Friday, June 20, 2008

Book Review: The Dangerous Joy of Dr. Sex and Other True Stories by Pagan Kennedy

Print journalism is divided into two main types of writing, hard news (which uses the Inverted Pyramid, meaning you make sure all the essential information is near the beginning in case some column lines have to be lopped off your article) and feature writing (which is way more fun to write because you get to tell a story with a hook, climax and resolution). I love reading feature stories, especially human interest ones, and I seek them out when I get my hands on an issue of Vanity Fair, Marie Claire, a newspaper, or even People. I also loved Confessions of a Memory Eater a novel by Pagan Kennedy. So when I heard that she is putting a new book out which is a collection of some of her feature stories that have appeared in the New Yorker and elsewhere, I knew I had to have a copy. And I was pleased to discover that Pagan’s feature writing is as sharp as her fiction writing – with hooks that grab you and don’t let go.

Don’t let the title The Dangerous Joy of Dr. Sex and Other True Stories or the title story, all about Joy of Sex author Alex Comfort’s unconventional life, turn you off if you’re not into reading that type of thing. You can always skip it and move on to one of the other 11 more G rated stories about exceptional people you may or may not have heard about. There’s the one about Cheryl Haworth, the Olympian weight lifter who won a bronze medal as a teen, whose parents told her and her sisters that girls could do anything. There’s the one about Dr. Gordon Sato, the inventor of a cancer drug, who is now most passionate about planting mangrove forests on the coast of Eritrea to help communities there survive. There’s the one about Conor Oberst, lead singer of Bright Eyes, and his life on the road touring with his band, not in a bus, but in a rented Chevy. All are characters that Pagan portrays so vividly, you really feel like you “get” them.

One of my favorite stories, “How to Make (Almost) Anything,” is about Saul Griffith, the author of the book Howtoons for kids. The book was published October 23, 2007 and this story was written before then, but it’s a great behind the scenes look at the origins of Howtoons, a cartoon that shows kids how to build things like an underwater periscope from items like soda bottles that you would just trash anyway.

But my favorite stories of all are her three “First Person: Stories from My Own Life” vignettes, especially “The Encyclopedia of Scorpions”. It’s a travelogue adventure story about a kayaking trip she took on a remote desert river and there is so much tension and beauty packed into 17 pages that I almost couldn’t breathe while reading it.

As a frequent reader of feature stories, I can assure you that these are top-notch and not to be missed. The story collection comes out on September 1, 2008 so wishlist it now before you forget.
PS: Are you a blogger who can't wait until September to read this? Then go to to find out how you can get your own ARC to review on your blog.


Lisa said...

Great review! Just FYI: they are working on a feature for the website with a "Where are they now?" to give updates on some of the people featured in her stories and their projects.

Dominique said...

thanks for adding me! :)

My Journey Through Reading... said...

Great review. I just finished this also. My favorite was the story on Saul Griffth also.

Carolyn Erickson said...

Hi from Kansas!

And thanks for alerting me to this book. Sounds like something writers should read!

tracy said...

This is on my TBR pile, great review:)