Friday, September 5, 2008

Book Review: Who the Hell is Pansy O'Hara?

I admit that I'm torn about Jenny Bond and Chris Sheedy's Who the Hell is Pansy O'Hara? The Fascinating Stories Behind 50 of the World's Best-Loved Books. On one hand, it features an quick and sometimes interesting behind-the-scenes look at the stories and their authors. On the other hand, much of the information isn't all that interesting, esoteric, or unknown, which makes this book a frustrating read for book aficionados.

The novels featured in Who the Hell is Pansy O'Hara? are indeed some of the best-known (and perhaps best-loved) books in western civilization. From Gone with the Wind to The Great Gatsby to Winnie the Pooh, Bond and Sheedy discuss the authors' origins and, in some cases, the stories or events that inspired the book in question. Perhaps part of the problem is that many books may not have a single "Aha!" moment. Like the invention of the printing press (wonderfully parodied in Gutenberg! The Musical!), most novels are a continually evolving process. While some authors undoubtedly have inspired moments, there isn't necessarily one seminal defining moment for most book ideas. As a result, this book tends to focus more on author biographies rather than the specific genesis of a particular book.

While the biographical information and occasional sprinkling of book trivia are sometimes compelling, Bond and Sheedy tend to default to the more well-known facts rather than esoteric minutiae. For instance, while they discuss J. M. Barrie's friendship with the children who inspired Peter Pan (a story somewhat faithfully reproduced in the film Finding Neverland), they neglect to mention the tragedy that occurred when Barrie became the children's guardian. Consequently, this book might make a great read for people who are beginning to read and appreciate the works mentioned because it provides a general overview on the books and their authors without going into great detail or depth. It might also make a good resource for English teachers and librarians who need a reference for literary trivia and facts that can catch students' attention. However, for the more experienced book lover who already knows about F. Scott Fitzgerald's party-hard lifestyle or Charles Dickens's time as a child laborer, perhaps another book is in order.