Pagan Kennedy is the best author of her generation.
(I've always wanted to use that line. It's a reworking of Dale Peck's infamous fightin' words, "Rick Moody is the worst writer of his generation," in his review of Moody's memoir The Black Veil. That and many other fine book review sentences can be found in Peck's book Hatchet Jobs.)
I LOVE Pagan Kennedy. The first book of hers I read was The First Man-Made Man: The Story of Two Sex Changes, One Love Affair and a Twentieth Century Medical Revolution. And it was fantastic. If you haven't read it yet, please do so. And then go get her newest nonfiction collection, The Dangerous Joy of Dr. Sex and Other True Stories. Eye-catching title notwithstanding, it's a straightforward collection of character portraits, opening with one about Alex Comfort, the author of the bestselling 1970s phenomenon The Joy of Sex. Other stories blend science and weirdness, as Kennedy profiles a wide variety of inventors and scientists, some trying to train parrots to interact like human beings, some working on ways that eyeglasses could be cheaply fabricated in third world countries, right on the spot.
But what I enjoyed most were her concluding essays about her own life, including one in which she described her own "Boston marriage," ("The word 'roommate' jumps out at me. It's an inadequate word, but it's all we have. What else do you call two friends who are shacked up together in a decaying Victorian?") and her homage to her mother, in the three-page essay "Off Season":
"Our family may not be prettier than yours. We may not be smarter. But we do know how to avoid traffic jams. 'You'd have to be a lunatic to get on the Pike after 3 o'clock,' my mother used to say to me, when I was too young to understand the word 'lunatic.' But I took her meaning. There were people out there pushing and shoving to get to the same place at the same time. We would not be among them.
My mother has a theory: eccentricity is efficient. When I was about eight years old, she hoisted a Turkish flag onto the antenna of the family station wagon. 'This way, when we park in the mall, I'll always be able to find the car,' she explained. 'Who else is going to have a Turkish flag?' And so, for several years, my family traveled around like some rogue embassy, the sickle-moon of a faraway nation fluttering above as we drove, motorcade style, on a mission to find a new set of bed sheets...
But now it's clear to me that my devotion to the uncrowded and off-season, the underground and the strange, drived from my mother's obsession with traffic. Always, always avoid the crowds." (pp. 245-246.)
I have only one word for that: Amen.