I love John Sutherland's books about books. He is so knowledgeable, erudite and at the same time, witty and irreverent. My favourites are Can Jane Eyre Be Happy?, Is Heathcliff A Murderer? and Who Betrays Elizabeth Bennett? where he investigates the back stories of literary characters and poses probing questions about how exactly characters manage to carry out certain plot requirements, some of which would frankly be impossible in the 'meat world'. My favourites include his question about A Pair of Blue Eyes by Thomas Hardy: 'What is Elfride's rope made of?' (her underwear, I recall) and Lucy Snowe, Cement Mixer (about Villette).
Curiosities of Literature is more general in scope, but filled with nuggets of fascinating information about writers (their physical ailments, sex lives, typewriters, drug abuse, deaths, etc.), as well as book 'records' and other curiosities. Sutherland is brilliant at ferreting out parallels and links between the unlikeliest books.
My favourite real-life 'villain' from the book is probably Cobweb the cat, who may, or may not, have eaten Thomas Hardy's heart. And how many shots of whisky really killed Dylan Thomas? (Estimates are various and extremely wild, but was there a more mundane, but ultimately more sinister, cause?) Other questions Sutherland deals with are: Why is no one else ever called 'Bronte'? And why was the appallingly bad European summer of 1816 so productive for literature? (On this basis, we should probably expect to see some wonderful novels coming out in a few years' time, especially in the UK.)
Here's a challenge for anyone reading this:
What do the following famous novels have in common?
The Lord of the Flies
The Heart of Darkness
The Naked Lunch
(Answers on a blogcard.)