The Potted Gardener, M.C. Beaton

Agatha Raisin and the Potted Gardener

Drop a harrowing murder in her neighborhood and Agatha Raisin puts her “pugnacious face” and “bearlike eyes” to good use. This hilarious, mystery-solving heroine is competitive to a fault.

But her unattractive character flaws only endear her to the villagers. She has a tendency to cheat in contests. She once bought a cake from a bakery to enter in a baking contest. She got caught and the locals went on loving her. In The Potted Gardener, part of the Agatha Raisin mystery series; she hires a nursery to deliver a pre-planted garden to compete in the village garden tour. They still love her because there’s something good in this plain, middle-aged, stocky woman.

Agatha is a successful public relations executive who has retired to the village of Carsley in the English Cotswolds. She has a teenage crush on her handsome, retired military neighbor, James Lacey. To her chagrin, another recently arrived outsider to the village has claimed James’ attention. She has no hope of competing with glamorous Mary Fortune who has a figure to die for, glorious blond hair and talent in gardening, baking and all things social. She seems to be everything that Agatha is not. Our heroine suspects a face lift, but reluctantly decides to give up any hope of catching James’ eye and befriends the perplexing Mary.

After a slew of vicious village garden desecrations, James and Agatha find Mary Fortune ghoulishly murdered in her own conservatory. Even though the local police warn Agatha not to get involved, her competitiveness and pride require her to solve the puzzle of Mary Fortune. This is a quick and amusing read. Who knew gardening could be so dangerous.

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The Garden of Small Beginnings, Abbi Waxman

 

If anyone can write a charming book about death, the sudden death of a husband, Abbi Waxman can. It’s hard to believe, but this story about the unthinkable loss of a man in his prime is delightful and uplifting while never glossing over the deep grief Lilian Girvan, his widow, must navigate.

Gardening helps because it is about beginning and learning and sometimes failing.

Waxman prefaces each chapter with a cheeky tidbit of garden lore.

HOW TO GROW A TOMATO

“Stick your tomato plant in the ground and admire it: Tomatoes are susceptible to compliments. Water generously…”

HOW TO GROW CARROTS

“Make sure your soil is fluffy and free of stones; carrots have a hard enough time pushing through as it is…”

MAKING PEACE WITH INSECTS

“Try to peacefully coexist with ants in the garden as (a) they are beneficial insects and (b) they outnumber you by a factor of about a billion. Use old melon rinds to attract them away from your vegetable beds…”

HOW TO GROW PEAS

“Peas are easy to grow, but they have a very limited growing season and only stay fresh for a day or two after harvest. If all else fails, don’t forget they’re easy to find in the frozen section…”

As the story opens, Lilian has been a widow for four years. She cares for her two little girls, Annabel and Clare, is best friends with her sister, Rachel, and holds down a full time job as an illustrator for a book publisher. She’s basically comfortable in the rut she has created for herself. Rachel has unsuccessfully tried to get her to move on with her life.

Then a change comes in the form of a garden. Lil is assigned by her employer to illustrate a set of books on boutique vegetable gardening. The caveat is she must attend a multi-week gardening class with the owner of the nursery.  Edward Bloem is knowledgeable, wise and kind. He is also tall, handsome and, according to Rachel, definitely Lilian’s type. Sparks do eventually fly, but not before the widow confronts what her grief has done to those around her. All is tenderly told by an insightful author with humor and heart. Into this romance the rain does fall and the sun comes out to shine.

 

Mansfield Park, Jane Austen

Mansfield Park

“What did I find?” Charlotte Bronte wrote after reading Jane Austen’s novels, “a carefully fenced, highly cultivated garden, with neat borders and delicate flowers – but no glance of a bright vivid physiognomy – no open country – no fresh air – no blue hill – no bonny beck. I should hardly like to live with her ladies and gentlemen in their elegant but confined houses.”

I like the garden analogy, but I think, to the contrary, Austen is inordinately observant of life around her, skillfully aiming a barb precisely on target. To say that she is a master wordsmith is an understatement.

What does this novel have to do with gardening? Well, the characters do walk around in the shrubbery quite often and remark on its beauty, whenever they are not riding horses or getting ready for dinners or balls. Nature is rhapsodizing to Fanny.

“I am so glad to see the evergreens thrive!” said Fanny, in reply. “My uncle’s gardener always says the soil here is better than his own, and so it appears from the growth of the laurels and evergreens in general. The evergreen! How beautiful, how welcome, how wonderful the evergreen! When one thinks of it, how astonishing a variety of nature! In some countries we know the tree that sheds its leaf is the variety, but that does not make it less amazing that the same soil and the same sun should nurture plants differing in the first rule and law of their existence. You will think me rhapsodizing, but when I am out of doors especially when I am sitting out of doors, I am very apt to get into this sort of wandering strain. One cannot fix one’s eyes on the commonest natural production without finding food for a rambling fancy.”

It’s a Cinderella story. Fanny Price, the timid heroine, is a poor niece, taken in at the age of ten by her rich aunt and uncle to live at their Mansfield Park estate. They have two spoiled daughters, a degenerate elder son and a kind second son with whom Fanny immediately and secretly falls in love. We follow her to young adulthood as she navigates the obstacles put in her way by sometimes merely unaware and sometimes downright nasty relatives. Austen doesn’t take on the large issues of the day. Sir Thomas is a thoughtful and caring provider to his family, but his estate lives on the income from the toil of slaves at a sugar plantation in Antigua. It’s the Eighteenth century.

There is a scene where Mr. Rushworth, the suitor of one of Fanny’s cousins is contemplating modernizing the landscape of his estate.

“Mr. Rushworth,” said Lady Bertram, “if I were you, I would have a very pretty shrubbery. One likes to get out into a shrubbery in fine weather.”

The contingent of leisure class characters spend time touring the garden and offering advice. The large estates of the day took great care in creating elaborate gardens for walking and man-made woodlands for hunting. The world has changed but one should always love shrubbery.

Death Has Green Fingers, Anthony Matthews

It seems green fingers can be deadly. As deadly as a pruning knife to the throat. That’s what Kate and Henry Theobald found on the first evening of their visit to friends in the quaint English village of Ashworth in Wessex. Ashworth was known as a village of roses because it housed two fine rose nurseries and two well-known amateur rose growers. One grower, Nick Bell, was the victim of the nasty deed.

Kate’s a newspaper woman and Henry a lawyer. She sees a hot story in the awful business and Henry is ready with legal expertise to back her up. The local gossip lets them in on Nick’s two passions: breeding roses with the goal of creating the first blue rose and bedding women with another sadistic set of goals. This information broadens the number of possible suspects to almost everyone in the village. But that’s no deterrent for Kate. She does her research, puts her health at risk, annoys the local constable and gets the scoop ahead of everyone else on the beat.

This cozy mystery was written over forty years ago. It’s eye-opening to see the difference forty years makes in acceptable social mores.

“She was received gladly at the office. Butch patted her bottom approvingly and told her the editor was back and had signed the chit for her bonus. ‘Buy you all a drink,’ she offered. So several went round to the Press Club for half-an-hour’s amiable conversation and a number of large gins.”

In pursuit of their villain, Kate and Henry learn a lot about rose pedigrees and the complicated, labor- intensive, exacting work of hybridizing them. I wonder if anyone ever did produce a true-blue rose.

 

Larkspur, Sheila Simonson

 

Larkspur is graceful and elegant. But it can kill you. Also known as delphinium, a decoction of all parts of the plant can do in a victim within a few hours. First there’s neuro-muscular paralysis and then respiratory failure. Native to our western states, cattlemen have been wary of it for years. They keep their herds clear of it in the spring when the young plants and seeds are most toxic.

Larkspur is a fast- read mystery set in northern California told in first person by Lark, the owner of a bookstore named Larkspur. Funny coincidence. Lark’s mother is a well-known poet and friend of the famous poet, Dai Llewellyn, who is the very public victim at his annual summer house party. He sips Compari and chokes to death in front of his guests. Lark and Jay, her policeman boyfriend, try heroically to revive him.  A lethal dose of larkspur is later found in his drink.

Since larkspur grows all over the place and a large group is in attendance at the party, everyone is a suspect. In the next few days, Lark and Jay find time is not on their side, as more bodies fall. Llewellyn has a secret history of affairs with men and women, a dysfunctional extended family and lots of money. Many have a motive and the killer is rather clever.

Starting out slow with a confusingly large cast of characters and relationships, the mystery becomes a page-turner toward the end as they uncover more disconcerting facts. Jay gives his take on the crime.

“’The related plant, monkshood, would have produced a quicker, more potent poison, so the choice of delphinium was plainly deliberate. I’d say offhand that the killer is either mentally unbalanced or a sociopath with a sadistic sense of humor.’ He let his gaze move leisurely from one guest to the next, taking them all in.”

The race to the killer is on with Lark and Jay’s romantic interest in each other adding spice to the tale.

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.