Sentences — October 31, 2008, 11:18 pm

Weekend Read: Happy Hohnukkah!

Donovan Hohn, an erstwhile editor at this magazine (and current contributing editor), has been writing terrific essays for Harper’s and others for a number of years. He has a lyrical way with line and a rigorous way with theme. He is attentive to the appearances of things, to the natural and its perversion by man. A little essay of Hohn’s that appeared in the journal of little essays, Brevity, begins:

I was, at age nine, a god of snails. On the quiet San Francisco cul-de-sac where my family lived, Helix aspera, the brown garden snail, was by far the most plentiful and least evasive wildlife around. Snails plied the long green fins of our neighbor’s agapanthus like barges transiting green canals. I’d unglue them from their shiny trails, hold them in mid-air, and poke their sensitive horns. They’d ripple and recoil.

Hohn also goes bigger. Readers of this magazine recall his excellent “Moby Duck: Or the synthetic wilderness of childhood,” from last year. The essay contains, among many, this terrific paragraph:

Let’s draw a bath. Let’s set a rubber duck afloat. Look at it wobbling there. What misanthrope, what damp, misty November of a sourpuss, upon beholding a rubber duck afloat, does not feel a crayola ray of sunshine brightening his gloomy heart? Graphically, the rubber duck’s closest relative is not a bird or a toy but the yellow happy face of Wal-Mart commercials. A rubber duck is in effect a happy face with a body and lips—which is what the beak of the rubber duck has become: great, lipsticky, bee-stung lips. Both the happy face and the rubber duck reduce facial expressions to a kind of pictogram. They are both emoticons. And they are, of course, the same color—the yellow of an egg yolk or the eye of a daisy, a shade darker than a yellow raincoat, a shade lighter than a taxicab.

Melville’s “damp, drizzly November in my soul” is gently recast in a much smaller sea. The nice writing—”a crayola ray of sunshine” gets quickly to the reflexive infantile joys that motivate most of us most—doesn’t undercut the revealing thinking: rubber duck and smily face make immediate sense, but I hadn’t paired them in my mind before. I like, as well, the deft hopscotching through yellow at the end, an associative dance as light-footed as Alexander Theroux’s book-length perorations on color tend, despite his talents, towards lead-footedness.

In celebration of Hohn having been named, yesterday, one of ten recipients of a 2008 Whiting Writers’ Award, why not spend some armchair time with two of Hohn’s pieces for this magazine. “Moby Duck,” which begins, irresistably, like this:

We know exactly where the spill occurred: 44.7°N, 178.1°E. We know the day, January 10, 1992, but not the hour. Neither do we know the name of the ship nor of its captain nor of the shipping magnate who owned it. We do know the harbors from which it sailed (Hong Kong) and to which it was headed (Tacoma). We know that despite its grandeur, when rocked by forty-foot waves, the colossal vessel, a floating warehouse weighing 50,000 deadweight tons or more and powered by a diesel engine the size of a barn, would have rolled and pitched and yawed about like a toy in a Jacuzzi.

And “Through the Open Door: Searching for deadly toys in China’s Pearl River Delta,” which starts, perfectly, this way:

Entering the Toys & Games Fair at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Center last January was a bit like falling down the rabbit hole into Wonderland. Alice, however, was nowhere to be seen, and upon inspection the white rabbit turned out to be a battery-powered plush toy with an MP3 player tucked inside its foamy bowels. And as they watched the synthetic fauna flash and beep and dance, there were no expressions of wonderment on the faces of my fellow travelers to Wonderland, unless you count as wonder the naughty twinkle in the eyes of the silver-haired Chinese man peeping through his spectacles at a dozen little plastic dogs industriously pantomiming the procreative act. Humping Dog, the toy was called—I hump until disconnected, the tagline ran.

I propose Hohn’s “Moby Duck” and “Through the Open Door” as your weekend read.

Share
Single Page

More from Wyatt Mason:

From the October 2014 issue

You Are Not Alone Across Time

Using Sophocles to treat PTSD

From the February 2010 issue

The untamed

Joshua Ferris’s restless-novel syndrome

Sentences May 1, 2009, 2:41 pm

Weekend Read: The Last Post

Get access to 165 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

August 2015

In the Shadow of the Storm

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Measure for Measure

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Trouble with Israel

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

A Camera on Every Cop

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Post
“The campaign music stopped. Hundreds of people, their faces now warped by the dread of a third bomb, began running for cover.”
Photograph © Guy Martin/Panos.
Article
Part Neither, Part Both·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Eight months pregnant I told an old woman sitting beside me on the bus that the egg that hatched my baby came from my wife’s ovaries. I didn’t know how the old woman would take it; one can never know. She was delighted: That’s like a fairy tale!”
Mother with Children, by Gustav Klimt © akg-images
Article
What Recovery?·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Between 2007 and 2010, Albany’s poverty rate jumped 12 points, to a record high of 39.9 percent. More than two thirds of Albany’s 76,000 residents are black, and since 2010, their poverty rate has climbed even higher, to nearly 42 percent.”
Photograph by Will Steacy
Article
Rag Time·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

From a May 23 commencement address delivered at Hofstra University. Doctorow died on Tuesday. He was 84.
“We are a deeply divided nation in danger of undergoing a profound change for the worse.”
Photograph by Giuseppe Giglia
Article
The Trouble with Israel·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“We think we are the only people in the world who live with threat, but we have to work with regional leaders who will work with us. Bibi is taking the country into unprecedented international isolation.”
Photograph by Adam Golfer

Acres of mirrors in Donald Trump’s Taj Mahal casino in Atlantic City:

10

Rhesus macaques, who normally are not self-aware, will, following brain surgery, examine their genitals in a mirror. Similar evidence of self-awareness was previously limited to higher primates, dolphins, magpies, and an elephant named Happy.

In New Hampshire, Huckleberry Finn was arrested for sexual assault.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Subways Are for Sleeping

By

“Shelby is waiting for something. He himself does not know what it is. When it comes he will either go back into the world from which he came, or sink out of sight in the morass of alcoholism or despair that has engulfed other vagrants.”

Subscribe Today