... on its simplest level, a tribute by one fine essayist of the political left to another of an earlier generation. But as with any of Solnit’s books, such a description would be reductive: the great pleasure of reading her is spending time with her mind, its digressions and juxtapositions, its unexpected connections. Only a few contemporary writers have the ability to start almost anywhere and lead the reader on paths that, while apparently meandering, compel unfailingly and feel, by the end, cosmically connected ... Somehow, Solnit’s references to Ross Gay, Michael Pollan, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Peter Coyote (to name but a few) feel perfectly at home in the narrative; just as later chapters about an eighteenth-century portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds and a visit to the heart of the Colombian rose-growing industry seem inevitable and indispensable ... The book provides a captivating account of Orwell as gardener, lover, parent, and endlessly curious thinker ... And, movingly, she takes the time to find the traces of Orwell the gardener and lover of beauty in his political novels, and in his insistence on the value and pleasure of things.
Essayist that she is, Rebecca Solnit pursues her subjects down multiple pathways of thought, feeling, memory and experience, aided by historical research and the intuitive literary hunch, as needed. Like George Orwell as essayist, the subject of her latest book and her model, she deploys the full human instrument in service of her curiosity ... wide-ranging yet disciplined ... This is Solnit applying economic and social analysis to longstanding cultural mythology. How, the reader wonders, is the life-loving Orwell she has just conjured going to survive this scrutiny? ... She implicates us in these comfortable delusions ... I won’t give away how Solnit rescues her portrait of Orwell from the bear trap she has sprung on it. Suffice it to say that in the end she throws us up on the shores of our flawed, vulnerable selves through a detailed portrait of Orwell dying in his mid-40s on an island in the Hebrides as he writes 1984. That novel, Solnit convincingly shows, is not primarily about how totalitarianism works but rather about what it destroys: consciousness, experience, life lived with the full human instrument — the very vision of political freedom that she has earlier identified at the heart of Orwell’s values ... Solnit doesn’t argue with her own counterpoint. She just creates a frame large enough to contain both revolutionary brilliance and unwitting reactionary associations in the same person — large enough to contain life’s contradictions in a way that only the essay, that humble literary mouthpiece, can.
... a deeply political collection of interlinked essays, and at its center are the tensions between beauty and labor, joy and suffering ... Even when the associative leaps evoke, as they do on occasion, some head-scratching, there is an exuberance to them, and it seems, at least to me, that Solnit is having fun when she makes these connections—finding joy in the intellectual pursuit of writing and thinking. That she allows herself to do so in a book that is in many ways very serious too is in keeping with the very aesthetics it's engaging with. 'Clarity, precision, accuracy, honesty, and truthfulness are aesthetic values to him, and pleasures,' she writes about Orwell. But she may as well have been describing her own, or at least this book's, aesthetic values and pleasures as well.
George Orwell too was known to roam, which might be one reason why Solnit’s latest book, Orwell’s Roses, is, from its beautiful cover to its impassioned coda, one of her very best. This multifaceted tribute to one of her principal literary influences is a reassessment of a writer best known for his fervent criticism of totalitarianism as 'threat not just to liberty and human rights but to language and consciousness' ... is at once a biographical study of this champion of freedom, an impressive work of cultural and literary criticism and a testament to Solnit’s far-ranging curiosity. Known for her penchant for digressions and tangents, Solnit leaves no row unhoed as she simultaneously explores the roots of Orwell’s prolific literary output and the fecund history of roses ... a delight of digressions. This is in part due to Solnit’s nose for a good story, but also because, especially in this book, she artfully trains her branching offshoots on a supportive trellis ... However laudatory, Solnit’s tribute to Orwell does not ignore his 'significant blind spots' around gender, including his failure to review books by women writers or to recognize 'how marriages and families can become authoritarian regimes in miniature' ... [a] humanizing portrait.
... expansive and thought-provoking ... an approach that Orwell himself likely would have approved ... A collection of horticulturally themed Orwell vignettes would be amusing enough, but this is Solnit’s road trip, and with her at the wheel we detour from Orwell to Stalin ... I was halfway through the book before I realized what Solnit had done: She’d written a biography that was actually pleasurable to read ... But in the hands of a skilled novelist or essayist like Solnit, a biography becomes something else entirely. It begins in the middle. It skips the boring bits. It possesses a voice, and a point of view. It is unapologetically incomplete, and trusts the readers to go elsewhere to find out whatever else they might like to know ... takes its place alongside other great non-biography biographies written by acclaimed authors who know how to tell a good story ... Solnit’s prose is so personal and specific that from the first page I wondered what it would be like to have her just whisper the whole thing in my ear. Fortunately, she narrates the audio version herself, and does read it in a kind of breathy, intimate tone that suggests that she’s telling you all her secrets.
Solnit lets her readers glimpse a side of Orwell rarely noted by other commentators. Count the references in his work to plants, farming, flowers, and nature, Solnit writes, and the pattern becomes more visible ... Based on Solnit's accounting of Orwell's deeply held appreciation of the natural world, it is time to reassess the connotation of the adjective [Orwellian] to something open to beauty in its many guises, committed to the truth, and protective of gardens and farms and forests, large and small. With precise control and boundless curiosity, Solnit has produced a work of biography and nature writing that makes readers see the enduring and the ephemeral in entirely new ways, free from cliché and obfuscation.
A triumph of meandering' ... It is not a biography in the traditional sense ... At times her digressions and literary flourishes are maddening, but she always returns to the startling brilliance and clarity of Orwell’s work. She ends with a sensitive reconsideration of 1984 that, if you haven’t done so already, will make you want to reread it, too.
The book simultaneously is and isn’t about George Orwell, just as it is and isn’t about roses. It belongs in a whimsical category of its own, meandering elegantly enough through lots of subjects loosely connected to one or the other; more of a wildly overgrown essay, from which side shoots constantly emerge to snag the attention, than a book ... Solnit makes a persuasive case for the importance of acknowledging what Orwell loved and enjoyed, as well as what angered or saddened him, without shying away from accepting that those who actually work the land for a living are often significantly less dewy-eyed about country life than middle-class people with chickens running through their orchards ... not all the branching diversions of this book are so successful ... The green-fingered and the politically committed alike will want to curl up with this book as the gardening year draws to a close and we reflect on a time during which nature has been more of a solace than usual. It’s been a good year for the roses, at least.
The aerodrome is made ready for one of those dizzying circular flights that Solnit does so well, 'a series of forays from one starting point' as she defines it, concentrating on a single species of flower 'around which a vast edifice of human responses has arisen,' veering off into all manner of political and socioeconomic byways, but always returning to the man in the cottage garden bent on storing up plenty for the generations ahead ... Ms. Solnit is particularly good on the attempts made by various dictators and their stooges to subordinate nature to their own ideological ends, or to their own personal vanity ... Widely read in Orwell’s work and never afraid to ask awkward questions of him, Ms. Solnit seems especially exercised by the apparent contradiction between a progressive political standpoint and the pursuit of personal pleasure.
Solnit leads the reader on some fascinating excursions ... There's no way to predict whether history someday will accord Rebecca Solnit's work the same respect George Orwell's has earned. Regardless, readers of the early 21st century should be grateful for her clear-eyed, articulate presence in our midst.
Orwell’s Roses reads like a journey of discovery of the unfamiliar Orwell, first by Solnit, then by us. The first time through the book is exhilarating; it is almost impossible to predict where Solnit will go next. Readers are beneficiaries of Solnit’s erudition and eccentric research trajectories, and we learn much that would be hard to imagine fitting into a more conventional biographic narrative. There is a sense that Solnit has spun a perfect orb web, has organized all the tidbits, and has revealed a connected spiral that presents Orwell in new light ... Yet on subsequent readings of Orwell’s Roses, as I tried to trace all the book’s connections, it became clear that Solnit’s web is not as meticulously built as it seems. It is a bit more of a tangle than a neatly constructed orb, with associative lines of thought that have their own inner logic but which Solnit must wrestle back to the book’s central theme, such as her reflections on the Orwell family’s ties to slavery and imperialism.
Unfortunately, Solnit spends most of her time looking into the anti-communist crusades of the past, territory that has been exhumed again and again over the past 100 years. Why she has done that now isn’t clear ... What would Orwell have to say about the Trumpers, the Black Lives Matter folks, and the Taliban in 2021? That’s something his many fans would like to know ... Solnit doesn’t toot her own horn. She might have. After all, in her most recent book, she’s a contrarian who traces the path Orwell carved out in his provocative books, in timeless essays like 'Why I Write' and in his garden, where he found a sanctuary from the harsh political winds of a world in crisis.
... invigorating ... Solnit describes that Orwell essay as a 'triumph of meandering' — and the same might be said about this book ... At times her digressions and literary flourishes are maddening, but she always returns to the startling brilliance and clarity of Orwell’s work. She ends with a sensitive reconsideration of 1984 that, if you haven’t done so already, will make you want to reread it, too.
In holding aloft all of these interrelated subjects and concepts, whilst also maintaining a sense of the whole, one feels that a more suitable form to encase Solnit’s work would be one that mirrors the workings of an ecosystem, rather than the rigid linearity of a book ... This makes one think of Virginia Woolf’s call for a new, different female sentence, which in turn makes one think of the ongoing, ever more pressing need for the invention of a new, feminine form and, through that form, a way of seeing and communicating the world that defies the traditional, beginning-middle-end logic of masculine writing and thought. Solnit, in structuring Orwell’s Roses in this consciously rhizomatic matter, is bringing us closer to some vision of what this female form could and ought to be. In this way, the book itself, like the petals of a rose unfurling, conveys hope for a better future ... Although Orwell’s Roses hasn’t quite converted me to wholehearted Solnit fandom (there’s an obviousness, and a repetitive clunkiness to parts of her writing, that jar), I’ve certainly come away more knowledgeable, and with much food for thought. Overall, I was extremely happy to luxuriate in the meanderings of a genuinely exceptional mind, whose curiosity, intelligence and willingness to learn seem unbounded (and, ultimately, isn’t curiosity the greatest quality that can be attributed to the nonfiction writer?).
... a wildly meandering thing, whose porousness of structure and resistance to neatness echo Orwell’s own advocacy of freedom ... At no point do we feel lost during this freewheeling roaming. Solnit is a sure-footed, often witty navigator. Her nuanced prose has a distinct purposefulness. One of the wonders of this work is the careful but effortless grounding of wide-ranging discussion in an engagement with the radically humane beliefs underpinning Orwell’s writing ... It is, evidently, not an orthodox survey of Orwell’s life and works. However, some of its most absorbing episodes involve Solnit’s examination of Orwell’s lineage ... While there are glorious 'moments of delight' throughout – such as Solnit’s recollection of the miraculous discovery of flint paths in fields surrounding Orwell’s cottage – her willingness to confront the discomfiting is notable ... In this idiosyncratic, immensely original work, these lingering sections are powerful proof of Solnit’s view that 'to plant a rose […] can mean so many things'.
Orwell will always be relied on for his astute understanding of the threat of totalitarianism and its malignant lies; Solnit also ensures that we’ll value Orwell’s profound understanding of how love, pleasure, and awe for nature can be powerful forms of resistance.
A fresh perspective on the iconic writer ... It might seem contrived to build a biography around his passion [of gardening], but this is Solnit...so it succeeds ... A fine Orwell biography with equally fine diversions into his favorite leisure activity.