week just behind us, this is the perfect summer read.

Neverness author David Zindell immerses the reader in the complex and deeply spiritual currents of thought from the mind of his unlikely hero. Deeply disturbed by a chain of tragic events in the ocean, Arjuna realises that humans are responsible for the breakdown and destruction of Earth. Or Ocean, as Orca call it.

Guided by the songs of the ocean and his ancestors that link him to all creation, Arjuna tries to communicate this to the human race. His attempts to raise the alarm land him in the ‘poisoned pools’ of captivity. Could this experience be part of his life’s song? Or the final bars?

“You want to be closer to our people – you even want our love! How, though, should you think that trapping us in the pools of the Sea Circuses of the world and feeding us dead, drugged food will result in feelings of amity and accord?” (p.276)

“Why can you not find such satisfaction through communing with other humans? Instead, you seek validation through swimming with us and slathering upon us effusive affections. If we respond in kind, or indeed in any way, you take that as affirmation of your own specialness and worthiness to be loved.” (p.276)

With a solid knowledge of oceanography – and a great imagination –  Zindell raises the issue of human hubris, assumed superiority, cruelty to each other and the creatures they share the planet with.

“I see an entire species that lives off itself. Like sharks devouring each other, you eat each other’s labour, money, time, sweat, tears, hopes and dreams.” (p.260)

The trials of life in a polluted sea are painted in stark detail: an ocean empty of fish, filled instead with ships waging war on each other and whales.

“And the bull-whales gather their women and whale-claves in a ring / When danger threatens, on the surface of the ceaseless flood / And range themselves like great fierce Seraphim facing the threat / Encircling their huddled monsters of love”.
D.H. Lawrence, Whales Weep Not.

The Orcas’ experience of madness and depression in captivity is told with a poignancy that I found incredibly moving. Can Arjuna communicate the things he desperately wants to tell us? Or could war with humans be the only solution?

Find more in our collection

Related links