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In the sunset years of the Empire

Simon Winder's book The Man Who Saved Britain, which caught my attention back before Thanksgiving last year, will be a disappointment to hardcore Bond fans and a frustration to dedicated historians of postwar England. That's all right, though, because Winder admits right from the start that the book is sure to disappoint both types of readers. So what's the point of reading it, then?

Perhaps Winder's greatest service in writing this book is to give Americans some idea of just what it was like growing up in an England that found itself rather abruptly shorn of its Top Nation status as a result of World War II, which led directly to the loss of the Empire and all the consequences, economic and political, that had for the working-class Brits of the four decades before Margaret Thatcher and the Tories started to turn things around. Those consequences were mostly ugly ones, aggravated by an obsession with World War 2 and what seems like a wilful refusal to acknowledge the limits of British power in the Cold War era. This makes it easier to understand the powerful attraction of the Bond novels (and later, the films) for British audiences, who otherwise might have regarded them as just another sort of spy novel. All in all, it's an interesting mix of popular history with popular culture, and very much worth reading, even if (like myself) you have rather different opinions about the virtues and evils of the British Empire and its dissolution. Highly recommended.


Anansi Boys, on the other hand - wow. It's a screwball comedy all right, where the fast-living, terribly attractive Spider comes into his brother Fat Charlie's life and turns it upside down and inside out, but this being Gaiman, the horror and the magic comes along soon enough as Fat Charlie tries to get Spider back out of his life. Comparing this to American Gods doesn't really work, since that's an epic book in both its scale and its action, while Anansi Boys is more of a BBC sitcom sort of thing; sure, they're both about magic and horror and ordinary people getting swept up in much bigger things, but even in the darkest parts of the novel you have the firm conviction that Spider and Fat Charlie are going to come out of their troubles all right and go home with the girls at the end. I liked it a lot, and recommend it highly. Makes a good, if strange, combination with the Winder book; between those two and The Root of All Evil, I was dreaming some strange dreams last night before the Gospel music woke me shortly after 0600.

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