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Orwell's Roses

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“In the year 1936 a writer planted roses.” So begins Rebecca Solnit’s new book, a reflection on George Orwell’s passionate gardening and the way that his involvement with plants, particularly flowers, and the natural world illuminates his other commitments as a writer and antifascist, and the intertwined politics of nature and power. Sparked by her unexpected encounter wit “In the year 1936 a writer planted roses.” So begins Rebecca Solnit’s new book, a reflection on George Orwell’s passionate gardening and the way that his involvement with plants, particularly flowers, and the natural world illuminates his other commitments as a writer and antifascist, and the intertwined politics of nature and power. Sparked by her unexpected encounter with the surviving roses he planted in 1936, Solnit’s account of this understudied aspect of Orwell’s life explores his writing and his actions—from going deep into the coal mines of England, fighting in the Spanish Civil War, critiquing Stalin when much of the international left still supported him (and then critiquing that left), to his analysis of the relationship between lies and authoritarianism. Through Solnit’s celebrated ability to draw unexpected connections, readers encounter the photographer Tina Modotti’s roses and her Stalinism, Stalin’s obsession with forcing lemons to grow in impossibly cold conditions, Orwell’s slave-owning ancestors in Jamaica, Jamaica Kincaid’s critique of colonialism and imperialism in the flower garden, and the brutal rose industry in Colombia that supplies the American market. The book draws to a close with a rereading of Nineteen Eighty-Four that completes her portrait of a more hopeful Orwell, as well as a reflection on pleasure, beauty, and joy as acts of resistance.


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“In the year 1936 a writer planted roses.” So begins Rebecca Solnit’s new book, a reflection on George Orwell’s passionate gardening and the way that his involvement with plants, particularly flowers, and the natural world illuminates his other commitments as a writer and antifascist, and the intertwined politics of nature and power. Sparked by her unexpected encounter wit “In the year 1936 a writer planted roses.” So begins Rebecca Solnit’s new book, a reflection on George Orwell’s passionate gardening and the way that his involvement with plants, particularly flowers, and the natural world illuminates his other commitments as a writer and antifascist, and the intertwined politics of nature and power. Sparked by her unexpected encounter with the surviving roses he planted in 1936, Solnit’s account of this understudied aspect of Orwell’s life explores his writing and his actions—from going deep into the coal mines of England, fighting in the Spanish Civil War, critiquing Stalin when much of the international left still supported him (and then critiquing that left), to his analysis of the relationship between lies and authoritarianism. Through Solnit’s celebrated ability to draw unexpected connections, readers encounter the photographer Tina Modotti’s roses and her Stalinism, Stalin’s obsession with forcing lemons to grow in impossibly cold conditions, Orwell’s slave-owning ancestors in Jamaica, Jamaica Kincaid’s critique of colonialism and imperialism in the flower garden, and the brutal rose industry in Colombia that supplies the American market. The book draws to a close with a rereading of Nineteen Eighty-Four that completes her portrait of a more hopeful Orwell, as well as a reflection on pleasure, beauty, and joy as acts of resistance.

30 review for Orwell's Roses

  1. 5 out of 5

    Elyse Walters

    “In 1936, a writer planted roses”….. A beautiful tribute to George Orwell …..a passionate gardener, especially flowers, ….(who knew?)…. Rebecca Solnit said she wrote this book in a time of intense crisis, around climate environment, and nature, around human rights, democracy, media, technology, gender, and race, and around the questions of who would be allowed to speak and who would check the liars. “Living for a few years with one foot in Orwell’s time made me think about who did Orwell’s work “In 1936, a writer planted roses”….. A beautiful tribute to George Orwell …..a passionate gardener, especially flowers, ….(who knew?)…. Rebecca Solnit said she wrote this book in a time of intense crisis, around climate environment, and nature, around human rights, democracy, media, technology, gender, and race, and around the questions of who would be allowed to speak and who would check the liars. “Living for a few years with one foot in Orwell’s time made me think about who did Orwell’s work in our own. The political essayists, historians, journalists, the media and technology critics, the dissidents and whistleblowers, the human rights and climate organizers and organizers of the marginalized and devalued were compelling presences for me all through the years this book took shape, some as public figures I read or listened to, some as friends and acquaintances whose conversations and examples kept me going, some as both. There were so many….. “Thanks to the Berkeley and San Francisco Rose Gardens and their gardeners and the principles that funded roses for the public”. I felt this book celebrated both George Orwell and Rebecca Solnit. Anyone who examines the life of a lifelong gardener….builds character strength, heals and empowers ….. such as a reminder that during the coronavirus lockdown, people in record numbers began cultivating victory Gardens. The perfect antidote to dealing with a crisis. A blooming, blossoming beauty of a book!

  2. 4 out of 5

    Alwynne

    “So long as I remain alive and well I shall continue to feel strongly about prose style, to love the surface of the earth, and to take pleasure in solid objects, and scraps of useless information.” – George Orwell Gardening’s an act of faith, a gesture of hope in the future, that vegetables we plant will grow, that seeds will sprout and someday flowers will burst forth in a riot of colour and scent. By focusing on George Orwell’s love of gardens, his carefully nurtured roses, Rebecca Solnit’s hi “So long as I remain alive and well I shall continue to feel strongly about prose style, to love the surface of the earth, and to take pleasure in solid objects, and scraps of useless information.” – George Orwell Gardening’s an act of faith, a gesture of hope in the future, that vegetables we plant will grow, that seeds will sprout and someday flowers will burst forth in a riot of colour and scent. By focusing on George Orwell’s love of gardens, his carefully nurtured roses, Rebecca Solnit’s highlighting an aspect of Orwell that’s often overlooked. An Orwell who found joy, or reasons for optimism, in small things and in connection with nature, contradicting the popular image of someone essentially earnest or solemn. Solnit’s riveting study of Orwell’s an unconventional one, moving away from standard academic appraisals or linear biography. Instead, she plays to her strengths here, looking at her subject from a variety of angles, spinning out through an array of ideas, associations and, apparent digressions, inspired by her initial reflections on Orwell’s roses. Roses lead Solnit to an iconic photograph by Tina Modotti who later renounced art as a bourgeois distraction from political activism. Modotti’s attitude’s not one Orwell shared. He writes about taking pleasure in a blackbird’s song or a view of a blossoming tree, all the things that reminded him of what made life worthwhile. This divide between politics and culture’s central to Solnit’s discussion. She searches out passages in Orwell’s writing that counter a belief that serious political engagement leaves no space for art or literature or that these are no more than frivolous diversions. Like Orwell, Solnit sees an activity like raising roses as a way to regenerate, to think about what it is that she values. But Orwell didn’t celebrate nature in an unthinking way and neither does Solnit. A portrait of Orwell’s ancestor on his rolling acres of land sparks a discussion of how representations of nature can disguise harsher realities – a reliance on slavery that paid for the portrait and the land it depicts. Solnit’s visit to a Columbian rose farm exposes a similar attempt at masking truths, one that allows us to buy roses on Valentine’s Day without any sense of the conditions they’re grown in or the treatment of the workers who grew them. Solnit relates these examples to Orwell’s broader interest in the manipulation of reality: Winston’s world in 1984, Stalin’s lies and omissions, political lies and lying politicians. I’ve read some of Orwell’s fiction and dipped into his other writings but I don’t have a particular interest in him or his life. Despite this, I found Solnit’s treatment of Orwell utterly compelling. It’s never less than thought-provoking but it’s also entertaining and accessible, admirably disciplined and beautifully-written. I’m sure if I picked at it there are places where it might unravel: some areas are touched on a little too briefly, some threads are a little too loose. But I’m not sure that that matters, I think Solnit’s aim is to share her perspective on Orwell, to examine what he represents for her. She’s trying to set off chains of associations in her readers rather than present them with an exhaustive or settled account. And this is far from settled, it’s a journey not a final destination, a conversation not a lecture, a restless, probing, skilful mix of analytical and deeply personal. Many thanks to Netgalley and to Granta Publications for an arc Rating: 4.5

  3. 5 out of 5

    Ken

    "Books were banned, facts were banned, poets were banned, ideas were banned. It was an empire of lies. The lies -- the assault on language -- were the necessary foundation for all the other assaults." "The first victim of war is truth, goes the old saying, and a perpetual war against truth undergirds all authoritarianisms from the domestic to the global. After all, authoritarianism is itself, like eugenics, a kind of elitism premised on the idea that power should be distributed unequally." Above a "Books were banned, facts were banned, poets were banned, ideas were banned. It was an empire of lies. The lies -- the assault on language -- were the necessary foundation for all the other assaults." "The first victim of war is truth, goes the old saying, and a perpetual war against truth undergirds all authoritarianisms from the domestic to the global. After all, authoritarianism is itself, like eugenics, a kind of elitism premised on the idea that power should be distributed unequally." Above all else, this book is about an author and authoritarianism. Its release this year couldn't be more appropriate, given the rise or enduring nature of authoritarians in Russia, China, Hungary, Poland, Belarus, Turkey, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, etc. If any author is associated with anti-authoritarian sentiments, it is George Orwell (Eric Blair), whose name has become an overworked adjective, even, since 2016 and thanks to Jan. 6th, in the United States. Speaking of the United States, this book ostensibly about Orwell and roses (he planted a garden, which became a metaphor for his love of the simple life, of our existence here as opposed to some afterlife, of his belief that privacy and truth and facts and language all meant something), also devotes a lot of attention to the simple act of lying. We consider it a child's fault that is best unlearned, but it is the preferred weapon of authoritarians who are far, far away from their childhoods. "As withheld information, a lie is a sort of shield for the liar; as falsity it is a sword. It matters whether or not people believe the lies, but unbelievable lies wielded by those with power do their own damage. To be forced to live with the lies of the powerful is to be forced to live with your own lack of power over the narrative, which in the end can mean lack of power over anything at all. Authoritarians see truth and fact and history as a rival system they must defeat." Proof positive that George Orwell, were he alive today, would be all over elected officials who are so-called defenders of the U.S. Constitution yet are busy rewriting the history of Jan. 6, 2021. In the vanguard, of course, is Trump, a man Solnit sees little point in mentioning until the final pages because a.) it's painfully obvious and b.) many writers have done so before her. And so she focuses on the likes of Joseph Stalin (a lemon guy vs. a rose guy), the Chinese government, and all other notorious controllers of past and present. Words matter, as does propaganda. Thus Nineteen Eighty-Four and its exposé of the authoritarian playbook. Thus the warning bells sounding around us when we see the likes of Tucker Carlson and his Fox cronies on our television sets. Like the Soviets' ironically-named Pravda (Truth) of old, they are symptomatic of these 1930's-like times -- a time only helped by the pressures of the pandemic, of countries run by gangs and thugs using nationalism to make political hay over migrants seeking a better life, of a world quickly melting, burning, and drowning in its own climactic atrocities made in the name of power and greed. In short, there could be no better time for lies and those who use it to gain and then retain power. Though it is not a biography, the book offers readers a lot of information on George Orwell, his life, his politics, and his literary precepts. You will also learn a lot about roses, of all things. Solnit herself visits Columbia, where so many of the West's flowers come from in conditions not unlike the sweat shops feeding our hunger for cheap clothing. In typical Solnit fashion, the hip bone's connected to the leg bone, and one essay's subject leads to another. But still, perhaps more than her other works, she remains rather disciplined here. Orwell. Orwellian. Truth. Lies. Even Silicon Valley. She refers to Internet giants and social networks (Google, Apple, Facebook, Twitter, etc.) as another "superpower" gathering, controlling, and selectively distributing information (some facts, many lies) for profit -- all to a degree that authoritarian governments can only dream of and, in fact, seek to replicate for their own purposes. More irony, isn't it? China blocking an episode of The Simpsons because it is unflattering to the ruling regime there. China and Russia seeking to control parts of the Internet because it rivals and can even surpass or contradict their own agendas. Thus we get an Internet that giveth and taketh away, depending on the country and its circumstances. No wonder Orwell just wanted to grow a garden and go fishing. Alas, his conscience wouldn't let him. He had to write Nineteen Eighty-Four and many other books and essays as a warning. The only question now is, will he be heeded by the masses, or must they learn the hard way like their mid-Twentieth century predecessors? As Orwell is mostly known for a book, I'd say the odds are stacked against him and in favor of much easier to assimilate and mimic sound bites, misinformation, Internet echo chambers, and lies from politicians who love TV for its friendliness to and facility for liars.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Vesna

    Orwell is renowned for what he wrote against—authoritarianism and totalitarianism, the corruption of language and politics by lies and propaganda (and sloppiness), the erosion of the privacy that underlies liberty. From those forces, it’s possible to determine what he was for: equality and democracy, clarity of language and honesty of intentions, private life and all its pleasures and joys, the freedom and liberty that also depend to some extent on privacy from supervision and intrusion, and Orwell is renowned for what he wrote against—authoritarianism and totalitarianism, the corruption of language and politics by lies and propaganda (and sloppiness), the erosion of the privacy that underlies liberty. From those forces, it’s possible to determine what he was for: equality and democracy, clarity of language and honesty of intentions, private life and all its pleasures and joys, the freedom and liberty that also depend to some extent on privacy from supervision and intrusion, and the pleasures of immediate experience. In this latest book of her essays, Rebecca Solnit shows us Orwell’s less familiar side, which she uncovers from his diaries and essays, an Englishman of yesterday who took pleasures in his simple homestead life, pastoral landscapes, and the beauty of nature, animals and flowers. He grew his own roses with meticulous and loving care, whose beauty inspired countless poets and painters throughout the centuries. The sheer enjoyment in their beauty and, more generally, intangible things as Orwell found in his cottage and countryside epitomizes the meaningful interior of one’s private life. Its meaning figures in the suffragist slogan “breads and roses” to which Solnit devotes one chapter and keeps turning to this central theme as she searches for an answer to how to make a good life as private individuals while, at the same time, conscientiously responding to larger social injustices, power corruption, and environmental destruction. Through Orwell’s roses as a central metaphor, Solnit then directs us to their other side. Despite their beauty (“The beauty of flowers is not merely visual; it’s metaphysical…”), as everything else, the commercialized world has transformed them into quantifiable commodities. And, as everything else that is commodified, they can turn repulsively ugly with their unnatural looking bouquets masking over the hard labor in their mass production, as we learn from Solnit’s sobering account of her visit to the Colombian floral factory. Was the ugliness in the roses for being produced in such a way or in us for failing to see it? Had the roses become lies of a sort, seeming to be one thing but being in truth another? Were they now emblems of deceit, a kind of counterfeit rose signifying formal beauty rather than their own conditions of production? Much of Orwell’s work was about ugliness of various kinds, but what he found hideous serves as a negative image of what he found beautiful. Taking Orwell’s life and works as a point of departure, Solnit takes us into the multifaceted nature of these contradictions in today’s world, happening both somewhere there in modern versions of physical and ideological gulags and over here in our own lives disconnected from nature and the simplicity of meaningful life. It’s a superb homage from one essayist to another, who was her inspiration as her thoughtful and beautifully written book (though with occasional digressions and sometimes loose connections) should inspire any reader. My thanks to Granta Publications for an ARC via NetGalley.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Jen Burrows

    As Solnit states in the opening pages, this is not a straightforward biography of Orwell. Instead, it's a meandering collection of essays that take Orwell's life - or rather, one moment in Orwell's life - as a doorway opening out onto reflections on nature, politics, art and truth. It's also a celebration of essay writing as an art form, and of the multitudinal journeys you can take from any one start point. There is not really any better way to explore Orwell's world than through the form he de As Solnit states in the opening pages, this is not a straightforward biography of Orwell. Instead, it's a meandering collection of essays that take Orwell's life - or rather, one moment in Orwell's life - as a doorway opening out onto reflections on nature, politics, art and truth. It's also a celebration of essay writing as an art form, and of the multitudinal journeys you can take from any one start point. There is not really any better way to explore Orwell's world than through the form he dedicated much of his writing life to. As with all of Solnit's writing, Orwell's Roses is a thoughtful and thought-provoking rumination on a theme that takes you far beyond the bounds of what you were expecting. *Thank you to Netgalley for the arc in exchange for an honest review*

  6. 5 out of 5

    Deea

    One of my biggest pleasures when I go to the UK is to look for Charity Shops or go to a few favourite ones whenever I go to London. It’s in one of these cute shops from Edinburgh that I found a 50p(ence) candle holder that looks amazingly nice. Whenever I see it, it reminds me of the special time I spent in Scotland. It’s easy to find gems like these in charity shops, but it’s rather the search for them that gives me pleasure, not the objects themselves, and I associate this search with some sor One of my biggest pleasures when I go to the UK is to look for Charity Shops or go to a few favourite ones whenever I go to London. It’s in one of these cute shops from Edinburgh that I found a 50p(ence) candle holder that looks amazingly nice. Whenever I see it, it reminds me of the special time I spent in Scotland. It’s easy to find gems like these in charity shops, but it’s rather the search for them that gives me pleasure, not the objects themselves, and I associate this search with some sort of modern (non-conventional) treasure hunt. “He described the appeal of these shops to “the jackdaw inside all of us, the instinct that makes a child hoard copper nails, clock springs, and the glass marbles out of lemonade bottles. To get pleasure out of a junk shop you are not obliged to buy anything, nor even to want to buy anything.”Apparently this was one of Orwell’s biggest pleasures as well, together with gardening or drinking tea. He had a whole ritual when it came to drinking tea (so British of him!). I must admit, this might not appeal much to other readers, but I had a sense of kinship with Orwell while reading these particular details about his personality. “On the twelfth of January he published an essay on the proper way to make a cup of tea, about which he had strong opinions: water straight from a boiling kettle, loose tea in abundance, from India and not China if possible, in a ceramic or china teapot, and most controversially, and adamantly, the tea in the cup first, and not the milk. No sugar.” This book is and it isn’t about Orwell. And by this I mean that it’s not just a biography of Orwell. It is about many other things as well: about roses and trees, but also about global warming and totalitarian regimes, about the injustices of the world, about the wrongs done by the British empire throughout the world through colonialism, about the millions of people killed by Stalin, about truths we choose to ignore rather than deal with because it’s more comfortable that way. “England’s national flower is the red Tudor rose. But the prickly truth is that the English owe much of their wealth to another blood-red flower; the poppy,[…]” The book is also about the horrendous work conditions in coal mines, about how poorly workers in rose factories from the Carribeans are treated in order for us to have enough cheap roses for Valentines’ day or Mother’s Day. But although I might have given the impression that Solnit only focuses on the negative, she does not. She also writes about the types of roses that have been cultivated all over the world and about the history of the rose. She writes about the positive connotations they are associated with, about how even Nazis could be moved by plants, about the idyllic beauty of the English gardens (even though many of the people owning them had become rich by exploiting slaves in the colonies). There are also lots of ecological echoes throughout it and I particularly enjoyed a chapter about the Carboniferous period as it was suffused with details about plants that I didn’t really know about. Well, this is not something one has not written about before, but the way Solnit addresses the subject is quite unique. “Think of the Carboniferous as a sixty-million-year inhale by plants, sucking carbon dioxide from the sky, and the last two hundred years as a monstrous human-engineered exhale, undoing what the plants did so long ago.” I am not very fond of reading biographies in general and I might not have picked this book up had it not been written by Solnit. Although it was less dreamy than other two I have really enjoyed by her (“A Field Guide to Getting Lost” and “The Faraway Nearby”) and more fact-oriented, it was still poetic at times and full of beautiful ideas and I must admit that I even enjoyed finding out some less-known facts about Orwell, like the ones about junk shops or tea or funny things like the one in the next quote. “In 1938, he and Eileen named their dog Marx “to remind us that we have never read Marx,” Eileen (his wife) wrote to a friend, adding “now we have read a little and taken so strong a personal dislike to the man that we can’t look the dog in the face.””

  7. 4 out of 5

    Makenzie

    4.5 stars—do you ever read a book and feel like it was written especially for you?

  8. 5 out of 5

    Laura Noggle

    Absolutely breathtaking and incredible book. Surprised as I had zero expectations.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Carlton

    A beautiful literary love letter to, and exploration of the works of, a fellow political essayist. Solnit takes the reader on a journey to discover her joy in reading George Orwell’s essay about planting roses, and why this is not trivial, but core to both Orwell’s pursuit of truth saying and the reader’s political being. Easily readable but meandering essays combine the literary and personal, using, as a starting point, Orwell’s essays about planting rose bushes and fruit trees. Having read thes A beautiful literary love letter to, and exploration of the works of, a fellow political essayist. Solnit takes the reader on a journey to discover her joy in reading George Orwell’s essay about planting roses, and why this is not trivial, but core to both Orwell’s pursuit of truth saying and the reader’s political being. Easily readable but meandering essays combine the literary and personal, using, as a starting point, Orwell’s essays about planting rose bushes and fruit trees. Having read these essays about 35 years ago, and also fondly remembering them, I was captivated by this book. Solnit says at the end of her introductory essay: I had not thought hard enough about those roses I had first read about more than a third of a century before. They were roses, and they were saboteurs of my own long acceptance of a conventional version of Orwell and invitations to dig deeper. They were questions about who he was and who we were and where pleasure and beauty and hours with no quantifiable practical result fit into the life of someone, perhaps of anyone, who also cared about justice and truth and human rights and how to change the world. Solnit examines Orwell’s love of gardening, which he expanded to what in England we would call a smallholding, to postulate how it underpins his politics, as an “Anarchist Tory”. She references Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier to consider his concern for the working poor, but also from a contemporary standpoint linking it to the industrial revolution’s ecological degradation. His Homage to Catalonia recounts, as an active participant his putting his political beliefs into practice, but also allowed him to “find a set of possibilities and ideals”. Solnit initially digresses in her Roses and Revolution essay, which considers a photograph of roses from 1924 by Tina Modotti, to write about various aspects of roses, including a little repetition of observations made earlier in the book. However, Solnit builds and builds comment and analysis on slavery, colonialism, opium and the British Empire up from Orwell’s essay about roses, linking it to Orwell’s experience in Burma and his gentleman ancestors, before returning to Orwell’s roses again to enlarge her argument. Solnit expands upon gardening to discuss eighteenth century landscape garden, and whilst reading this book, I visited Stowe landscape gardens in Buckinghamshire. I walked around the gardens for hours, admiring the beautifully fashioned and maintained man-made landscapes, embellished with statues, columns, temples, fanes, caves, cascades and bridges to create points of interest and views. I enjoyed the experience of being in an idealised natural world (complete with ha-has to allow the view to extend for miles without the interruption of fences). But I could also wonder about the source of the wealth/oppression that made this beauty possible. I have read a lot of Joan Didion’s books in the last couple of years, and in this book Solnit creates a similar tight focus on a subject by approaching it in multiple and sometimes oblique ways, and also by including reportage (for example, about the Colombian rose growing business), writing as an observer (although not as personal as Didion). Solnit completes our journey with consideration of Orwell’s late essays, Animal Farm, diaries and Nineteen Eighty-Four, but does so always returning to the context of Orwell’s joy from the small pleasures and beauty and hours with no quantifiable practical results. A wonderful book which definitely benefits from familiarity with Orwell’s work. I received a Netgalley copy of this book, but this review is my honest opinion.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Joe

    Another extraordinary book from Rebecca Solnit. In this one she argues not just for “bread, and roses too”—with roses serving as a kind of add-on to a program for social change, but for the necessity of bread and roses together, for sustenance and pleasure, work and joy, as equal components of a fully-lived politics and life. As part of this argument, she offers an appreciation of George Orwell, usually viewed by even his admirers as one of the most dour of English authors, as a writer who also Another extraordinary book from Rebecca Solnit. In this one she argues not just for “bread, and roses too”—with roses serving as a kind of add-on to a program for social change, but for the necessity of bread and roses together, for sustenance and pleasure, work and joy, as equal components of a fully-lived politics and life. As part of this argument, she offers an appreciation of George Orwell, usually viewed by even his admirers as one of the most dour of English authors, as a writer who also took great pleasure in the natural and sensual world. And then, in one of her signature reversals, Solnit complicates this endorsement of beauty and joy, symbolized by the rose, in a section exposing the brutal factory conditions in which most of the commercial roses for the US market are produced (in Columbia). Her book thus becomes an argument for garden rather than store-bought roses—that is, for pleasures that are made and grown close to home, made by ourselves or people known to us, rather than mass-produced for our consumption. In this way, her argument is Orwellian—progressive, independent, free-thinking—in a positive sense.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Irene

    A beautiful collection of essays about the inherent political a socioeconomic relationship different people have with nature through the lens of George Orwell's life. The rose is used as the central theme of finding and deserving beauty in a capitalist/totalitarian society regardless of class. Specially impactful the trip to the rose farm with dystopian slogans and attitudes. I learned a lot about Orwell and, as always, I enjoyed Solnit's writing immensely. A beautiful collection of essays about the inherent political a socioeconomic relationship different people have with nature through the lens of George Orwell's life. The rose is used as the central theme of finding and deserving beauty in a capitalist/totalitarian society regardless of class. Specially impactful the trip to the rose farm with dystopian slogans and attitudes. I learned a lot about Orwell and, as always, I enjoyed Solnit's writing immensely.

  12. 5 out of 5

    heather

    3.5 Fascinating, but it read more like a jumping off point for analysis than a landing zone. ...No shame in that, it got my researcher brain excited to do more digging, but still something about it, in both tone and content, read as cursory and incomplete.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Mary

    As much about Orwell and ecology as it is about Stalinism and the failure of the October Revolution. A really creative and multifaceted examination of Orwell's life, writing and politics through the lenses of his relationship to ecology, specifically gardening and natural cultivation. Definitely sending me on an Orwell binge. As much about Orwell and ecology as it is about Stalinism and the failure of the October Revolution. A really creative and multifaceted examination of Orwell's life, writing and politics through the lenses of his relationship to ecology, specifically gardening and natural cultivation. Definitely sending me on an Orwell binge.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Julie Stielstra

    I'm fascinated by George Orwell. I've read a number of Rebecca Solnit's essays with pleasure. So I was attracted to this book exploring Orwell's passion for gardening, for roses, for nature. Solnit wryly notes that this is not a facet of the austere, serious, "Gothic" Orwell we often hear about - she notes drily that one biography (which I happen to have read - and reviewed here - recently) is titled: George Orwell: Wintry Conscience of a Generation. She and a tree-loving friend discover that O I'm fascinated by George Orwell. I've read a number of Rebecca Solnit's essays with pleasure. So I was attracted to this book exploring Orwell's passion for gardening, for roses, for nature. Solnit wryly notes that this is not a facet of the austere, serious, "Gothic" Orwell we often hear about - she notes drily that one biography (which I happen to have read - and reviewed here - recently) is titled: George Orwell: Wintry Conscience of a Generation. She and a tree-loving friend discover that Orwell planted fruit trees in his garden, and track down the location. The current owners are hospitable and welcoming, but inform them that the fruit trees were cut down years ago. But the rosebushes he planted are still blooming, would they like to see them? "Hell, yes," Solnit reportedly replies. And so she embarks on this project, to examine what Orwell's roses meant to him, what they might mean to us, how we might see them as an essential aspect of life that transcends the political, the pragmatic, the utilitarian... and the fascist and the totalitarian. Which is all well and good. When she sticks to Orwell. Unfortunately, there are multiple digressions, such as the evolution and biology of roses (and flowers in general), or the life and art of photographer and revolutionary Tina Modotti (who took a famous photograph of roses). The chapters "Empire of Lies" and "Forcing Lemons" are very good pieces on how Stalin's politics made its own use of botanical genetics and agriculture, leading to the deaths of millions by famine or murder of scientists who objected. Then we are on to a portrait of Orwell's great-great-grandfather and the history of enclosures and landscape gardening in Europe, thence to the English nobility's reliance on slavery and the sugar trade to prop up its gardens. When I hit the chapter on Ralph Lauren's chintz roses fashion design, I got restless and began to skim. A chapter on a New Yorker writer from Antigua who gardened in Vermont. Coal mining. Commercial rose cultivation in Colombia. I kept waiting for Orwell to return. And finally decided not to wait any more, though I know I must have just missed him here and there. The intentions are so good. Solnit says elsewhere in interviews that she wanted to explore Orwell's gardening as a way of looking for how someone like him - a deeply committed political animal - could fill in the gaps, to live outside or beyond those parameters; how to respond when a critic snipes: "Oh, flowers are bourgeois." What *value* does art, music, literature - and roses - have; why do we want *both* bread and roses? Some chapters are simply tied in with too slender a thread. I greatly enjoyed finding out about Orwell's passion and what it meant to him; her analyses of totalitarianism are trenchant and apt. There are finely-expressed ideas demanding attention throughout, such as: "Orwell wrote in 1944, 'The really frightening thing about totalitarianism is not that it commits "atrocities," but that it attacks the concept of objective truth."... The attack on truth and language makes atrocities possible. If you can erase what has happened, silence the witnesses, convince people of the merit of supporting a lie [italics mine], if you can terrorize people into silence, obedience, lies; if you can make the task of determining what is true so impossible or dangerous that they stop trying, you can perpetuate your crimes." But I simply got tired of wading through the thorny foliage and the cloying scent of roses.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Jen K

    Solnit writes about George Orwell but also so much more. Instead of a biography, she used Orwell's life, politics, writing and especially his garden as a touching off point to delve into so many other issues but historical and contemporary. She delves into the coal trade then and now and the effects on both the hardship of those working in the mines and the effect on global warming and climate change. She discusses the roses that Orwell planted and she tracked down but also the tie into the gene Solnit writes about George Orwell but also so much more. Instead of a biography, she used Orwell's life, politics, writing and especially his garden as a touching off point to delve into so many other issues but historical and contemporary. She delves into the coal trade then and now and the effects on both the hardship of those working in the mines and the effect on global warming and climate change. She discusses the roses that Orwell planted and she tracked down but also the tie into the genetic study and modification of roses which leads to eugenics but also to the state of flower farms and especially those working in flower farms in Columbia. Plus so much more with a bent towards the environment, politics and social justice. I thoroughly enjoyed her study and well written essays as she created a trail of connections to Orwell's garden.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Pascale

    A clever, elegant and thought-provoking book but maybe too much of a tour de force. Solnit's starting point is Orwell's supposedly overlooked love of nature and gardening, and she returns to her main theme in an almost musical fashion. There is a structure to the book and many valid insights into Orwell. Solnit does a great job presenting facts but sometimes let me down when venturing into philosophy. I couldn't help but feeling in turn exhilarated and annoyed by the necessarily subjective and a A clever, elegant and thought-provoking book but maybe too much of a tour de force. Solnit's starting point is Orwell's supposedly overlooked love of nature and gardening, and she returns to her main theme in an almost musical fashion. There is a structure to the book and many valid insights into Orwell. Solnit does a great job presenting facts but sometimes let me down when venturing into philosophy. I couldn't help but feeling in turn exhilarated and annoyed by the necessarily subjective and arbitrary choice of topics she decided to weave into her narrative. Personally I didn't learn much from her about the evils of the Soviet Régime, but I guess there are plenty of readers out there who don't know the truth or refuse to acknowledge it. On the other hand I was unaware of the scale of the rose-growing industry in Columbia and the very mixed blessing it is for the local population.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Mandy

    It appears that George Orwell wasn’t just the incisive and perceptive political and social critic and novelist that we think we know, one of the most important writers and thinkers of the 20th century, but also a keen gardener, a lover of flowers and plants and vegetables, about which he was just as concerned as he was about the oppressed. Rebecca Solnit explores this aspect of Orwell with insight and nuance, opening up a whole new side of his character, thus informing our approach to him both a It appears that George Orwell wasn’t just the incisive and perceptive political and social critic and novelist that we think we know, one of the most important writers and thinkers of the 20th century, but also a keen gardener, a lover of flowers and plants and vegetables, about which he was just as concerned as he was about the oppressed. Rebecca Solnit explores this aspect of Orwell with insight and nuance, opening up a whole new side of his character, thus informing our approach to him both as man and writer. But the book isn’t solely about Orwell. Solnit ranges far and wide. The book is also very much a personal odyssey, with many a side trip to Stalin’s purges, Mexico’s revolutions, the writing of Jamaica Kincaid and many more interesting byways. The result is an always surprising, original, engaging and thoroughly fascinating book full of new ideas, insights, digressions, trivia and leaps of imagination which I found compelling throughout.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Lisa

    I like Solnit’s other writing, so I thought I might enjoy this even though I don’t really know anything about Orwell (or roses). I think I found maybe 5% of this book interesting (on totalitarianism) and 95% more boring than I thought possible.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Anthony Lesurf

    This is another of those special non-fiction books by Rebecca Solnit - in the tradition of Bruce Chatwin, Sven Lindqvist, and Robert MacFarlane - that takes an interesting central theme, in this case, the author’s journey to discover the rose garden planted by Eric Blair (George Orwell) at his Wallington cottage in the late 1930s, which is then wrapped in a network of informative, related stories - or forays as Solnit refers to them: forays which like much of Orwell’s work includes the environme This is another of those special non-fiction books by Rebecca Solnit - in the tradition of Bruce Chatwin, Sven Lindqvist, and Robert MacFarlane - that takes an interesting central theme, in this case, the author’s journey to discover the rose garden planted by Eric Blair (George Orwell) at his Wallington cottage in the late 1930s, which is then wrapped in a network of informative, related stories - or forays as Solnit refers to them: forays which like much of Orwell’s work includes the environment, evolution, social justice, history, and life. At its heart, the book is about contradictions - who knew Orwell was so interested in gardening? It’s a fascinating study of life and death, joy and pain, truth and lies, beauty and ugliness. All in all, it’s a page-turner that kept me interested and informed from cover to cover.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Patrik Sampler

    I was looking forward to this book because I previously enjoyed Solnit's writing, and I strongly agreed with the premise for this Orwell biography: if we are striving for a better world but somehow neglect love for life (for the sensations of being alive, for lives other than our own), we might end up engaged in things pedantic, miserable, totalitarian. I like the timing of this message, and it might even be a little bit brave. This is just a feeling, but it seems the political 'left' has gone s I was looking forward to this book because I previously enjoyed Solnit's writing, and I strongly agreed with the premise for this Orwell biography: if we are striving for a better world but somehow neglect love for life (for the sensations of being alive, for lives other than our own), we might end up engaged in things pedantic, miserable, totalitarian. I like the timing of this message, and it might even be a little bit brave. This is just a feeling, but it seems the political 'left' has gone silent on Orwell, perhaps because his critical interest in the control of language is a little bit too close to home. (On my to-read list: Cancelling Comedians while the World Burns.) Indeed, Solnit remarks that she can no longer distinguish between what is 'left' and what is 'right.' Nevertheless, Orwell's Roses could have been been more pointed. I kept waiting for the target to appear. Only in the final pages does Solnit hint at the elision: the topics are "too abundant and obvious." Fair enough. And yet, the book includes at least two pointed digressions condemning the current Russian government's treatment of political dissidents. That criticism is a bit rich coming from someone in the Anglosphere.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Katrina

    This is such an interesting read, even for people who might not be Orwell fans. https://piningforthewest.co.uk/2021/1... This is such an interesting read, even for people who might not be Orwell fans. https://piningforthewest.co.uk/2021/1...

  22. 5 out of 5

    Violet

    Such a beautiful collection of essays by the wonderful Rebecca Solnit. It is not a regular biography of Orwell but uses a lot of his life to examine various topics - totalitarianism, exploitation, capitalism, writing, gardening... I found it moving, well-documented, clear - her writing is, as always, precise but warm, analytic but full of empathy... It is enjoyable even to someone like me - a casual reader of Orwell - and it makes subtle connections with current events. It was beautiful and enjo Such a beautiful collection of essays by the wonderful Rebecca Solnit. It is not a regular biography of Orwell but uses a lot of his life to examine various topics - totalitarianism, exploitation, capitalism, writing, gardening... I found it moving, well-documented, clear - her writing is, as always, precise but warm, analytic but full of empathy... It is enjoyable even to someone like me - a casual reader of Orwell - and it makes subtle connections with current events. It was beautiful and enjoyable. Free ARC sent by Netgalley.

  23. 4 out of 5

    LittleSophie

    A wonderfully intellectual but whimsical book, which takes Orwell's work and life as the start point for ruminations on nature, ecology, politics and much more. Solnit's talent for the essay form is well served here, as she meanders through several episodes and topics without ever losing the overall arc of the book. A kind and enlightening book that I still think about. (And that is not all down to the fact that I recently tried growing roses myself...) A wonderfully intellectual but whimsical book, which takes Orwell's work and life as the start point for ruminations on nature, ecology, politics and much more. Solnit's talent for the essay form is well served here, as she meanders through several episodes and topics without ever losing the overall arc of the book. A kind and enlightening book that I still think about. (And that is not all down to the fact that I recently tried growing roses myself...)

  24. 5 out of 5

    T

    I was not especially drawn to learning about the life of George Orwell, them I became so. I reread 1984 a couple of years ago which helped me relate to topics like the attack on truth covered in this book. How GO appreciated beauty in nature and objects in junk shops, how he fought in Spain and tempted the enemy with "buttered toast ", how he loathed boarding school, and so on, were interesting. Reading of Colombian rose production helped explain why one should steer clear of this product. I was I was not especially drawn to learning about the life of George Orwell, them I became so. I reread 1984 a couple of years ago which helped me relate to topics like the attack on truth covered in this book. How GO appreciated beauty in nature and objects in junk shops, how he fought in Spain and tempted the enemy with "buttered toast ", how he loathed boarding school, and so on, were interesting. Reading of Colombian rose production helped explain why one should steer clear of this product. I was reminded that GO was a contemporary of Rivera and photographer Modotti, but that he also concerned himself with families of coal miners. He also suffered with weak lungs during the time coal fires heated homes and most people smoked. He died of TB. While reading this book, news that Orwell's love letters to two women were released by their families. As Solnit tells us, few authors become adjectives. Orwellian (meaning ominous, corrupt, sinister, deceitful, a hypocracy so destructive that it is an assualt on truth and rights.) is not easily forgotten.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Gail

    I love Rebecca Solnit. I was skeptical about this book however because the title seems so … limiting and potentially boring. But a book newsletter I get was enthusiastic so I gave it a whirl. Wow! This book was nothing like what I expected. While allegedly about roses, it was far-ranging in its exploration of Orwell, his world, his life experiences, the politics of then and now, the role of nature and gardens in achieving personal peace. Not only did I learn a great deal about the man and his hi I love Rebecca Solnit. I was skeptical about this book however because the title seems so … limiting and potentially boring. But a book newsletter I get was enthusiastic so I gave it a whirl. Wow! This book was nothing like what I expected. While allegedly about roses, it was far-ranging in its exploration of Orwell, his world, his life experiences, the politics of then and now, the role of nature and gardens in achieving personal peace. Not only did I learn a great deal about the man and his history, but eyes were opened on the contemporary flower industry and the rise of 21st century authoritarianism. I initially checked this out of the library but when it expired before I could finish it, I bought my own copy. I highlighted so many parts of the book that I wanted to be able to go back to them. I started re-reading parts of the book as soon as I finished. This is not an easy book to review, in part because it mixes biography, nature, and philosophy. So get your hands on a copy and just read it. You won’t regret it. Definitely one of the best books of 2021.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Georgia

    I'm tempted to say "not everyone who reads Orwell's Roses will love it", but I dare to suggest that those who don't find the brilliance in this book aren't authentically reading it. Solnit thoughtfully guides the reader through Orwell's life through his writings (novels, articles, essays, poetry and letters) with a keen attention to Orwell's mention of the natural world. Fascinating! She uncovers hope in his words -- leaving me eager to reread 1984 to lay witness to this! The chapter about truth I'm tempted to say "not everyone who reads Orwell's Roses will love it", but I dare to suggest that those who don't find the brilliance in this book aren't authentically reading it. Solnit thoughtfully guides the reader through Orwell's life through his writings (novels, articles, essays, poetry and letters) with a keen attention to Orwell's mention of the natural world. Fascinating! She uncovers hope in his words -- leaving me eager to reread 1984 to lay witness to this! The chapter about truth is burgeoning with contemporary significance, so much food for thought! I don't dispense 5-star ratings unless a book renders me a changed person upon completion. Solnit's astute observations are bouncing around my head like a bb in a boxcar. I'll be ruminating on Orwell's Roses for a long time.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Micah

    I disagree with Rebecca Solnit about many, many things politically, and those disagreements popped up a lot as I was reading this book. Still, this book is undeniably original and brilliant, giving one of the best overviews of George Orwell's life and work I've ever read while also making a compelling and moving case for roses (both the actual flowers themselves and those of "bread and roses"), a compact case against authoritarian socialism, and much more. I disagree with Rebecca Solnit about many, many things politically, and those disagreements popped up a lot as I was reading this book. Still, this book is undeniably original and brilliant, giving one of the best overviews of George Orwell's life and work I've ever read while also making a compelling and moving case for roses (both the actual flowers themselves and those of "bread and roses"), a compact case against authoritarian socialism, and much more.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Deborah

    Rebecca Solnit has a multi layered approach to examining George Orwell, his politics and his personal life. The interconnection between the plants and animals and how we live on Earth, what we value and how we treat creatures is shown to have deep synchronicity with our politics. Solnit shows that the critique of fascism must be accompanied by the tender care of a garden, and she shows us why. #breadandroses

  29. 4 out of 5

    Tracey Carpenter

    A beautiful, restorative reflection that finds the soul and replenishment within Orwell's pivotal analysis of the terror of totalitarian repression and control. Also provides an accessible to the philosophy and impact of the military struggles for global power between left and right in the early twentieth century. Solnit's reflects on the import of connecting with nature and the beauty of the human spirit within the struggle for justice vital to sustain hope in this era of climate, extinction an A beautiful, restorative reflection that finds the soul and replenishment within Orwell's pivotal analysis of the terror of totalitarian repression and control. Also provides an accessible to the philosophy and impact of the military struggles for global power between left and right in the early twentieth century. Solnit's reflects on the import of connecting with nature and the beauty of the human spirit within the struggle for justice vital to sustain hope in this era of climate, extinction and social crisis. Can't recommend highly enough.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Claire

    Rebecca Solnit is a wonderful writer who opens my mind up to new ways of thinking and seeing the world, sometimes in how she writes and sometimes in what she writes about. In this book there is much reflection on George Orwell and not wishing to write a biography although she does explore his life, she uses his love of Roses as a starting point to look at him but also at nature and how roses have been used in art. A lovely gentle absorbing read. With thanks to netgalley and the publisher for an Rebecca Solnit is a wonderful writer who opens my mind up to new ways of thinking and seeing the world, sometimes in how she writes and sometimes in what she writes about. In this book there is much reflection on George Orwell and not wishing to write a biography although she does explore his life, she uses his love of Roses as a starting point to look at him but also at nature and how roses have been used in art. A lovely gentle absorbing read. With thanks to netgalley and the publisher for an ARC in exchange for an honest review.

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