Jenny Bond and Chris Sheedy, Who the Hell is Pansy O’Hara?
Publisher: Penguin Books
2008, 318 pages, paperback, $13

for those who wonder how some of the world’s favorite authors found their great ideas, Jenny Bond and Chris Sheedy wrote Who the Hell is Pansy O’Hara? in which they uncover sources of inspiration and unique trivia for fifty books. They first thought about researching the books on their shelves, but the final determinant for which fifty books to cover depended on “book sales and awareness figures in various countries.” Indeed, most people have read or at least heard of the books they have chosen, such as Gone with the Wind, Jaws, Harry Potter and the Sorcere’s Stone, the Encyclopaedia Britannica, the Guinness World Records, and All the President’s Men. Forty of the covered books are fiction, and ten are nonfiction. Having compiled these stories, Bond and Sheedy observe that the best-published gems are created through “passion and struggle.”

Bond and Sheedy treat each famous book in a chapter that includes enough cocktail trivia to satisfy the curious reader. Who would have thought that Scarlet O’Hara was originally named Pansy, or that Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson were originally named Sheridan Hope and Ormond Sacker? The Guinness World Records had been meant to sit behind a bar to “settle arguments that commonly arose over several pints” and to act as a “promotional item for Guinness beer.” Who would have guessed that this bestseller had not been intended to sell at all? Having served in World War I, J.R.R. Tolkien suffered trench fever and was motivated to write by “the regular recurrence of the illness.” Those who suspect Mario Puzo, author of The Godfather, had firsthand experience with the mafia will be disappointed (“If I was in the Mafia I would have made enough money so I wouldn’t have to write.”), while fans of Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond, will be delighted to know the author was a lieutenant in the Intelligence branch of the Royal Navy and had coordinated an operation named Golden Eye.

To balance the trivia, Bond and Sheedy humanize their subjects by detailing their hardships, triumphs, and failures. Mario Puzo “spent most of his adult life in debt,” a situation to which many writers can relate. Other hardships, though, may be difficult to connect with, such as facing death by firing squad in the case of Fyodor Dostoevsky, author of Crime and Punishment. Many triumphs are described like a writer’s dream. After selling the paperback rights to The Godfather, Puzo proudly handed a $450,000 check to the teller of his local bank, who had “regularly sneered at him when he asked for another overdraft.” After the success of Lolita, Nabokov moved his family to “the opulent Montreux Palace Hotel on the shores of Lake Geneva in Switzerland, which became their home for the rest of the writer’s life.” However, some chapters read like cautionary tales, such as the case of Dostoevsky: “Whatever money the author made was just as quickly thrown away, as he had become obsessed with gambling.”

The main drawback of the book is its obvious formulas. After beginning the chapter with an odd narrative or ironic fact about the famous writer’s life, Bond and Sheedy inevitably start a new paragraph describing the conditions into which their subject was born. Such a rigid formula often leads to dry writing: “Margaret Mitchell was born in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1900 to Eugene Mitchell and Mary Isabelle Stephens.” “Steinbeck was born in 1902 in Salinas, California.” “Alex Murray Palmer Haley was born in Ithaca, New York, in 1921.” On the other hand, the formula also provides readers with the comfort of knowing what sort of information they will find in each chapter. Since the order of the information is generally the same, it also gives readers an idea of where they will find the information they seek should they want to look it up quickly.

After these descriptions, Bond and Sheedy provide biographical information that they believe contributed to the famous book, followed by what the book is about, how the book became published, how well it did in the market, how the author felt about the success, and/or how the author’s life was changed by the success. However, the comfort of predictability does not seem to justify the price.

[Theodor] Geisel died in La Jolla on September 24, 1991, and in 2004 was posthumously awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. But his most famous character, the Cat in the Hat, developed a life of its own and now lives on through popular culture, including books, films, CD-ROMS, and amusement parks.

Bond and Sheedy forced what facts they discovered concerning nonfiction books into a similar mold, cutting off the potential liveliness of spontaneity.

Despite this weakness, Bond and Sheedy clearly show, fifty times over, that “passion and struggle” are the key ingredients to “enduring appeal.” Passion made the writers determined. Struggle made them wise. Most of all, the many stories about people succeeding despite tragedies and personal failings affirm the axiom that everyone wants to believe: no matter how bad things are, the future can still be bright.

-Urania Fung