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Rubber ducks inspired author to travel

BY JORDAN MONTGOMERY | DECEMBER 05, 2011 7:20 AM

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Author Donovan Hohn heard a story about thousands of yellow rubber ducks that were lost at sea. His desire to follow the story lead him on a year-and-a-half-long adventure through the Arctic and into China.

And from that journey, he wrote his nonfiction book Moby-Duck.

Hohn will read at 7 p.m. today at Prairie Lights Books, 15 S. Dubuque St.. Paul Ingram of Prairie Lights said readings such as this are an important part of Iowa City's culture and Hohn's appearance is yet another way for people in the area to involve themselves in this literary culture.

"I remember thinking that it was a crazy thing," he said. "First, that containers fall of ships was news to me. And the image of the yellow rubber duckies floating on the high Pacific was astonishing."

As Hohn traveled, he wrote for the New York Times Magazine, Harper's, and Outdoor. He spent time on a variety of vessels, including catamarans, tankers, ferries, container ships, scientific vessels, and a Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker.

But his most adventurous memory is from his time on a homemade plywood cabin cruiser.

"Probably the most reckless trip I went on was one that was totally unplanned, improvised to this wild isthmus to a southern edge of Alaska," he said. "I accepted a free ride form someone I didn't know, and I ended up in his tiny homemade boat going to remotely accessible places."

Moby-Duck covers a variety of themes, not just the story of the children's toys lost at sea. The story incorporates environmental issues and the economics of international shipping.

"Imagine that you're on a beach in New England and you see a rubber duck stranded at the tide line," he said. "You simply ask yourself, how did that get here. The book, in many ways, answers that question."

Hohn said that the story of the ducks opened up many questions and certain areas of mystery. When he received a map from an oceanographer that show the route of the toys that his project really took off.

"Once you have a map with an actual trail on it, it is hard to resist," he said.

John D'Agata, an associate professor in the University of Iowa Nonfiction Writing Program, invited Hohn to Iowa City for the reading.

"It is Donovan's first book-length work of nonfiction and it is something I have been waiting for," he said. "He has been writing essays for years, and I have loved all of them. This book is exactly what I was hoping he would produce."

D'agata noted that Hohn's style in his work is rare, and that keeps him reading the author's work.

"He possesses a journalist's eye and a poet's ear," D'Agata said. "With that combination, he is able to create exquisite inquiries into the contemporary world."


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