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My Empire of Dirt: How One Man Turned His Big-City Backyard into a Farm Hardcover – April 27, 2010

3.0 out of 5 stars 84 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews


“The night I turned forty Manny Howard, a younger guy from the neighborhood, led me to the top of the Brooklyn Bridge. We even stole the flag. It was about five in the morning; we weren't sober. It is a great pleasure to now be able to follow him on this slightly safer—well, safer for me—adventure. What a unique wonder this book is! Like a collaboration between Joseph Mitchell, Moe Howard, and Xavier de Maistre (A Journey Around My Room). Informative, grungy, rollicking, hilarious, horrifying, obsessive; most of all, a really great story, lived and written by a writer whose heart is as capacious and teeming as all of Brooklyn.”
—Francisco Goldman, author of The Art of Political Murder

“With My Empire of Dirt, Manny Howard has created a new job category, gonzo agriculturalist. The squeamish and the vegan-hearted shall enter at their own risk, for this is no gentle Farmer’s Almanac. It’s more like war reportage—on one side, angry rabbits, crazed chickens, and a patch of backyard clay so dry it makes concrete seem loamy; on the other, a Brooklyn-raised City Boy, who won’t take crop failure for an answer. Howard takes living off the land to an urban extreme that will make people think even harder about where their food comes from. Ultimately, though, as tornadoes come and fig trees nearly go, he discovers a marriage that needs tending to, proving that when it comes to love, at least, you shall definitely reap what you sow.”
—Robert Sullivan, author of Rats and Cross Country

“Manny Howard—husband, father, novice farmer—is not the sort of person who does things halfway, and thank goodness for that. Here is the dark, charming, hilarious—and thoroughly original—account of his simple, insane plan to live off the land . . . in Brooklyn. (Crops will be destroyed, tempers will be lost, and a marriage may, or may not, survive.) All of this personal drama is improbably enriched by virtuoso passages on everything from the science of tornadoes to the art of breeding rabbits. What a book!”
—Jonathan Mahler, author of Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx Is Burning

“Manny Howard's wonderful book is much more than a breezy romp across the line that divides urban from rural life. Yes, it crackles with intelligence and good humor, sparkles with hilarious anecdotes, and is studded with entertaining factoids about the agrarian life that Howard decided, so improbably, to adopt (you'll never hear the phrase ‘pecking order’ in quite the same way again). But at its core this book belongs to a great American tradition that goes back to Thoreau: a lone man with big ideas decides to confront Nature on his own. That the nature in question happens to be in Brooklyn gives this book—which like its author is characterized by an unmistakably New York mix of huge ambition and wry self-deprecation—its unique and ultimately quite touching charm.”
—Daniel Mendelsohn, author of The Lost

About the Author

Manny Howard is a veteran of the magazine world, having written and/or edited for New York, The New York Times Magazine, GQ, Esquire, Harper's, Rolling Stone, Gourmet, Food & Wine, Details, Men's Journal, Men's Health, Harper's Bazaar, Elle, Marie Claire, Cosmopolitan, Us Weekly, National Geographic, and Travel & Leisure, among many others. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife, two children, and a dwindling number of farm animals.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Scribner; 1 edition (April 27, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1416585168
  • ISBN-13: 978-1416585169
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 1.1 x 8.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (84 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,619,567 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
Like most of the reviewers, I saw Manny Howard on Colbert. He was funny and self-deprecating, and he seemed like the perfect guy to tell a story of ambition gone wrong. Turns out, though, the book went far more wrong than the farm.

I can't think of another book as disjointed -- as completely discombobulated -- as this. Roosters are about to be castrated in one chapter, but chapters later are still crowing. Obvious questions such as 'how much did this fiasco cost?' go unanswered, although oddly he does mention it in the original magazine article. He mentions calloo, many times, and then decides he should identify the unfamiliar plant... a hundred pages later. Anecdotes go rambling out of control. He drags in Wendell Berry's ghost, using long swathes of Berry's writing, ostensibly as a literary device, but clearly for padding. He throws in pages of poorly integrated Brooklyn history. He rambles about the start of his relationship with his wife. He grasps at any thread that will add pages, because, it turns out, aside from his horrific animal husbandry tales, he doesn't really have anything to say.

I agree with the reviewers who point out that his treatment of the livestock is vile, and that he and his wife come across as horribly unpleasant. But the real problem is that the book itself is an unstructured mess. Maybe the tornado that flattened his garden blew away his notes. Maybe he was too busy feuding with his wife to remember to take any.

Or maybe he just grabbed his advance and forgot that he was supposed to deliver a book..
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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
If you've read the New York magazine article (Sept. 10, 2007) on which this book is based, you might be eager to settle down with this account of the author's attempt to eat only food that he has grown or raised for 30 days. The article is well researched and charmingly written, and the author comes across as diligent and self-effacing, and a bit of a bumbler. He's no Barbara Kingsolver (Animal, Vegetable, Miracle) and he knows it.

Yet within the first few pages of his book, Mr. Howard reveals that he divorced his first wife, got his girlfriend (current wife) pregnant and urged her to abort the baby, became bored in the working world and dropped out, downloads porn in his spare time, and bought his daughter a dozen birds and left them all to kill each other... oh, all except for the one that he smashes against a wall in a drunken rage.

I had to read that part about the birds again, it was so shocking. What in this man's character would compel me to read on? Read on I did, though, hoping that through his urban farming experiment, Mr. Howard would learn a few lessons about humility, compassion and responsibility. Sadly, he does not.

His cruelty to animals is breathtaking -- time after time, he acquires animals without any knowledge of how to care for them, and the result is always the same -- they die. Or, he kills them in particularly brutal ways, like smashing them against whatever hard surface is at hand. He beats a rabbit about to give birth until it is paralyzed and then, after she has given birth, cruelly moves her water dishes out of her reach. "Something good has to come of this grotesque error," he writes before he kills her.
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Format: Kindle Edition
I was very excited to read this book after seeing him interviewed on Stephen Colbert. The author has a very dry sense of humor which is great. However, halfway through the book I was tired of reading about multiple cases of animal cruelty. Such instances include negligence in caring for birds he got as a gift for his child followed by manually and deliberately killing them, trapping a squirrel and letting it sit without food or water for 2-3 days before drowning it, and letting a rabbit suffer to die by being eaten inside out by maggots instead of putting it out of it's misery (a veterinarian, a swift head shot, he'll even drowning it would have been better). I had to stop reading halfway through as I really hated to hear him treat animals that way. Maybe he did it for shock value; if so he's a jackass. Maybe you'll read the book just to hear those stories; in which case you're a jackass.
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Format: Hardcover
I read the book because he appeared on the Colbert Report and he seemed very funny. His book is anything but funny.

The first several chapters tell about how smart, successful and sexy his wife is. The rest of the book is about how he repeatedly makes bad decisions, with his garden and throughout his life.

He repeatedly makes choices that anybody with a hint of common sense would avoid (eg, - he repeatedly purchases animals before he has housing for them.) He repeatedly purchases tools and materials for gardening systems he'll never use.

If you're hoping to learn anything about gardening, look elsewhere. If you're looking for a fun and/or funny story about gardening, look elsewhere. If you're looking for something entertaining to read, look elsewhere.
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Format: Hardcover
Howard has a disturbing tendency to fly into a rage and beat animals to death with his bare hands, no aptitude for them, no interest in them, no inclination to research their care, and no empathy for them. He shouldn't be allowed to keep animals.
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