Thursday, November 30, 2006

A book review



Carol of May Dreams Gardens came up with the wonderful idea of doing an on-line book club with a bunch of us gardening bloggers. Great idea, sign me up! Then I heard about the first book selected. Oh no, I thought.

The ancient Romans had an expression that I re-remembered when I reread this book. (In point of fact, I thought of it when I bought the book, too, but more about that later.) It goes like this: "De gustibus non est disputandum." This translates to "In matters of taste, there is no argument." And I had to keep that in mind when the very particular Mr. Mitchell would tee off on one or another of my favorite growing things, or elevate one of my least-favorite.

About the book: Henry Mitchell was the beloved garden writer for the Washington Post for a time during the 70s-80s. His style was a bit revolutionary, and his yarns about his city and country gardens actually do travel very well. He's something of a curmudgeon, his humor is dry, his opinions (like I mentioned) are legion. In other words, he (normally) would be someone I would love. This book is a collection of his essays, and therein lies my problem with the book. As far as narrative structure, the book is something easily picked up, read, and put down again...it is the gardening dilettante's dream. Great for the bedside table, great for reading on the train to work.

One of my other favorite garden bloggers has this theory of her blog that I truly admire. She basically avoids giving advice because gardening advice is...boring! "Snoozy voice of God stuff," she says. And honestly? Henry Mitchell's voice is quite in my head, thank you; and yes, he, to my ears, is prone to sermons, and tendentious, even when (especially when) I agree with him. I frankly think this is ONLY because this book is structured the way it is, i.e., as a series of narrowly-connected articles. Quite fun to read in the newspaper, yes; as a whole book? no.

Considering Henry Mitchell is something of a sacred cow in gardening circles, I do feel bad that my review of this book is so harsh. My review of him? He's great. In small doses.

But remember the Romans. In matters of taste, there is no argument.

9 comments:

Colleen said...

El,
I definitely agree with you---it would have been more enjoyable to read these columns individually. As much as I liked The Essential Earthman, I found that I couldn't read more than a couple essays in a sitting---kind of a Mitchell-overload. I didn't mind his being opinionated, even when I thought he was wrong--his opinions on trees, for example, did not fit at all with my ideas. I took those sections with a grain of salt, kind of like when my grandma starts going on and on....just nod, smile, and move on :-)

Great post, and a view on the book that I haven't seen anywhere before. BTW---totally unrelated, but I mentioned you in my blog entry today. About how I envy your five acres....

Jenn said...

You're funny. I like your review.
Haven't read the book yet. Plan to, but I don't know when.

Carol said...

It is certainly not too late to post a review! I'll be doing a wrap up post this evening with a few other reviews that have popped up in the last few days.

Carol said...

I meant to also say "thanks for joining in!"

Kathy said...

One thing I noticed on this re-read of TEE was that Henry often contradicts himself. There will be one little chapter about how trees are an abomination and belong in zoos--er, parks, and then another chapter about which ones are the most lovely. He gives a lot of advice that he doesn't really expect you to follow because he hasn't managed to follow it either. He tells you to buck up and quit griping about the weather, and then devotes other chapters to doing just that.

I don't think I realized until I saw photos of his garden just how small his plot was and how much he crammed in. Certain advice he gave made a lot more sense after seeing those photos.

I am glad you didn't attempt to parrot everyone else or (even worse) keep silent, because what we're all looking from our fellow garden bloggers is their honest, get-real opinion.

Annie in Austin said...

Hello El,
Your comments were really interesting to me as a longtime Henry Mitchell fan. My first encounters were in small doses in the newpaper, which probably makes a difference.

But I wonder if some of your feeling derives from your being younger and the style being somewhat dated. I grew up in the fifties, surrounded by those oppinionated old WW 2 guys, and bet that's why I allow Henry M to get away with remarks that would make me annoyed with a man in my own age group, from whom I expect a different attitude. Do you think this is a possibility?

Annie at the Transplantable Rose

El said...

Hey Kathy and Annie (and Carol, Jenn and of course Colleen),

When reading this and other Mitchell works, I thought often about what my OWN tone would be if I were the head garden columnist at WaPo for a similar stretch of time. I would be just as pontificating, vacillating, and certainly contradictory as he is. I wouldn't be able to help it, I think.

I am not sure, Annie, if it is a product of my age that I was so...unswept-up by Mr. Mitchell's charms. As noted before, I appreciate a good blowhard. I had so many moments of "yes, YES!" when I read his words this time, but I am afraid they were overshadowed by some other opinion he'd opined often just a couple of pages before. I couldn't get beyond it. Which is why I thought it was a good book to read a chapter at a time and then forget for a while.

Paula said...

Hi El,

Interesting take on Henry. I had never read him before, either, and it is definitely easier to read this collection a chapter at a time. But I found his opinions to have tongue very firmly planted in cheek, as when he rails about trees and then I find toward the end of the book that he has scads of trees in his yard he can't bear to remove. It reminded me how often I wished I didn't have a certain Silver Maple towering over my house on the southern exposure. Oh, the garden I could grow then!

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