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.

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