Honey’s Progress

Elaine Dundy (1921-2008) achieved notoriety in the 1950s and ’60s and a certain cult status thereafter, but her books were never very widely read, though her fans have included such formidable critics as P. G. Wodehouse and Groucho Marx; her idiosyncratic but not very prolific output was perhaps overshadowed by her status as the wife (for 13 years) of superstar theater critic Kenneth Tynan, and by her appearances on the international party scene during that time. Of Dundy’s several works, only her early novel The Dud Avocado (1958) — the picaresque adventures of an American girl on the loose in Paris — remains widely known today, but her second, The Old Man and Me (1964), has just been reissued in paperback (from New York Review Books) and deserves a similar popularity.

It describes the lurid adventures of young New Yorker Honey Flood (a pseudonym, for reasons revealed midway through the story), recently arrived in London and for initially mysterious reasons determined to attach herself to the rich, middle-aged C. D. McKee. “My specific aim in writing this novel,” Dundy wrote decades later, “was to present an anti-heroine in response to all the anti-heroes so popular of the day, beginning with Kingsley Amis’s Jim Dixon in Lucky Jim, John Osborne’s Jimmy Porter in Look Back in Anger, and all the anti-heroes who followed in their wake.” Dundy succeeded in this aim, but The Old Man and Me is memorable less as a female Rake’s Progress than as a rather perverse parody of Jamesian themes. As we follow Honey’s travels through the artsy bars and stately homes of England, we are treated to some absolutely brutal observations on their denizens, as well as pungent evocations of London in the early ’60s, beyond the postwar grimness but not yet Swinging, or at least not quite.

Another amusing disquisition on things English is William Black’s The Land That Thyme Forgot (in paperback from Corgi Books). After writing several books on Continental cuisine, Black made the somewhat daring decision to produce a defense of the much-maligned cookery of his native Britain, traveling the length and breadth of the island in search of local specialties like Hindle Wakes, sooan, clapshot, singing hinnies, pan haggerty, salmagundie, krappin, boxty, cabbieclaw, kickshaws, and lobscouse. “It seemed to be the profoundest of tragedies,” Black writes, “that every single one of those dishes was almost entirely unknown” to anyone in Britain, “right from the heel of the Lizard to the very tip of Unst.” Only slightly tongue-in-cheek, the author calls for a revival of British cuisine, which as he points out has an ancient and rich (if wacky) heritage. “The British have an undeniably complicated relationship with food. Our cooking is as widely denigrated as our raw materials are praised. We are said to prefer simple cooking, unfussily presented, where the raw and natural flavors sing out, yet we are more than partial to that sharp blast from the sauce bottle.” Black has included recipes for some of the more intriguing exotica, including oyster loaves, cowheel stew, Sussex Pond pudding and even chicken tikka massala, which he reckons, faute de mieux, to be Britain’s national dish.

A fabulous new junk read this year is Lawrence Leamer’s Madness Under the Royal Palms: Love and Death Behind the Gates of Palm Beach (Hyperion). Leamer moved into a condo on the island in 1994: “I have lived all over the world,” he comments, “from the mountains of Nepal to the provinces of France, a city in southern Peru to a town in Japan, but Palm Beach is as exotic and hidden a place as I have ever resided in.” It is also, as he demonstrates, decadent and bizarre, “a place of passion and obsession not even hinted at by its too-perfect exterior.”

Leamer interweaves a series of tales that shed a garish light on the values and cultural mores of Palm Beach, a society ruled by status — and only a certain type of status at that — to a degree inconceivable to the rest of America, and his choice of human subjects reveals telling fissures between WASP and Jew, gay and straight, old money and new within the peculiar context of this ghetto of wealth. It’s all huge fun and chock-a-block with Schadenfreude; but unlike most people who produce this sort of expos?, Leamer is an educated, thoughtful man, and his presentation of Palm Beach moves well beyond tabloid level to become almost an anthropological case study.

As a middle-aged mother who spends a lot of time shuttling teenagers to various sports and babysitting gigs, I am a great fan of the Teaching Company’s university courses on audio tape and DVD, which I listen to on those long car drives. My favorite of the many good professors I have heard on this series is the classical archaeologist John R. Hale of the University of Louisville, a deeply erudite man and great storyteller who has the magical ability to make his sometimes arcane subject accessible and exciting even to the novice. I was thrilled, therefore, to discover that he has a new book out, Lords of the Sea: The Epic Story of the Athenian Navy and the Birth of Democracy (Viking).

As a Yale undergraduate and member of the crew, Hale was told by the military historian Donald Kagan that he should investigate Athenian history from the vantage point of a rower’s bench. “It was an assignment, I found, for life,” Hale remembers. The Athenians in their years of greatness were bound to the sea, and the Athenian empire was above all a thassalocracy — “without the Athenian navy there would have been no Parthenon, no tragedies of Sophocles or Euripedes, no Republic of Plato or Politics of Aristotle” — and, conceivably, no Athenian democracy whose principles continue to inform and inspire our own culture. All this depended on the ancient trireme and the men who rowed it. Hale has brought his years of fieldwork as an underwater archaeologist searching for ancient warships to bear on the material presented here, making for a volume as engaging as it is enlightening.

Another well-executed work on military history is Roger Crowley’s 1453: The Holy War for Constantinople and the Clash of Islam and the West (in paperback from Hyperion). The subject is not exactly fresh, for the drama provided by the fall of the Byzantine Empire to the Turks has been a favorite topic of historians for centuries, what with its colorful scenes and valiant deeds on either side — Mehmet II, “the Conqueror,” and the last emperor, Constantine XI, both make worthy heroes — but Crowley provides a particularly lively account and has included a welcome selection of illustrations, for as he points out, Greek and Turkish leaders each relied extensively on iconography for propaganda purposes. “Constantinople was the front line in a long-distance struggle between Islam and Christianity for the true faith,” Crowley writes. “It was a place where different versions of the truth had confronted each other in war and truce for 800 years, and it was here in the spring of 1453 that new and lasting attitudes between the two great monotheisms were to be cemented in one intense moment of history.” As a compact work of popular history, 1453 is unusually pleasing.