... 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.
It is a timely and original reappraisal, adding an extra dimension to a figure renowned for his political acuity who, it emerges, was equally interested in flowers ... Weaving Orwell’s biography sketchily throughout, Solnit is more at ease in the realm of ideas than of gardens. Here, she feels on shaky ground. She does not think like a gardener, nor seem to appreciate its meaning for those who immerse themselves in their own patch of the great outdoors ... Solnit’s version of Orwell’s life is not intended as a full-scale biography. Instead, its aspirations lie in the author letting her mind roam freely on the connections between Orwell’s love of nature and its beauty and his political ideas, between the meaning of cultivating the land in our time, as well as his. In some ways the link is simple and obvious ... Solnit describes Orwell’s essay, 'A Good Word for the Vicar of Bray,' as 'a triumph of meandering'. Orwell’s Roses is equally discursive, leaping from Orwell to the Mexican photographer of roses Tina Modotti, or Stalin’s insistence on growing lemons out of season in icy Moscow. Some of her literary digressions cover well-trodden ground, such as the erotic photography of Robert Mapplethorpe. Most of them suggest a butterfly-catcher swiping the air, hoping to net something memorable.
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.
... a new, complex, and altogether deeper understanding, not only of the writer but also of the ways in which art and beauty fortify us in the fight for justice and the defense of truth ... this new book reflects her ability to make connections across a wide expanse. It’s a privilege to read her on the Spanish Civil War, Stalin’s Russia, postrevolutionary Mexico, the coal mines of the United Kingdom, and a rose-producing factory in Colombia. Equally fascinating are surveys of the ways truth is manipulated under totalitarianism, the geological period known as the Carboniferous, the natural history of flowers ... an erudite, lyrical, and incisive book, yet one never feels spoken down to or judged. Despite Solnit’s obvious political stance, there is no finger of reprimand wagging in our faces. Instead, what is generously revealed is the ways in which we are all complicit in the structure of society, the trade-offs that we make.
It’s not easy to find new angles on such a prominent figure, but Rebecca Solnit has done just that. That she succeeds in impressive fashion will surprise no one who’s familiar with the work of the polymathic San Franciscan ... a bracing mix of biography, history, journalism and criticism, Solnit uses the English writer’s little-known love of gardening as fuel for inspired reflections on his work, hobbies, politics and nature. Readers who appreciate beauty or wisdom—anyone who enjoys books, basically—will find plenty to like in these pages ... Though Orwell’s every word had been scrutinized by the time Solnit began this project, her stellar book shows us that an original thinker can make any subject fresh.
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.
Eager Orwellians, scrambling to get their hands on Rebecca Solnit’s book, can relax. Despite its title, long stretches of this book of 'forays' about George Orwell’s connections with nature are not even remotely about Orwell. Instead we are presented with a farrago of Solnit’s own, often abstruse concerns ... A posture she favours is indignant self-righteousness ... The best things in Solnit’s book are free from diversions of this kind ... as I closed this book, I felt the real contrast was between Orwell’s terse, vivid style and Solnit’s butterfly-minded meandering.
Solnit...describes a 1946 Tribune essay in which Orwell mentions the planting as 'a triumph of meandering,' and this phrase aptly sums up Orwell’s Roses. The most enjoyable sections among many for me were on Tina Modotti and Jamaica Kincaid ... The Antiguan Kincaid, a novelist and keen gardener, receives a sensitive and acute reading, though Solnit could have made her a little less angry. Kincaid can be such a tender writer ... Despite first-person commentary, and a judiciously spare sprinkling of autobiography, Solnit is an agent of her material, not a character within it ... The pages here on Orwell’s last days are wonderful and moving.
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.
... a rambling book. It is lovely and musing, if occasionally irritating. I read it while feeling low and found it a solace and a spur ... The best bits of the book are about Orwell proper. At 308 pages, there’s a definite need for secateurs ... There are straggling sections and tangential thorns. There is a tendency, too, to virtue signal ... Orwell, writing on good and bad acts, is subtler and funnier.
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?).
... the book proves an entertaining ramble through the author’s life and Solnit’s consciousness ... For the most part, this rhizomatic exercise yields great blooms ... Much of the pleasure of Solnit’s book lies in its randomness. Is Orwell’s Roses as perfectly cultivated as Orwell’s roses? Probably not, but it’s fun to stroll through the wilderness.
... 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'.
... an extraordinary mixture of heterogeneous ideas yoked together not exactly by violence but by curiosity, happenstance and a fair amount of perseverance. This hybrid volume blossoms with a somewhat random succession of insights, non sequiturs and epiphanies, as Solnit would probably cheerfully acknowledge ... The lack of a known connection [among ideas] worries Solnit not at all. She makes her own connections, and tells a good story ... At times the lack of connection can be unnerving, and for my taste Solnit is a little too fond of gnomic Zen and Buddhist utterances ... There is at times in Solnit too much lateral thinking, too many free associations ... And there are some banalities ... One should not, however, take her to task for her ramblings, for they are of the essence of her technique. And, appropriately, she has a fine section on rhizomes and rhizomatic thinking ... Nevertheless, the most impressive section of this book is also the most specific, and, in a positive way, the most Orwellian. She has done a grand investigative job on commercial rose-growing in Bogotá, in Colombia.
At times the book ranges so widely it gives the impression its author has Googled 'roses, art, politics,' but Solnit’s prose is always engagingly impassioned as she presents illuminating takes on beauty, nature, culture and happiness ... she debunks tired symbols and clichés: here English roses and the 'Orwellian' are perfect targets for her searching mind. In challenging the conventional notion of Orwell as a gloomy figure always fighting for a cause, Solnit unearths fresh meanings in his most famous novels as well as in his less well-known pieces of journalism.
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.
Orwell’s Roses shifts lyrically between Orwell’s life and a history of roses ... An important project of Solnit’s book is complicating pleasure ... The pleasure of reading Orwell or Solnit is in tracking through the labyrinth of pleasure and politics, of learning some arguments recur throughout history, even if few conclusions ever satisfy us. Is it wicked to stop and smell the flowers? Is it wicked to believe in love? For some, love is the ultimate betrayal in the face of obliterating monotony.
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.