Who the Hell is Pansy O’Hara: The Fascinating Stories Behind 50 of the World’s Best-Loved Books by Jenny Bond and Chris Sheedy
I picked this up at Book People after thumbing through it on my way past the bargain bin. I didn’t expect much for the $6 I paid, especially since I thought the title was kind of goofy, but I actually liked this book a lot. It’s a quick and engaging read, and a really good way to learn some fast facts and background about some of the world’s most famous authors and their books.
The premise is simple: the Bond and Sheedy compiled a list of 50 books they thought were pretty important (or “best-loved, if you will) and wrote 4-5 pages on each of them. They give a short author biography and relate any interesting anecdotes about events that might have spurred the idea for or influenced the book. Some of these I knew (Frankenstein, for example) and some of them I had no idea about Casino Royale (the author was a former honest-to-goodness spy).
I’m not sure that I agree that all of these are best-loved books, partly because I had never even heard of one of them. Perhaps this is my own fault for having a narrow focus and sub-par education, but I didn’t know that True History of the Kelly Gang even existed. I could name ten books that might have been written about in its place (they left the Transcendentalists out entirely, the nerve, and neither Shakespeare nor any poets make it in) but oh well. I learned some new things, and now have a few classics to add to the “read this eventually” pile. Also, their nonfiction choices are interesting. I thought it strange that they added The Guinness Book of World Records, and then later found out online that one of them used to work for the organization. I appreciated that they included not only the Oxford English Dictionary but also Encyclopedia Brittanica.
Minor quibble: They kept making what I consider to be a minor league mistake. They would use the same word twice in close proximity, sometimes even in the same sentence. Perhaps I’m being nitpicky, but I noticed it every damn time and couldn’t help but think their editor had fallen asleep on the job. Some examples: “Leading an idyllic life, the nine-year-old’s life was disrupted when his father was killed in action during World War I.” Or, “But having been born into a distinguished lineage of renowned Englishmen, it wasn’t long before young Charles developed a passion and obsession that was to see him develop into the single most important naturalist and one of the most significant thinkers of the nineteenth century.” Yeah, I know, nitpicky, but what can I say, I notice these things and they boooooother me.
Anyway, if that kind of thing doesn’t bother you, or even if it does, I recommend this book. It’s interesting, and an easy way to fill the gaps in your literary knowledge until you have time to sit down and read Crime and Punishment or War and Peace.