Monday, May 30, 2011

The Art of death and fashion.

A lot of museums have taken to hosting exhibits featuring fashion.  And while many of those exhibits are good for business (both from donor and attendee perspectives), I've been skeptical that they really achieve the level of artistry that I expect from the world's great museums.

Sure I've attended and enjoyed several such shows.  There was last year's show at the Met showcasing the history of women through fashion.  There was also the Yves Saint Laurent show at the de Young in San Francisco.  Those shows were great, but they were fashion shows.  That's why the biggest surprise of my recent trip to New York was the Metropolitan Museum of Art's exhibit, Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty.  This isn't fashion. This is Art. It's visual Art.  It's performance Art.  And I'm pretty sure it will stand the test of time.

Just as brilliant as McQueen's creations is the presentation. No pictures were allowed so I've taken some images from the Met's and other Web sites. But make no mistake, these images in no way capture the the brilliance of the actual show. My favorite room in the exhibit was a futuristic version of a Romantic-era cabinet of curiosities.

The room featured objects, videos, and audio (make sure to get the audio guide). I spent a lot of time in this room. I loved the dress on the right with the video from the original presentation above.  And the audio guide had an interview with the model who wore the dress which was painted by robots on the runway. Here's a photo of the finished dress:

I think the Met is accurate in it's  suggestion that McQueen embraces a Romantic sensibility.  His fascination with nature and the macabre is evident.  I loved this dress crafted from razor-clam shells.

One of my favorite pieces in the show was this dress made with yellow glass beads and horse hair. The beading was spectacular. Its three-dimensional execution was a demonstration of ultimate craftsmanship.

One of the things I found most interesting in this exhibit is McQueen's willingness to give credit to the artisans who helped him create his vision.  Many first-rate artists today like Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst don't execute most of their works.  And they never give credit to the people who do.  Alexander McQueen worked with brilliant artists and was willing to give them the credit they deserved.  Take this corset created by Shaun Leane:

Leane made a concrete cast of the model's body so he could perfectly form the aluminum rods.  The corset is hinged and once the model is inside, each rod is bolted closed.

I can't end this post without calling out the work of Guido Palau, who created all of the headpieces in the exhibit.  These strange and wondrous creations were spectacular.

If you're anywhere near the Met in the next couple of months, go see Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Art Lobster: Subway edition.

It's been a while since I've had an official post about Art that features lobsters.  But New York delivers again with Tony Buonagurio's Times Square: 35 Times, a permanent public art installation in the Times Square 42nd Street Subway Stop that features 35 inlaid ceramic sculptures.  These ceramic squares were made by the artist over a period of five years.  And one  includes the lobster as Art. It may not be my favorite example of lobster Art but it's still worthy of a shout out.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Take off and landing without the pesky seat belts and tray tables.

Remember the days when you could smoke on airplanes and sexy stewardesses offered up coffee or tea?  I don't.  But I can imagine what it was like thanks to Broadway's take on a story that's also been the subject of books and movies.  It's Catch Me If You Can now playing at the Neil Simon Theatre and nominated for four Tony awards.

OK, Stewardesses probably didn't have as much sparkle and their skirts probably weren't as short.  But for a Broadway chorus line, I'm not sure you could ask for better inspiration than the stylized travel attire of flight attendants and pilots in the 1960s and 70s.  Add in a few sexy nurses, set the whole affair dancing, and it's hard not to like this stuff. 

Unfortunately, Catch Me If You Can is an endeavor in which the parts are greater than the sum.  There are some spectacular production numbers like Don't Break the Rules featuring Norbert Leo Butz as Agent Carl Hanratty and the chorus line which pretty much stops the show.  It's brilliant.  Hanratty was nominated for a Tony for lead actor in a musical.  Aaron Tveit who plays the real lead actor in this musical was not nominated and I think he was robbed.  Because I saw three musicals in three days all of which were about male leads.  And from my vantage point Tveit was the best.  Too bad Catch Me If You Can was the worst of the three shows. Otherwise, I think Tveit might have been nominated.

Yes this show stalls more than once.  But even if it was my least favorite Broadway show of the trip, I still left the theater happy I paid the nearly $150 ticket price.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Book eleven: The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield.

Imagine the cold, damp chill of the English countryside.  It's here we find an old manor with elaborate gardens owned by an eccentric old woman who just happens to be one of the worlds favorite authors, mainly because she's spent her entire life weaving tales of intrigue and suspense, even when talking about her own alleged life.

But now, Vida Winter, our aging author realizes that it's time to tell her real story before she dies.  So she summons a complete stranger, Margaret Lea to write her biography.  Margaret is a shy girl who grew up in an antique bookstore.  She is our guide to the strange story of Ms. Winter's real life.

This is the premise behind Diane Setterfield's debut novel, The Thirteenth Tale. Setterfield is more than competent as she weaves this story of mystery and fable.  Its fascination with the dichotomy of twins manifests itself not just in many of the characters, but also in the way it asks the reader to consider the relationship between fact and fiction.  Setterfield also delivers some delightful references to great romantic writers of the past.  One of the best characters in the book is Dr. Clifton who appears only occasionally but always with a certain flair.  Take this scene when the Dr. is summoned to treat Margaret after she's taken ill and confronts her about her symptoms:

"You are suffering from an ailment that afflicts ladies of romantic imagination. Symptoms include fainting, weariness, loss of appetite, low spirits. While on one level the crisis can be ascribed to wandering about in freezing rain without the benefit of adequate waterproofing, the deeper cause is more likely to be found in some emotional trauma.  However, unlike heroines of your favorite novels, your constitution has not been weakened by the privations of life in earlier, harsher centuries.  No Tuberculosis, no childhood polio, no unhygienic living conditions.  You'll survive."

Dr. Clifton writes Margaret a prescription: "Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Case Book of Sherlock Holmes. Take ten pages, twice a day, till end of course."

The Thirteenth Tale charms with its tension-filled moments of subdued action performed by a cast of quirky characters.  And yet, it still doesn't completely satisfy. It's most notable flaw is an ending that tries too hard to deliver unexpected twists and turns, lumbering on for several pages after the story wanted to end.

What I learned at Storm King: Sometimes a garden wall is not just a garden wall.

Andy Goldsworthy is an artist that has taken me out of my way before.  Although much of his work is fleeting and disappears shortly after it's created, you can find the occasional enduring works like his crack in the stonework at San Francisco's de Young Museum (Drawn Stone) which I visited in 2008.  In 2009 I trekked to the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City to see Garden of Stones which features drilled boulders with trees planted inside.

One of the works I wanted to see most at Storm King is Goldsworthy's Storm King Wall (1997-1998, field stone). The work is nearly half a mile long and appears and disappears throughout the park.  In one area it feels like it magically willed itself into being from the local rubble.

In another area, it disappears into a pond, only to reappear on the other side.

Then there are the moments where its gentle, winding shape embraces trees that have been there much longer than the wall.

Maybe I like Goldsworthy's work because living in the west has piqued my interest in Earth Art.  Or maybe it's because a lot of Earth Art can feel structured and invasive, while Goldsworthy's work exudes a quiet peacefulness. 

Food trucks gone to the dogs.

West 22nd Street in Chelsea was the site of a Zagat food truck rating event.  So the entire street was lined with food trucks hoping to get great ratings from the Zagat foodies. All that was interesting.  But not as interesting as this development:

That's right, it's a food truck that serves fresh pet food.  They even have a dog door entrance with stairs up to it.  Ah New York, where even dogs can enjoy the latest culinary trends.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

What I learned at Storm King: Size matters.

Scale is one of my favorite artistic principles.  Many modern artists have toyed with scale either from a super small perspective.  Or from the opposite end of the spectrum.  If you're interested in big scale, there's no better place than Storm King.  When you've got a 500 acre gallery, you can go big.  Here are a few examples of massive sculpture.

Chinese artist Zhang Huan's recently installed Three Legged Buddha (2007, copper and steel) is a deconstructed surrealist dream.

Richard Serra is known for his massive steel sculptures.  And his giant steel walls designed specifically for the site are no exception.  Normally sculptures so big are imposing, but in a place like Storm King, Serra's sculpture had a beautiful, subtle quality.

I loved the way these imposing panels became gestural sketches when viewed from certain angles.  This became even more evident when just a few days later I saw an exhibit of Serra's large-scale drawings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

One of my favorite works that dealt with bigger-than-life scale is Menashe Kadishman's delirious Suspended (1977, weathering steel).  Photography may not communicate how big this precarious sculpture is.

But when you add a human to the scene, it changes the perspective.

There are plenty of other massive works at Storm King.  I'll be saving some of those for future posts.  But I'll leave with this last photo.  As we were waiting for the bus to pick us up, I saw this image off in the distance.  I don't know the name of the work, but look carefully and you'll see a person standing near the sculpture.  This is sculpture big enough to compete with the environment.

Zen and the Art of Madison Square.

I have a dream and that dream involves public sculpture.  I know, a lot of people think public sculpture is a waste of space and money.  But I think life is better and more fun when we're all engaged with things that surprise us.  That's why my dream involves major public Art works right here in Salt Lake City.

Public art is never better than at Madison Square Park in New York City.  Last time I was in NYC I experienced Antony Gormley's stunning installation Event Horizon.  This time it was Jaume Plensa's wondrous sculpture Echo

Plensa rocketed to public Art fame with his lovely, giant Crown Fountain in Chicago.  And this work is equally as engaging.

The work is based on the artist's nine-year-old neighbor.  The 3D image has been distorted digitally and then rendered as a 44-foot tall monument.  I love how even in person, I felt like I was looking at a Photoshopped image.  I'm still not sure how the artist accomplished that.

What may be most striking about the experience is how calming this work is, even among the chaos and cacophony of Madison Square.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

How to succeed in color theory.

My recent trip to Broadway started with a performance of How to Succeed in Business Without Really  Trying starring the perfectly charming Daniel Radcliffe. I was worried that this show would feel a little outdated.  And sure, the 1950s sentimentally has a certain quaintness, but it offered a surprisingly contemporary sensibility.

Take A Secretary Is Not a Toy.  I know a lot of businessmen today who would benefit from some of the advice offered in this song.  Sure, we don't have many secretaries around these days, but the ways men treat women in the workplace doesn't seem to have changed that much.  And Coffee Break reminded me of traveling with several of my co-workers.  Things can get ugly fast when driven business people don't get their caffeine. Whenever I'm on the road with her, my friend Sara makes sure I have a Diet Pepsi in the morning so I don't get those caffeine jitters.

Daniel Radcliffe is more than adequate as J. Pierrepont Finch.  You could fall in love with a guy like that.  But there was something lacking.  I'm not sure if it was the role or if it was Daniel Radcliffe.  Although, I only know one other person who looks so adorable in a bow time.

The stars of this show may be the ingenious set, the stunning lighting, and the desirable costumes (most of which I'd wear, particularly those for the men). This was a study in brilliant color theory.  The set is a mid-century architectural dream with a giant dose of LED lighting featuring color so brilliant every designer I know should run to see it.  I can't express how much I loved the bright pinks and oranges and magentas that instantly softened to dusty hues of the same colors.  Or those bright-eyed blues and greens that wrapped the theater in lushness.  So here's a big "thank you" to Derek McLane (Scenic Design), Catherine Zuber (Costume Design), and the mind-blowing work of Howell Binkley (Lighting Design). You guys made color magical.

Monday, May 23, 2011

500 acres of Art. It's like an Art marathon.

After years of threatening to do so, I made the 1.5 hour trek north of New York City to visit Storm King, the massive sculpture park.  And I wasn't disappointed.  This is like no other Art-world experience I've ever had.  In fact, I'm pretty sure you can't have an experience like this anywhere else on the planet.  It's like you've landed on some strange planet that looks like earth but is peopled by giants who've created strange and wondrous objects. Sometimes, the experience feels surrealist, like Salvador Dali is messing with your mind.

There was so much to see and do, that I'm dedicating several posts over the coming days to my experiences at Storm King.  I'm calling this new Art Lobster series, "What I Learned at Storm King."  But to get things started, I thought I'd give you a few pointers for visiting Storm King.  

With a little advance planning, getting to Storm King is relatively easy.  You can purchase tickets for a Short Line Bus that leaves from Port Authority here.  I'd never taken a bus from Port Authority, so you can imagine my excitement as the bus quickly filled with other anxious Art enthusiasts, many speaking exotic foreign languages, eager for a day of inspiring sculpture.  I later learned that one of the largest outlet malls in the state of New York is on the way to Storm King.  There are a lot more eager bargain hunters than there are sculpture fans. Just three of us got off at Storm King.  And I think one of the three was there to interview for a job.

You may feel abandoned as you exit the bus.  The driver just opens the door and you're left in a field with a few imposing sculptures in the distance.  Someone will give you a map and little other advice.  We chose to walk to the Museum Building.  Don't. Turn to the right, walk a few feet, and rent bicycles.  This will save you a lot of walking.  And bike rentals will make the day more fun.

Stay tuned for more coll views from Storm King.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Book ten: Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand.

There's a reason why Laura Hillenbrand's Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilliance, and Redemption has been on the New York Times non-fiction best seller list for 25 weeks and counting.  In fact there are several reasons. First, there's Hillenbrand action-focused writing style that drives the story forward.  There are the variety of interests included in the book like WWII aviation, early Olympic track competition, alcoholism, and born-again Christianity, to name just a few. And there's the meticulously researched historical facts that are dazzling for their precision.

Unbroken tells the story of Louie Zamperini, a favorite to win the 1940 Olympics as a track and field runner who instead ends up serving in the army during WWII. He served as a bombadeir in the Army Air Corps where his plane was shot down.  He wandered aimlessly at sea until he was caught by the Japanese and tortured horrifically for years.  After this ordeal, the book follows his life through trials and subsequent victories.

Hillenbrand is so good at digging up the historical details that there are moments when this book reads like a novel.  Nearly 30 percent of the book is dedicated to references to prove that the writer isn't making the plotlines up; a good idea since it's hard to believe that any one human could endure the things suffered by Zamperini. The whole story gave me, someone who wasn't alive during WWII, a greater appreciation for what our country endured.

But even with Hillenbrand's dizzying capability as a writer, this book was often laborious to read.  Many passages felt overwritten and laden with details that dragged on for pages.  But if you're a WWII history buff, or a fan of sports history, or an aviation wonk, I can pretty much guarantee you'll love this book.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Book nine: A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan.

I read Jennifer Egan's strange and scattered novel, A Visit from the Goon Squad before it won the Pulitzer Prize for Literature. It's no surprise it's receiving accolades, after all it was on many of the "best books of 2010" lists.  And the book is nothing if not literary.  But with literary-ness comes the struggle of reading a serious work of fiction.  (And by serious I mean difficult, because the book boasts a brilliant sense of humor.)

The novel opens with Sasha, a kleptomaniac in the process of stealing a purse from a New York City bathroom.  Almost every review I've read of the book calls out this chapter.  And there's a reason.  It's a brilliant, witty, and strange start to an even stranger book.

With each chapter written from a different character's perspective, with a different voice, and at a different time in the decades-long story, it's difficult to know what's really going on.  I longed for a big pullout poster that would help me make sense of all the characters and time periods and interelationships.  The complex nature of the novel makes for a difficult read. This is a book that should be read with a good english professor who's taught the novel hundreds of times so she could help me navigate the intricacies.

However, even though A Visit from the Goon Squad is difficult, the book offers rewards to the dedicated reader.  Individual chapters are jewels that sparkle with wit and humor.  Take the story of Dolly, a washed-up PR specialist who fell from celebrity grace when she hosted a star-studded party that ended with hot oil falling from above and disfiguring guests. Now she tries to ensure her daughter Lulu has the best education possible by taking the only good-paying job she can get; the PR person for a rutheless dictator.

Lulu returns at the end of the book in the last chapter set sometime in the near future when helicopters roam the sky to ensure security and where pop music is directed at children who are known as "pointers" thanks to their constant exposure to touch-screen technology.  There's even a social media lesson to be learned from the future with the use of paid "parrots" to create buzz around concerts.

One of the biggest surprises in the book is a chapter served up as the journal of a young girl and presented as a PowerPoint presention.  I started this chapter rolling my eyes at the gimmicky idea.  I ended the chapter charmed by the young girl and her ability to distill life into susinct, meaningful observations.

A Visit from the Goon Squad may not be the best book for a casual weekend read at the beach.  But if you're looking for a modern, literary challenge, it's worth the time and effort.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The art of never giving up.

The first thing you notice about Christo is his dedication to his ideas. Even at 76 years old, his enthusiasm for what he does is contagious. For all of you who question the reason of unleashing several thousand giant umbrellas in California and Japan for a mere two weeks. Or of skirting entire islands with millions of square feet of pink fabric, also for just a few weeks, don’t expect Christo to defend his work from the standpoint of logic, or societal value, or even academics. Christo readily admits that no one needs his work. No one will notice if the Reichstag in Berlin doesn’t get wrapped with fabric and ropes. And will anyone care if Christo doesn’t erect 7,000+ orange gates along the pathways of Central Park? And Christo doesn't really care.  We learned all of this at his recent visit to Salt Lake City where he lectured at Kingsbury Hall on the University of Utah campus.

So why do all these crazy things? Christo’s answer to this question was one of the most refreshing I’ve heard in a long time: beauty. These days most artists are making statements or challenging the status quo or destroying the traditions of Western art. And while Christo may be doing all those things, he’s doing them not because of some grand ideology, but rather for beauty. As he put it, “The absolute expression of poetry.”  I can't think of a better defense for art.

There were a lot of things to like about Christo. First is his unwillingness to pander to the art and academic world. I think that might stem from his method of funding his projects. Christo and his long-time wife and collaborator, Jeanne-Claude (who died in November) do not have a gallery, do not work with a dealer. They accept no donations and take no money from grants or public arts projects. Instead they sell original artwork (including preliminary drawings and paintings for future projects) directly to collectors and institutions. That money is used to fund their massive projects; projects which can cost tens of millions of dollars. Consider this, the environmental impact statement for their planned, upcoming work, Over the River, cost over a million dollars.

Christo and Jean Claude are also patient. It took 26 years to finally get the necessary permissions for The Gates. Over the River, a work which covers nearly 50 miles of the Arkansas river in Colorado with a ceiling of shimmering blue fabric, has been in the works for 19 years. That kind of dedication is fascinating from an artistic stanpoint.  Installations that last only two weeks, yet take decades to create are a reversal of the normal artistic processes.

Christo's take on the realities of getting permissions to create his works is also interesting. The process of navigating beaurocratic red tape is part of his artistry and may be one reason his art matters; a statement on how impossible it’s become to get anything done. Unless you have the dedication and determination to pursue a goal for decades, you may never make it through the beaaruacracy.  We need politicians that are this dedicated to getting inspiring things done.

A few other things I liked about the lecture:

Christo is foremost an artist, not an educator. OK, Christo might not agree with this statement exactly but hear me out. Lately it seems you can’t approach anything “Art” without being bombarded with arts education. Whether it’s performance or visual arts, artists are now forced to be educators first and artists second. Christo takes art as his priority. This was most evident when a woman stepped to the microphone to talk about using Christo’s work as part of her elementary school curriculum. She asked her students to write essays about what would happen if Christo were to wrap the White House. She brought those essays to give to the artist. He refused to accept them saying the best way to kill an idea is to suggest it to Christo. All of his ideas are original.

Also, love matters. Listening to Christo talk about Jeanne-Claude, his late wife and artistic partner was inspiring. He admitted that several of their works were ideas that Jeanne-Claude had originated and said that they worked together only because of love. "Our life is a work of art." I'm not generally sentimental, but that makes me want to be.

When asked why his works were installed for such short periods of time (usually just a few weeks), he offered a profound statement on the timliness of life.  "The work can't last. Like our childhood, like our lives, this is something that can never happen again."  I don't think I've ever heard an artist say, "The work can't last."

Christo’s lecture was inspiring. I’m rededicating myself to creating beauty simply because beauty matters. I’m also rededicating myself to not being afraid of doing things just because they seem too difficult. Sure, I may not have any 26-year projects up my sleeve. But writing off ideas because they might eat up a month or two of my life is a cop out. And now if Over the River gets approval in the next few months (as it looks like it might), and if it gets installed in the summer of 2014 as Christo suggested could happen, I’ll be road tripping to Colorado to spend a few days enjoying the beauty.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

24 hours. 15 actors. 5 premieres. Welcome to Plan B's Slam.

I'm guessing that if you're a playwright, you might occasionally have this nightmare: 24 hours from now will be the premiere of your latest play.  And you haven't written a word.  You don't even know who the actors are.  Holy cow! You don't even know the title.

Bringing playwright's nightmares to life is Plan B Theatre Company's annual Slam event.  Here's the idea: You assemble five playwrights.  You give each of them a title of a play and an inspirational photo. Then you assign them each three actors.  Exactly 24 hours later, you expect them to have a ten-minute play on stage in front of a live audience.  I was part of that audience.

This year, the playwrights were all given the same title: Control_Alt_Delete.  Even the inspirational photos were similar.  So it's no surprise that many of the plays took new beginnings as their theme.  Most of the plays explored the idea of resetting, of hoping that we could push a few buttons and get a fresh start.  Three plays stood out for me.

The first  was written by Eric Samuelson.  (Marcine Lake, Director with Joe Debevc, John Graham, and Christy Summerhays as actors.)  I recently read Donovan Hohn's Moby Duck.  And it was obvious from this play that Samuelson also read this book.  One of the central characters in the play is a junior high-school teacher writing a book about 28,800 rubber bath toys lost at sea.  Much of the play references the book and even delivers a number of the facts from the book.  I loved that book and I can see why it inspired this play.  Samuelson's play is an environmental treatise that reiterates the issues raised by Hohn's book. It's a reminder that we should be more concerned about the plastics we so readily discard. A statement about a desire to reset planet earth in hopes of repenting for our environmental sins.  That was the good part of the play.  Unfortunately, the play often lost its focused (and I can hear Samuelson rightly screaming at this comment, "Of course it lost focus, I HAD 24 HOURS.")  That lack of focus left me wanting more.

A better 24-hour play was Matthew Ivan Bennett's version of Control_Atl_Delete.  The last play of the night, it focused on a couple trying to restart their marriage.  With charm and a lot of sexually-charged humor, Bennett reminded us that relationships are as much about jealously as they are about love. 

The best play of the night was written by Jenifer Nii. Theatre is always best when it's about stories.  And Nii's version of Control_Alt_Delete is grounded in story telling.  It centers around a man who recently learned that he has cancer.  Rather than tell his partner, he chooses to leave. His brother (and his brother's wife) express their sympathy and their concern about the situation. The result is a story filled with emotion and centered on the idea that sometimes life demands a reset.

I'll bet Plan B's Slam is a nightmare for playwrights, actors, directors, stage hands, and others.  But it's a delight for audiences.  

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Trend four of five technology trends SXSW 2011.

This is a continuation of my take on five technology trends that emerged from the 2011 South by Southwest Interactive Conference.  You can view all of the trends here.

4. Social media: It’s not just for hipsters.
Businesses more and more are using social media to solve real business challenges, respond to core needs, and even improve profitability.  For all those businesses out there who think that social media is a youthful fad that has nothing to do with the bottom line, you may want to think again.  In one session, Chelsea Marti with TurboTax said that during this tax season they had 80 people (double the number from last year) dedicated to managing their Twitter feed and answering incoming questions from customers.  And 68% of people who asked questions got what they needed to resolve their question.  That's got to be a lot more  affordable than staffing a call center.

Umberto Milletti from InsideView helps corporate sales professionals utilize social media to boost sales.  He notes that sales people can often learn more about prospects through social media than they can in person, helping sales people sell in a more personal way.

There were also companies making a play to be the next big thing to come out of SXSW.  This year, one company that seemed to be leading the way was GroupMe, an app designed to make it easier to send group text messages.  I heard a couple of people that said their company teams at SXSW were using the app to more easily communicate to the entire group.  I downloaded the app to my phone in exchange for a free grilled sandwich. (Yes those crazy event promotions really do work and I even got interviewed by a reporter from Ad Age while I was standing in line.) I can see how GroupMe could prove useful in both personal and business settings.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Book eight: Moby Duck by Donovan Hohn.

I like literary surprises. And if there’s a recent book that surprised me it is 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 by Donovan Hohn. Here’s a non-fiction book that reads like an epic literary tale. And its subject matter seems anything but epic. This is the story of 28,800 bathtub toys (blue turtles, green frogs, redbeavers, and yellow ducks) on their way from China to the US inside a shipping container. That container falls overboard during a storm and breaks open. Soon, all those bathtub toys have been release into the ocean and begin their amazing journeys.

The author takes up this fascinating tale and begins his own journey which leads to unexpected surprises. He meets professional beach combers who’ve found the rubber toys all along the west coast of the United States, many of which have landed on remote beaches in Alaska. He treks to China to visit the plant where the toys were made. He heads to Hawaii to learn more about the realities of plastics that have made it into the oceans. He even boards an Ice breaker to travel through the worlds northernmost oceans to see how far the ducks may have travelled. All of this he views through a lens that asks questions about humanity and the environment without ever coming across as preachy or political.

When Hohn started this project, he was a high school English teacher, the kind of teacher we could use more of right now. This book was actually inspired by a student essay. It’s obvious that Hohn loves great literature. While much non-fiction is interesting to read, it’s usually the story that engages, not the beautiful writing. But in Moby Duck, I found myself re-reading passages simply for the delight of the writing. Take this example:

Let's draw a bath. Let's set a rubber duck afloat. Look at it wobbling there.  What misanthrope, what damp, drizzly November of sourpuss, upon beholding a rubber duck afloat, does not feel a Crayola ray of sunshine brightening his gloomy heart?

And then there are the fantastic bits of information.  Consider these colorful factoids about the relationship of toys to plastics:

Annual toy sales in America shot from $84 million in 1940 to $1.25 billion in 1960.  Peg-and-socket pop beads sold to girls as costume jewelry consumed forty thousand pounds of polyethylene resin per month in 1956.  In 1958, hula hoops and Frisbees consumed fifteen million pounds of the stuff. Polystyrene replaced balsa wood as the most popular material for model cars and planes.  Plasticized polyvinyl chloride, the material from which the brand-new Barbie doll was made, provided a cheaper, more durable alternative to latex rubber, rendering traditional molded rubber animals and dolls obsolete except in name.

That's just one of the sections of the book that will make you reconsider the amount of plastic we use.  Particularly since much of it seems to be floating aimlessly in the planet's oceans and occasionally washing ashore to sully our beaches.

Moby Duck was almost the first book ever to get five Jeffies. But in the end I had to lower my rating to four. Not because the book isn’t brilliant, but because the ending is less than satisfying. It’s no fault of the author, it’s just that the story didn’t end the way it needed to in order to get that elusive fifth Jeffy. Hohn couldn’t have known that when he set out on his journey to tell this story, the ending wouldn’t be as brilliant as the book. Even without the perfect ending, this is a book well worth reading.