28,800 TOYS AT SEA

                 By Elizabeth Royte:

In a Chinese toy factory, he pulls a 16-year-old duck from his pocket and fits the toy into its original mold. “For a moment I half expect some sort of cosmic magic to occur — rays of yellow light to come shooting from the mold, a portal to open in the space-time continuum. Instead, I just stand there muttering, idiotically, ‘Wow. . . Wow.’ ”

At times, I reacted similarly to “Moby-Duck.” Hohn seems to have it all: deep intelligence, a strikingly original voice, humility and a hunger to suss out everything a yellow duck may literally or metaphorically touch. Naturally, he can’t, but the chase is, after all, the thing.

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By Rob Verger:

The book, by turns light-hearted and serious but always a pleasure to read, touches on quite a few subjects: oceanography and drift, shipping and manufacturing, pollution from plastics, the difference between what’s natural and synthetic, and perhaps most endearingly, the nature of childhood, innocence, and paternity.

The idea is that exploring one subject in depth can help reveal something bigger, like “what Thoreau did for Walden Pond, or Melville for whaling.’’ (“Moby-Dick’’ is a recurring, and apt, touchstone in this book.) Hohn treats the spill of the bath toys with the spirit of this philosophy, examining all thematic aspects of the incident. The book is not a tightly focused narrative on only the spill itself; instead, “Moby-Duck’’ uses the spill as a jumping off point and sets sail from there.

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Posted by Paulina Reso

In the company of zealous beachcombers, intrepid oceanographers, and eccentric ship captains, Hohn ventures to the Chinese plastics factory where the toys were born and onward around the globe to Alaska and the Arctic. “Moby-Dick,” one of Hohn’s favorite books, guides his quest—though he’s searching for a speck of yellow, not a white whale, the journey he makes is no less incredible, turning, as he writes, “a map into a world.”

Earlier this week, Hohn and I exchanged e-mails. An edited version of our conversation appears below:

When did you first learn of the strange case of the missing bath toys, and why did you want to go in search of them?

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By Rick Smith

I recently read, and loved, Michael Chabon's Manhood for Amateurs, and there is some similarity between Chabon's wry humour and Hohn's self-deprecating account of his attempts to connect with his two-year old in New York via cellphone from near the Arctic Circle (not to mention his consistent, and welcome, riffing on quality 1970s and 80s pop-culture touchstones such as Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind).

In the same way that The Social Network captured the wired spirit of the past decade, there's something about Moby-Duck that puts its finger on the weird and troubled, but beautiful, world that we find ourselves inhabiting. Donovan Hohn finally does find his lost bath toys, but discovers other, less familiar and friendly, things along the way.

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By Kai Ryssdal

RYSSDAL: I want to ask you for a minute about your son. Bruno pops up every now and then through this book, and when you turn the last he's three years old and you guys are throwing pine cones into the Hudson River down in the south end of Manhattan. But you were gone for long stretches while this guy was a kid.

HOHN: Yeah. I was.

RYSSDAL: I wonder how that went because that would have killed me.

HOHN: It was probably, in a weird way, more than seafaring and rough weather, I will say the hardest part of the trip. Initially, when I set out doing this I had this idea of the title, "Moby-Duck," which was a little bit of a joke, but also because if I have to name a favorite novel that's it. And one of the things I noticed on the last time I last read it was how much fatherhood was on Melville's mind . . .

Read or listen to the interview.


By Bill Marvel

Like its literary eponym, Moby-Duck plunges into the depths of what it is to be landwalking mortals in a world surrounded by water. . . . [Hohn] writes always entertainingly, often gorgeously. The various beachcombers, scientists, environmentalists, Chinese entrepreneurs and able-bodied seamen he meets snap vividly to life. The best parts are when he’s out on the water somewhere, battered by waves and ice, or rambling a beach looking for that rubber duckie.

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By Daniel Dyer

Hohn remains throughout an appealing narrator, drawing in readers of all sorts. He alludes variously to Proust and Eric Carle, Al Gore and "Sesame Street." He writes knowledgeably about ocean currents and petrochemistry -- he had a writing fellowship at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute -- but continually confesses his ignorance, his clumsiness, his fears (the movie "Jaws" ruined ocean swimming for him). He engages us -- unobtrusively, almost slyly -- about what we need to know (the history of the Northwest Passage, the Chinese toy industry) . . . "Moby-Duck" -- an exploration in every sense -- will remind readers of the best of John McPhee and Ian Frazier. And maybe, even, of the weird and wonderful Herman Melville himself.

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By Janet Maslin

Here’s an important point about Mr. Hohn’s many and varied subsequent travels and observations: He was not one of those journalists who dream up make-work projects and seek out exploits that can be turned into amusing reading. “Moby-Duck” makes him sound genuinely open-minded, inquisitive and eager to expand his own understanding of the freakish event on which he’d grown fixated. And he was eager to enhance his secondhand ideas about how the world works with firsthand images and experiences, which he eagerly incorporates into “Moby-Duck.” As he puts it, he was not someone, like the explorers of old, who sought to turn the world into a map. “Quite the opposite,” he says. “I wanted to turn a map into a world.”

[A]dventurous, inquisitive and brightly illuminating . . . a book that works as a lively travelogue as well as a voyage of discovery and a philosophical inquiry of sorts.

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By Patrick Brzeski

[T]the cast of characters Hohn encounters would do any sea dog proud. . . . Never didactic, always self-deprecatory, Hohn makes for a good shipmate, discussing a great deal of ecological calamity without going shrill. Cultural history, sea lore and nuanced readings of Melville are adroitly interwoven through rich descriptive passages and elegantly summarized swaths of oceanographic arcana. All of which leaves the reader feeling much as Hohn himself did upon observing a scientist delineate the complex habits of Arctic seafowl: "Although I have no use for such ornithological information, I admire it. I'd like to be able to read all the world so closely."

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By Caroline Leavitt

[out of four]

Hohn's account is entertaining but also philosophic.…His quest is puckish, profound and as irresistible as the yellow bath toy itself.

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With WBUR’s Robin Young

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By Dustin Michael Harris

The author drifts through topics just as his beloved Floatees drifted across the seas. But Hohn navigates the complicated fields of oceanography, environmentalism, globalization and maritime shipping with surprising humor and ease, raising pressing questions about these topics without giving any clear answers to them — because there aren’t any. Hohn cleverly uses the deceptively whimsical premise of chasing a little plastic duck to provoke a massively complicated and thought-provoking conversation. Who knew spilled bath toys could be so important?

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By Dave Davies

HOHN: So 12 containers isn't enough to generate lots of information, and I, trying to answer that question, went to another accident that happened, in 1998. In monetary terms, this was the worst shipping disaster in history. It involved a ship called the APL China, once again traveling from the Far East to the Pacific Northwest. It lost 407 containers overboard in a single night, and the photographs that were taken when it arrived in port are pretty dramatic, these stacks that are...

DAVIES: Just describe what the ship looked like when it came to port.

HOHN: . . . It looked ravaged. Most of the rows of containers had toppled like dominoes. And some of them had been pancaked flat by the ones on top of them. In one case, an entire row was missing, just swept overboard. So it was a ruin.

Listen to the interview.

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