Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, John Berendt

There is such a thing as a non-fiction novel. Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is just such a thing. The events in this story did happen. Jim Williams really was tried four times in the State of Georgia for the murder of Danny Hansford. The cast is a chorus of insanely nutty characters: a foul-mouthed black drag queen, a female voodoo doctor, a charming lawyer who holds a perennial open house (there is always someone cutting hair in the kitchen) and breaks more laws than his clients and a gay antiques dealer who manages his antique business from jail, refusing to let murder charges defeat him. But the true star of the novel is the elegant garden city of Savannah.

James Oglethorpe, the founder of Georgia, personally designed the square layout of the city.

“In effect, the city would become a giant parterre garden. Oglethorpe built the first four squares himself. ’The thing I like best about the squares,’ Miss Harty said, ‘is that cars can’t cut through the middle; they must go around them. So traffic is obliged to flow at a very leisurely pace. The squares are our little oases of tranquility.’”

And traffic does flow at a leisurely pace. This is good because, according to the author,  Savannahians believe road trips through their city require serious alcohol-laced hydration.

The people who loved this city tried their best to maintain an oasis of southern life-past. The story is littered with examples of outsiders who tried to update the city. The locals would have none of it. They liked their social traditions, especially where formal dress was a requirement.

The weather itself, warm and leisurely, helped sustain the slow pace Savannah is known for.

 “Camellias, jonquils, and paper whites had bloomed in December and January. Wisteria and redbuds had followed, and then in mid-March the azaleas burst forth in gigantic pillows of white, red and vermilion. White dogwood blossoms floated like clouds of confectioner’s sugar above the azaleas. The scent of honeysuckle, Confederate jasmine, and the first magnolia blossoms were already beginning to perfume the air.”

In an afterward, the author uses garden terms to describe this unique city.

 “For me, Savannah’s resistance to change was its saving grace. The city looked inward, sealed off from the noises and distractions of the world at large. It grew inward, too, and in such a way that its people flourished like hothouse plants tended by an indulgent gardener. The ordinary became extraordinary. Eccentrics thrived. Every nuance and quirk of personality achieved greater brilliance in that lush enclosure than would have been possible anywhere else in the world.”

Berendt’s  non-fiction novel may depict a languid southern city. His book is anything but. It’s a page-turner of oddballs, turmoil, gossip and, of course, good and evil.


The Good Earth, Pearl S. Buck

the good earth


I was re-reading The Good Earth for personal enjoyment after I recently visited The Pearl S. Buck House in Perkasie, Pennsylvania.  Buck’s incredibly accomplished life intrigued me and I wanted to remind myself why this story won a Pulitzer Prize in Letters and the author a Nobel Prize for Literature when she was only beginning.

Written in the manner of a fable, The Good Earth is both classic and universal. Wang Lung is a man with the vices and the prejudices of his era and his culture. Yet he draws on our empathy.  His overwhelming belief that the land is of utmost importance may have renewed relevance in the 2018 world of global warming.

Droughts and floods plague his land. Yet he knows from his young life of poverty to his old age of wealth, the land is the source of his life. That is not exactly gardening, but it has a connection. Gardeners also feel this deep connection to the earth, a connection that is much more than growing pretty plants.

On his wedding day to O-lan, Wang Lung thinks of the good earth with superstition.

“There would be no rain this day, but within a few days, if this wind continued, there would be water. It was good. Yesterday he had said to his father that if this brazen, glittering sunshine continued, the wheat could not fill in the ear. Now it was as if Heaven had chosen this day to wish him well. Earth would bear fruit.”

When he and his family are driven by drought to servitude in the south of China, he thinks only of his land back home.

“He belonged to the land and he could not live with any fullness until he felt the land under his feet and followed a plow in the springtime and bore a scythe in his hand at harvest.”

After his mid-life crisis of love-sickness, he turns to the land for healing.

“Wang Lung was healed of his sickness of love by the good dark earth of his fields and he felt the moist soil on his feet and he smelled the earthy fragrance rising up out of the furrows he turned for the wheat…he himself took a hoe and broke up the soil into fine loamy stuff, soft as black sugar, and still dark with the wetness of the land upon it. This he did for the sheer joy he had in it and not for any necessity.”

In the end when he feels himself dying, he turns back to the land.

“But of his land he thought no more what harvest it would bring or what seed would be planted or of anything except of the land itself, and he stooped sometimes and gathered some of the earth up in his hand and he sat thus and held it in his hand, and it seemed full of life between his fingers. And he was content, holding it thus, and he thought of it fitfully and of his good coffin that was there; and the kind earth waited without haste until he came to it.”

The Good Earth was banned for years in China. Buck was denied permission to a accompany President Nixon when he opened trade with China. Yes, she drew a brutal picture of peasant life in pre-revolutionary China. But the story rises above a picture of one time and one place in human history. Its universality lies in the meaning and tragedy of life in any time and any place.



The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, Giorgio Bassani


This is a haunting historical novel set in a symbolic, biblical garden invoking comparison to the Garden of Eden. The time and local is Ferrara, Italy on the eve of World War II. The Finzi-Continis are a Jewish family of aristocratic means, purposely separate from the other Jews of Ferrara. Their garden is a vast, walled enclosure not easily penetrated. The anonymous narrator gains access as a young university student and falls hopelessly in love with Micol, the beautiful Finzi-Continis daughter. He’s been invited to play tennis in the Finzi-Continis garden. Because the new racist laws prevent Jews from socializing with Christians at the local tennis club, Micol and her brother Alberto host a regular tennis party in their walled garden for their friends.

The garden is some twenty acres with winding paths that the narrator and Micol and Alberto explore on bicycle, all the while Micol tellling stories about the garden, mesmerizing the narrator. There’s a group of seven tall desert palms toward which she feels great tenderness.

“’There they are, my seven old men,’ she might say. ‘Look at their venerable beards!’  Really – she would insist – didn’t they seem, also to me, seven hermits of the Thebaid, seared by the sun and fasting? What elegance. What “holiness” in those trunks of theirs, dark, dry, curved, scaly! They look like so many John the Baptists, honestly, nourished only by locusts.

Though Micol loves the trees of her garden, she has mixed feelings about the narrator. She alternately encourages him and rejects him, leaving him flustered and humiliated.

Though not in the least concerned with the art of gardening, “before-the-fall Garden of Eden symbolism” permeates the story. The family has tried to wall themselves in, away from the other Jews and from the coming cloud of Nazism. Micol, true to her family’s tradition, can only see herself as separate from Jews like the narrator. Bassani leaves her with her pride intact. He ends his story before she and her family are subsumed into the far-reaching annihilation of the Holocaust as foretold in chapter one. It’s a hopeless love story embedded in a tragic time.

The Garden of the Finzi-Continis was made into an award winning film by Vittorio De Sica in 1970.

Queen Lucia; Miss Mapp, E.F. Benson

I was reading Green Thoughts by Eleanor Perenyi when I came upon a reference to Lamb House at Rye in Sussex. E. F. Benson lived there from 1916 until his death in 1940. In his comedy of manners Mapp and Lucia novels, Benson made Lamb House and its garden-room the fictional residence of Miss Elizabeth Mapp, calling the house Mallards in the fictional village of Tilling.


Lamb House

When Perenyi quoted Benson’s description of the Lamb House garden, I had to look up Mapp and Lucia. I was not disappointed.

Queen Lucia, the first novel in the series, introduces Emmeline Lucas, aka ’Lucia.’ Calling her pretentious, is being very kind. Here is Benson’s description of her garden in the village of Riseholme where we first meet her.

 “A yew hedge, bought entire from a neighbouring farm, and transplanted with solid lumps of earth and indignant snails around its roots, separated the small oblong garden from the road, and cast monstrous shadows of the shapes into which it was cut, across the little lawns inside. Here, as was only right and proper, there was not a flower to be found save such as were mentioned in the plays of Shakespeare; indeed it was called Shakespeare’s garden, and the bed that ran below the windows of the dining-room was Ophelia’s border, for it consisted solely of those flowers which that distraught maiden distributed to her friends when she should have been in a lunatic asylum. Mrs. Lucas often reflected how lucky it was that such institutions were unknown in Elizabeth’s day, or that, if known, Shakespeare artistically ignored their existence. Pansies, naturally, formed the chief decoration – though there were some very flourishing plants of rue. Mrs. Lucas always wore a little bunch of them when in flower, to inspire her thoughts, and found them wonderfully efficacious. Round the sundial, which was set in the middle of one of the squares of grass between which a path of broken paving-stones led to the front door, was a circular border, now, in July, sadly vacant, for it harboured only the spring-flowers enumerated by Perdita. But the first day every year when Perdita’s border put forth its earliest blossom was a delicious anniversary, and the news of it spread like wildfire through Mrs. Lucas’s kingdom, and her subjects were very joyful, and came to salute the violet or daffodil, or whatever it was.”

Tell me that garden is not pretentious.

We meet Elizabeth Mapp in the second novel, aptly titled Miss Mapp.

 “She sat, on this hot July morning, like a large bird of prey at the very convenient window of her garden-room, the ample bow of which formed a strategical point of high value…This she did from a side window of the garden-room which commanded the strawberry beds; she could sit quite close to that, for it was screened by the large-leaved branches of a fig tree and she could spy unseen.”

These two outrageous women are brought together in Mapp and Lucia when Mrs. Lucas spots an advertisement for a house for rent in Tilling. Miss Mapp shows her the garden.

“’My little plot,’ said Miss Mapp. ‘Very modest, as you see, three quarters of an acre at the most, but well screened. My flower beds: sweet roses, tortoiseshell butterflies. Rather a nice clematis. My little Eden, I call it, so small but so well beloved.’ ‘ Enchanting!’ said Lucia, looking round the garden before mounting the steps up to the garden-room door. There was a very green and well-kept lawn, set in bright flower beds. A trellis at one end separated it from a kitchen garden beyond, and round the rest ran high brick walls, over which peered the roofs of other houses. In one of these walls was cut a curved archway with a della Robbia head above it…..’My little secret garden… When I am in here and shut the door, I mustn’t be disturbed for anything less than a telegram. A rule of the house; I am very strict about it.’”

 Both Mapp and Lucia have an insatiable need to conquer and command.  They are petty, snobby, gossipy and thoroughly entertaining.

Though based on 1920’s British society when the upper middle class had time for tea, golf and garden parties, these novels are timeless.  Benson is a genius at skewering his characters with his poison pen, creating ludicrous and hilarious results.

Sadly, a year after Benson’s death a German bomb destroyed the garden-room. Now Lamb House is part of the British National Trust and open for visitors. Besides being home to Henry James and E. F. Benson, it was Rumer Godden’s home while she wrote over 30 books.

An Episode of Sparrows, Rumer Godden




“The Garden Committee had met to discuss the earth; not the whole earth, the terrestrial globe, but the bit of it that had been stolen from the Gardens in the Square.”

So begins An Episode of Sparrows. It might make you cry. But this book is about hope and about things coming to an almost fairy godmother conclusion.

This is post WWII bombed out London. Elegant Mortimer Square has lost its polish to the ravages of war. Angela and Olivia Chesney, two sisters, live on Mortimer Square which borders much poorer Catford Street, full of large families with boisterous children. Angela categorizes them as hoodlums and Olivia sees them as sparrows. The gardens in Mortimer Square are off limits to the children of Catford Street. Olivia can’t fathom why they shouldn’t enjoy the garden. Angela, the Garden Committee’s chief gun, is vigilant and of the opposite opinion.

Ten year old Lovejoy Mason is one of the children of Catford Street. Her mother, a “coloratura” has left her in the care of Vincent Combie and his wife Ettie. All the characters in An Episode of Sparrows have a backstory that’s a little bit heartbreaking. Vincent dreams of running a restaurant of great quality but Catford Street just doesn’t draw the clientele he wishes for.

“Our linen must be white and glossy, starched, perfectly white and glossy.”

Ettie sighs and strives against all odds to keep it so in the dirty air of London.

Sparkey, an asthmatic five year old, longs to be in a gang with the big boys. Tip Malone, thirteen, is the soft-hearted leader of the gang. He’s part of the nine children Malone family – all handsome, curly haired, blue eyed Irish.

Lovejoy’s mother barely sends enough money for necessities and nothing else.

“I can’t go without everything, forever,” said Lovejoy.

So the little girl has gotten very good at taking, not money which she thinks is wrong, but any other small thing.  She snatches a packet from Sparkey who will never forgive her. Sadly she’s disappointed it’s only seeds – Cornflower (Cyanus minor). The directions say to sow in good garden soil in March or April.  That’s now, she thinks. But what is good garden soil? She asks everyone she knows.

“But under everything,” Tip was to argue, “under everything’s dirt.” Tip called earth “dirt”.  “Under the houses and pavements and the road, there’s dirt.”

Thinking about the cornflowers made Lovejoy forget a little that her mother wasn’t coming to visit.

Missing her mother, Lovejoy searches for earth, rich earth to make a garden grow. Lovejoy’s story is a modern version of Mary Lennox of The Secret Garden. She’s also like Liesel in Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief.  She covets a garden the way Liesel covets books.

The bombed out sites, especially the one where the Catholic Church once stood, were perfect for growing a garden, hidden by boulders and hard to climb into. All they needed was good earth like the earth in the Gardens in the Square. Neither Tip nor Lovejoy nor Sparkey thought taking earth was stealing. Doesn’t earth belong to everyone?

In the author’s preface, Godden talks about how she came upon the idea for An Episode of Sparrows when she moved back to London just after the war. She was surprised by all the weed flowers that had sprung up in the rubble of the bomb sites.

“But what really planted the seed was when that summer I had my window boxes filled by a jobbing gardener; they were my only garden and looked fresh, as pretty as the house in that rather squalid mews. A few days later I had a call from two ladies who lived in the square. “Not a social call,” they told me because, did I know, that the earth in my window boxes had been stolen from the gardens in the square? It was the first time I knew that earth could be stolen. The elder of the two ladies, who wore a hat with blue feather wings, spoke those, to me, memorable words. “If you want earth you can buy it from the Army and Navy Stores, seven shillings and sixpence the carton.”

Bless those two women. They may never have known they sowed the seed of a beautiful novel.

Old Herbaceous; A Novel of the Garden, Reginald Arkell



What a pleasure to come upon this quiet garden novel published in 1950. It was re-issued in 2002 as part of the Random House Modern Library Garden Series. Michael Pollan, the series editor, explains his raison d’etre for the series.

 “I’m thinking of the power of plants to change us in mind and body, the gratuitous beauty of a flower, the moral lessons of the pest, the ancient language of landscape design, and the endlessly engrossing ways that cultivating a garden attaches a body to the earth.”

The moral lessons of the pest? That’s a mouthful of food for thought.

Think of Old Herbaceous as Downton Abby from the point of view of the formidable head gardener at a great manor in an English village.  The story of Herbert Pinnegar begins at the end of the Victorian Age and spans 70 years to post World War II. All the changes those years brought about are seen through the eyes of this kindly curmudgeon. He starts out as a foundling with uneven legs who has the good luck to be mentored by a wise teacher who schools him in growing things. He enters the annual flower show competition and wins with his artistic collection of wildflowers. This catches the eye of the lady of the manor who hires him as a garden boy, saving him from becoming a farm boy as was expected. He rises slowly to head gardener and acquires Lady Charteris’ lifelong affection along with the nickname “old herbaceous.”

Not a lot happens in this novel except a lot of changes in the world of gardening. In war years Pinnegar watches his flowers dug up and replaced with potatoes and the manor’s beautiful iron fencing melted down for the war effort. The enormous body of laborers needed in the Victorian age is no longer needed and no longer available. Some estates are demolished because of high inheritance taxes and others fall into disrepair.

From the beginning of his employment as a shy fourteen year old, Pinnegar was always on the lookout to please his lady. He devised a foolproof way to coax strawberries into April fruiting, earning her praise. As a little girl she loved morning glories. Traveling on the French Riviera she spotted this tropical dawn flower.

“It rioted over everything, as though someone had torn great masses out of a morning sky. It was so blue, so blue that it positively hurt. She felt that her heart was being drowned in loveliness, and she could scarcely breathe.”

Mrs. Charteris told Pinnegar of the fabulous sight she couldn’t forget. Secretly he wrote to the Curator of Kew Gardens. He received a reply that it was the lovely Ipomea Leari. A few seeds were kindly enclosed. Of course Pinneger managed to grow them under glass and surprise his lady one morning after her early cup of tea.

Over the years the owner of the garden and the head gardener had their ups and downs. When Mrs. Charteris pushed to be mistress of her own garden she had to deal with Pinnegar who felt he knew better.

“There is something about a garden that brings out a fiercely competitive streak in the best of us. All our triumphs, to be really satisfying, must stem from our own individual efforts; and we look with a cold eye upon innovations for which we are not personally responsible. Even a suggestion, however tactfully introduced, is not always taken in good part. “Alone I did it,” is the motto of all really keen gardeners.”

After their long years of sharing the planning and tending of the British great house garden, Mrs. Charteris’ fondness for Pinnegar is truly authentic. Will she think to provide for him after her time as matron of the estate is over? What will happen to “old herbaceous” in his twilight years is the most riveting part of the story.

Some Buried Caesar, A Nero Wolfe Mystery, Rex Stout

Summer seems like a good time to dip into a fast paced Rex Stout mystery and the heat of July merits a quick trip to the country. That’s what you’ll get when you open Some Buried Caesar.  Only orchids can get Wolfe out of the comfort of his special chair in his Manhattan townhouse and into rural upstate New York. There’s an orchid exhibition at the Crowfield county fair and he’s showing off his albino orchids in pursuit of the top prize.

“Shanks knew that the reason Wolfe had busted precedent and come to Crowfield to exhibit albinos which he had got by three new crosses with Paphiopedilum lawrwenceanum hyeanum was to get an award over one Shanks had produced by crossing P. callosum sanderae with a new species from Burma; that Wolfe desired and intended to make a monkey of Shanks because Shanks twice refused Wolfe’s offers to trade albinos; and that one good look at the entries in direct comparison made it practically certain that the judges’ decision would render Shanks not only a monkey but even a baboon.”

Archie Goodwin is driving Wolfe to Crowfield when the sedan has an unfortunate altercation with a tree. Wolfe has never liked vehicles, but the situation turns him philosophical.

“It has happened, and here we are. I presume you know, since I’ve told you, that my distrust and hatred of vehicles in motion is partly based on my plerophory that their apparent submission to control is illusory and that they may at their pleasure, and sooner or later will, act on whim. Very well, this one has, and we are intact. Thank God the whim was not a deadlier one.”

Archie and Wolfe are in a pasture that houses a bull. They have a devil of a time evading his wrath. When they escape they are unhappily stranded in the middle of a feud over that very bull. A famous restauranteur has bought him with plans to turn him into barbeque for publicity. That has infuriated the local ranchers. Within a day the son of one of the hostile parties is found dead in the pasture.

Wolfe, always competitive in his quest for prize-winning orchids, is equally competitive in his quest for the answer to the “who” and the “why” of murder. It seems that rural upstate can be just as vicious as the streets of the city. The young man appears to have been gored to death by the animal in question; another is impaled by a pitch fork. The detective can’t pass up an offer of payment to solve the murders of two men and one prize bull, Hickory Caesar Grindon. There’s not much about gardening in this mystery, only the certainty that the cerebral mystery solver never lets anything get in the way of the best interest of his plants.

“Wolfe had said that when the judging was over he would want to spray with nicotine and soap, and I dug the ingredients from the bottom of one of the crates, went for a can of water, and got the mixture ready in the sprayer. He did a thorough job of it, with Plehn assisting, put the sprayer down on the bench, and stated talking shop again.”

This is the second time I’ve visited a Nero Wolfe mystery. Last December I posted Rex Stout’s Black Orchids which was a bit more intertwined with orchid lore. In Some Buried Caesar Wolfe studies cattle lore to ensnare the murderous villain. Turns out there is more than meets the eye in determining a prize winning bull. Cattlemen know that and have devised a system to identify each animal. When they’re buying and selling cattle they need a guarantee that they get what they pay for.

With his eyes slit and his lips moving in and out, the corpulent detective mentally throws out the usual suspects and devises a scheme to nail the one man who could have pulled off the dastardly deeds.

The mystery solved, his prize orchids boxed up and suitcases packed, Wolfe and Archie quickly speed back to the city and the welcome comfort of their townhouse. Smart aleck Archie, of course, has disentangled himself from another love interest. They seem to pop up in upstate as well as the city.