on March 24, 2011
A couple weeks ago I went to a lecture by the author of Moby Duck, Donovan Hohn. I was interested in this because of a story that I remember reading a few years ago. The story was about a flotilla of 1000 ghost rubber ducks, bleached by the sun, about to invade the coast of the UK.
That story turns out to have been false, part of the growing myth surrounding the Friendly Floatees. Much like the white whale, a figment of the collective imagination.
This book tells the story, as best can be reconstructed, of these toys. They weren't made of rubber, and the ducks only accounted for 1/4 of the toys (lost in the creating of the myths were the turtles, frogs, and beavers).
The story is incredible. In an attempt to find the full lifecycle of these toys Hohn goes up and down the Alaskan coast looking for the toys cast upon the rugged north Pacific beaches. He goes to sea, many times, including joining scientific expeditions looking at the plastic content of the Pacific, meso scale currents in the North Atlantic, and crossing the North West Passage (now possible due to a rise of 5 degrees C at the poles) all exploring the possible tracks these toys could have taken. He even goes to China to find the birth place of these toys, and crosses the Pacific on a container ship not unlike the one the Floatees fell off of.
His style is very much like that of Bill Bryson, though his mind drifts and wanders in a really interesting way that gives you a sense of the drifting and wandering of these toys at sea. It's an incredible lens to look at our Oceans, a largely unexplored part of our earth, the impact we are having on them, as well as the dangers that still lie out to sea.
on January 5, 2012
In fiction, particularly in film, a MacGuffin is a plot element which seems to drive the plot forward (a rare diamond, perhaps, because the main characters are chasing after it); but in reality, the MacGuffin used to get the reader into the story loses its importance as the story goes on, because the story is really about deeper, more meaningful concepts: love, glory, sacrifice, truth, and so on. Alfred Hitchcock is credited with making the concept of this mechanical plot device popular. In fiction.
With Moby-Duck, we enter the world of nonfiction. Here, a reader's expectations (at least my expectations) are different. If the author is writing about the Abominable Snowman, for example, he or she had better stay focused on and provide a lot of information on and insight into the topic. Or, he or she should make it clear up front that the book is not really about the Abominable Snowman at all: it's just a collection of thoughts. Some abominable, some not.
The subtitle of Moby-Duck, printed large on the front cover, is: "The True Story of 28,800 Bath Toys Lost at Sea and of the Beachcombers, Oceanographers, Environmentalists, and Fools, Including the Author, Who Went in Search of Them."
Well, that is simply not what the book delivers. First of all, none of the beachcombers, oceanographers, or environmentalists mentioned in this book went in search of the bath toys. No. They were all doing something else, and the author bummed along on the trip so that he could search for the bath toys. Second of all, this is NOT the story of the bath toys lost at sea. That's what it promises to be, but it isn't. Instead, it is 400-plus pages of the thoughts and observations of the author, Donovan Hohn. While I like many of his observations, particularly the ones he relates to American literature such as Moby Dick, the fact is that I as a reader am not there for these observations. I'm there for the ducks, of which we get precious little.
To bend over backward and be ultra-fair to the author, I will say that even if I had never expected this book to be about the rubber duckies, and had always expected it to be the observations and ramblings of the author, I would still give it three stars. It's just not that interesting. Yes, the oceans and the currents and ecology and the horrible use of the oceans as a dumping grounds for trash, all of these are serious concerns. But the way the author presents them, they seem like ramblings, not like analysis and not like a call to action. I was disappointed.
This was a fascinating summer read, providing details on shipping, on Alaska beachcombers, on the Woods Hole MA oceanography work, even on toy making in China and some fascinating Sesame Street trivia. In the end, however, I can't bring myself quite to go above three stars in the rating. The author's quest to track a wayward shipment of plastic bath toys was an interesting one but, when he reaches the point where it appears the East Coast sightings that started his journey were false, he doesn't quite know how to wrap things up. The last pages were not necessarily dull; they just don't really fit in this story. Better that he might have taken this portion of the account and spun it off as a long Atlantic or similar magazine piece.
I was a little surprised to see that there are high school teachers who are assigning this book. While it was an enjoyable read overall, it does seem like something to dip into a little bit, skimming here and there and getting more involved in other sections. Somehow, the thought of having to somehow read and report on this as a specific assignment would make the book more difficult to take too.
For those of us who enjoy reading a broad span of nonfiction, this is a good but not outstanding choice. Maybe make it a beach book, with the plan to skim through areas of less interest than others.
Donovan Hohn is new to me, and immediately joins the very small set of writers (John McPhee,Adam Nicholson,Barbara Kingsolver,Ian Frazier...) that merit an "automatic buy" of any non-fiction they write, literally even if the title be: "Toe-Jam."
[Update: I still haven't finished this book, having elevated it all the way to bathroom book, to prolong it longer: 20 minutes per day is a lovely dose. I'm realizing the author is more sly than he presents himself, but at this point I'm willing to forgive him anything.
But sly? At one point, a team he's with want to use ATVs to move several tons of collected plastic garbage across a wild, beautiful Alaskan isthmus so that it can be safely removed by boat. They're forbidden because archeologists complain that the ATVs might damage spruce trees that were "culturally-modified" by the ancient Unegkurmiut people. The team members rant on about how Spotted-Owl-ridiculous this all is, and make jokes about doing some "cultural modification" of trees using their chainsaws. Hohn opens the next paragraph discussing the Stockholm Syndrome, and how people tend to sympathize with the people they're with, but the rest of the paragraph is a description of the Unegkurmiut people, how utterly central the spruce trees were to their existence, and how future archeologists would curse the cleanup crew with the same breath used to curse Schliemann if their ATVs dragged garbage through the area. Sly.
Right now he's addressing his lifelong fear of water after watching "Jaws" at summer camp, and wondering if he has not somehow transmitted his fear into his young son by telepathy. At the same time he's also describing the run-in he's having with a certain recently-famous Alaskan governor, who vetoed funding for beach cleanup on State land because ... well, Alaska didn't PRODUCE the garbage, so it's not responsible for it...]
None of the other reviewers mention, but Hohn is also a genuine lover of words. Shortly after he boards a ferry for Alaska, we get: "I stand at the taffrail and think to myself 'taffrail,' enjoying the reunion of a thing and its word." That occurs on page 51, and I immediately relaxed into the book and literally put my feet up, secure that I was in the hands of a fellow-spirit.
Of course the story isn't about rubber duckies: the ducks are simply the fulcrum he places his lever on, the MacGuffin. He brings himself along as well: far better than dispassionate, invisible observer, he slips just a little of himself into the story, somewhat like John McPhee in The Control of Nature standing on a vibrating lava tube, looking down a hole onto the red flow itself, and admitting a fear-thrill a clear order of magnitude greater than any other in his life.
Hohn knows his science, but doesn't lord it over us; you get the sense of discovering things along with him. But perhaps the greatest joy of the book is how much a student of human nature he is. He's the sort of person who sits in a railway carriage and actually looks at the other people present, observes them, converses with them out of interest. I don't care who you are: you will learn plenty, reading this book.
on July 2, 2011
Can one story capture the heart and imagination of a high school teacher? In Moby-Duck: The True Story of 28,800 Bath Toys Lost at Sea and of the Beachcomers, Oceanographers, Environmentalist, and Fools, Including the Author, Who Went In Search of Them by Donovan Hohn he chronicles one that just did.
On January, 10 1992, a freighter en route to Tacoma from Hong Kong encountered a storm in the North Pacific. As the massive ship lurched through three-story waves, its cargo, some of it lashed above deck in 20 foot long shipping containers, toppled overboard. Among the mission items: 28,800 plastic bath toys.
One toy being the popular rubber yellow duck, as made famous by the 70s television show puppet character Ernie belted out the song "my rubber ducky".
As these ducks (and beavers, frogs, and turtles) washed on shore around the world, Donovan, a high school teacher, went on a quest to find out the story behind the headline. His adventure turns into a near obsession Don Quixote journey.
This quest took him to the Chinese factories where these plastic critters were stamped then on onto a ride onboard a container ship to the actual site of the storm and countless boat rides to find the duck residue.
With humor, candor, and humility Donovan overcomes his fears as he weaves a thread on the environmental impact of one simple pleasure: a rubber ducky. [...]
Fast pace and told in rich detail, Donovan quest makes you more aware of the unintended consequence of our consumer western world wants and how small the world really is.
In the end, his adventure brings awareness of the frailty of the planet and how his expedition was more about preserving the world's environment for his son's future than finding out what happen to those darn ducks.
on November 18, 2012
There were so many interesting stories this book could have told - about ocean conservation, pollution or the rapid industrialization of China. Or it could have been an amusing hunt for the lost rubber ducks, or a travelogue about the northern Pacific Rim. But it didn't tell those stories; it hinted at all of them, but failed to follow through on any of them. The end result was a rambling and verbose monologue with no apparent point at all. This book desperately needed an editor who would tell the author before he put pen to paper: pick a storyline and stick with it, and dispense with all the stream of consciousness rambling that adds nothing to the story.
I hate giving up on a book without finishing, so I stuck it out to the end. But gosh, this book was harder work than anything I have read in a long time.
The dazzling _Moby Dick_ is not simply about whaling. Melville's grand and exhilarating volume is about good and evil, nature, the futility and magnificence of human endeavor, and literature itself, to list just a few subjects. It incorporates everything, but Melville himself wrote (in his first person character of Ishmael), "This whole book is but a draught - nay, but the draught of a draught." Donavan Hohn surely knows the line; he is a journalist, and editor at Harper's, and obviously a Melville fan. But he doesn't quote it in his _Moby-Duck: The True Story of 28,800 Bath Toys Lost at Sea and of the Beachcombers, Oceanographers, Environmentalists, and Fools, Including the Author, Who Went in Search of Them_ (Viking), though you might accuse him of a Melville-like tendency to cram everything in within that subtitle. Indeed, as the subtitle says, _Moby-Duck_ is not simply about bath toys, but it is also not only about the people looking for them. It is about trying to determine fact from fable, and using science to do so; about the place of humans in the natural world and the ways they have made it unnatural; about how little we can know for sure and how great are the mysteries out there, especially on the sea; and about the love of humanity for little plastic ducks.
Where did those ducks come from? It will do no good for Hohn to record merely that they dropped off the container ship _Ever Laurel_ on 10 January 1992. Where they came from was the Pearl River Delta in China, which made the toys for a US firm called First Years Inc. (There are deeper levels, too, as Melville would have been the first to have pointed out, and Hohn tells us about polymers and paints as well.) And Hohn goes to China, looking at the sinister production means of giving us jolly toys. The yellow ducks are jolly, and everyone likes them, and anyone would be happy to pick one up on the beach. There is lots of other junk out there, however. Hohn's trip to Hawaii brings him to an encounter with the notorious Pacific Garbage Patch. The patch isn't dense, with plastic furniture of all sorts floating around in it. Some is floating on the surface, and some is just below, and all of it eventually degrades due to the sun and sea. Tiny pieces of plastic can return to a beach and serve as sand; there are such beaches now that have multicolored plastic bits instead of sand grains. Other tiny pieces enter the food chain, and maybe these unnatural contaminants will be concentrated as they go up the chain. We simply do not know what we are doing to the oceans and the creatures within and to ourselves. Even so, plastic pollution is no one's idea of the greatest environmental threat the oceans face. Global warming, farm run-off, overfishing, and others get mention here. This is not a book to promote optimism any more than its antecedent was.
The flotsam from the container ship changed the ducks (and the others) from bathtub toys to oceanographic tools. They are just the sort of thing beachcombers strive to attain (having surely had enough of water-bottles and the ubiquitous Styrofoam abstractions). Some ducks washed up in Alaska, and of course Hohn goes to partake in the searches by intrepid beachcombers there. Some have been found in Hawaii. Some got trapped in Arctic ice. Can it be that some have made the Northwest Passage and have entered the Atlantic? Ostensibly that is what Hohn sets out to find in these pages, and, well, mysteries remain, although there would have been plenty of mysteries even if there had been a firm answer to the question. If he had confined his book just to the happy accident of ducks being oceanic markers, it would have been informative and cheery; as it is, taking in far larger subjects, there are parts here that are mysterious and worrisome, but it must be said that much is mysterious and joyful. Who can understand completely, for instance, the lure of putting messages into a bottles and the bottles into the sea? He gets this scientific task on one of his expeditions, and a crewmember lumbers after him to ask sheepishly, "Can I throw some?" _Moby Dick_ itself says, "But in pursuit of those far mysteries we dream of, or in tormented chase of that demon phantom that, some time or other, swims before all human hearts; while chasing such over this round globe, they either lead us on in barren mazes or midway leave us whelmed." Hohn has well chased his demon phantom yellow duck, and is neither trapped in a maze or whelmed. His demon has brought a good round of entertainment and enlightenment for any who cast into these pages.
on November 29, 2011
I am reading Moby-Duck, by Donovan Hohn. I find it quite interesting and informative, especially on the topics of ecology and ocean currents. When I started making notes of pages that had bits of information and quotes I wanted to reference later, I did not expect the large volume of references I would find. About half the pages have something. One quote I especially like is, "Why do we like to walk on the beach?...all the cells inside our bodies realize they're close to their mom." This is from Curtis Ebbesmeyer, retired oceanographer, in Seattle, Washington.
As an amateur beachcomber (I do it because I love it,) I was fascinated with Moby-Duck because there were explanations of the movement of flotsam and jetsam on the ocean waves and currents. I have never read any other account that explained how and why things drift to their landing places. In Moby-Duck I found there even is a publication about beachcombing--Beachcombers' Alert! published by Curtis Ebbesmeyer.
Book review readers will likely know by now that the theme of Moby-Duck is an account of part of a shipment of plastic bath toys broken loose from their bindings and catapulted into the Pacific Ocean during a dramatic storm, January 10, 1992. They were in huge containers, 8 feet wide by 20 or 40 feet long. At least one container burst in the crash, the rubber toys spilled into the sea. The story tracks the routes of winds and ocean currents that move water and materials around in the oceans.
Along with the bath toys, I read about shipments on other ships that break loose and crash into the deep--shoes, sneakers and sandals, computer monitors, things that float. "Ghost nets" were disturbing. They are high-seas drift nets, 15 miles long! Broken loose from fishermen, these nylon nets roll up into a huge ball, tangling animals, catching on coral reefs, killing anything in their paths.
I learned about chemicals that break down from lost or discarded items floating in sea water, and what they can do to plants and sea creatures. I was disturbed to find that beach clean-up operations get grants from polluters like BP, Chevron, or Dow Chemical. These grants give a positive twist to the corporate reputations while nothing is done to stop the pollution they cause.
Oddly enough, half way through the book, the bath toys were taken off the market, after they were found to have a high level of lead. On investigation, Hohn found that it is up to the manufacturers to make sure a toy is safe, the government agents find out about the problems later. The vast majority of toys found in US stores are made in China, in sweat shops. Shouldn't we have some suspicion about the quality of what we get from such sources?
I have not finished reading the book yet. I'll keep reading it. It is like no other I have found. I don't expect a solution to the problem of pollution of the oceans, but an education is helpful.
on July 24, 2013
The title and research into this topic got me in and I loved the visualisation and turn of phase of the Author. A very easy read and one of the most interesting I have ever read.
I bought this as a Kindle book and when Kindle died for the 3rd time I had to buy it hard copy as I HAD to finish it I couldn't not know the rest of the story.
The reader is taken on a real journey and my word its fascinating. The reality of the story is not lost and that is more than a little disturbing.
Buy it and read it everyone should. I'd lend you mine if I could it's that good.
on November 29, 2011
When I first heard about this book I immediately downloaded it onto my Kindle. Who could resist the story of 28,000 polyethylene bath toys falling into the drink from the three-story height of a cargo ship during an Arctic storm in 1992? I needed to read the book in smallish doses and an ebook wasn't the best way to do it. I wanted to go back, forward, re-read passages without getting lost, slosh around in the story the way the ducks (who weren't made of rubber) floated around the various oceans of the world. I wanted to underline in pencil, carry it around until the pages were salt and cappuccino-stained. The way I imagine my book would look if I were really with Donovan Hohn on the beaches of Alaska, Hawaii, or in a boat on the North Pacific. I'd even enjoy his company in the Arctic. But paper, ebook, or oral tale, the story compels.
Hohn became obsessed with tracing the sea-going course of the lost toys. Specifically, rubber duck icons of ageless nostalgia. The beginning of his journeying couldn't have come at a more inconvenient time, as he and his wife were soon expecting their first child. But the pull to untangle the mystery surrounding the spill and the occasional appearance of a toy thousands of miles and years away, were too strong to ignore. Most people dream of secret adventure, but how many of us actually manifest it? He did. And along the way got involved with a cast of diverse characters and facts. He wrote: "I was improvising, surrendering to happenstance, riding the drift, and with every passing day the drift was leading me into wilder waters". In his hands, the quest becomes universal and accessible to us.
I looked forward to personal narrative as a diversion from the information-packed story. I'm not a scientific type and there were times when my mind wandered and I skipped ahead. It was as if the facts sometimes got caught in eddies of thick seaweed. I longed to rake it away and release them, but Hohn is a wise writer and did it without my help. And the information was still there if I wanted it.
In spite of adventure, back breaking work (literally in Hohn's case), references to Moby Dick, and clear details, what hovers like a silently gathering tsunami is the treachery of tons of zombie-plastic in the waters of our planet. What remains in my mind, besides the eternally mythical bobbing ducks, are images of baby seabirds ingesting what will kill them, pristine beaches become garbage dumps, remote seas swirling with the world's disposables. This book is a good read and may become the wake-up call we need.