Go slowly when devouring this charming, intelligent, highly informative history.



A cavalcade of clocks.

Rooney, the former curator of timekeeping at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, takes readers on a dramatic historical tour of horology to show what clocks mean; how, over thousands of years, they became more precise; and how time itself “has been harnessed, politicized and weaponized.” The author delivers a lovely, personal, idiosyncratic “story centered on power, control, money, morality and belief.” Rooney traces the development in timekeeping instruments, from the earliest sundials to an acoustic water clock that may have existed in the city of Verona in the early 500s to a plutonium time-capsule clock buried in Osaka in 1970. Automaton water clocks spread across the medieval Islamic world to remind its citizens of who was in power, and the first mechanical and astronomical clocks flourished throughout Europe after the 13th century. Gradually, Rooney notes, a new idea was born: “that time could be wasted.” The author chronicles his visit to Siena to observe a painting from 1338 that prominently features the “oldest known depiction of an hourglass.” This timepiece, he writes, represented “the cutting edge of horological technology” that would impact the way Western civilization thought about right and wrong, life and death. In the 1610s, Amsterdam’s groundbreaking stock exchange erected “one of the most significant clocks ever made…sounding the birth of modern capitalism.” In 1732, the Indian city of Jaipur constructed the largest sundial ever. The rise of coastal time signals—balls, discs, guns, or flags—“spoke volumes about the shifting sands of global geopolitics.” Rooney also insightfully explores the ramifications of electricity and the creation of standardized time, which had a controversial, even violent, cultural impact: “we have poured our very identities into clocks.” Somberly, the author writes about the “The Clock of Doom,” designed in 1947, which reminds “us what happens when time runs out.” Throughout, Rooney entertains with witty clock trivia and anecdotes alongside illuminating sketches of famous horologists.

Go slowly when devouring this charming, intelligent, highly informative history.

Pub Date: Aug. 17, 2021

ISBN: 978-0-393-86793-0

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: June 19, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2021

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A lucid, astute text that unpacks the myths of Russian history to help explain present-day motivations and actions.


An expert on Russia delivers a crucially relevant study of a country that has been continuously “subjected to the vicissitudes of ruling ideologies.”

Wolfson History Prize winner Figes, one of the world’s leading authorities on Russian history and culture, shows how, over centuries, Russian autocrats have manipulated intertwined layers of mythology and history to suit their political and imperial purposes. Regarding current affairs, the author argues convincingly that to understand Putin’s aggressive behavior toward Ukraine and other neighboring nations, it is essential to grasp how Russia has come to see itself within the global order, especially in Asia and Europe. Figes emphasizes the intensive push and pull between concepts of East and West since the dubious founding of Kievan Rus, “the first Russian state,” circa 980. Russia’s geography meant it had few natural boundaries and was vulnerable to invasion—e.g., by the Mongols—and its mere size often required strong, central military control. It was in Moscow’s interests to increase its territorial boundaries and keep its neighbors weak, a strategy still seen today. Figes explores the growth of the “patrimonial autocracy” and examines how much of the mechanics of the country’s autocracy, bureaucracy, military structure, oligarchy, and corruption were inherited from three centuries of Mongol rule. From Peter the Great to Catherine the Great to Alexander II (the reformer who freed the serfs) and through the Bolsheviks to Stalin: In most cases, everything belonged to the state, and there were few societal institutions to check that power. “This imbalance—between a dominating state and a weak society—has shaped the course of Russian history,” writes the author in a meaningful, definitive statement. Today, Putin repudiates any hint of Westernizing influences (Peter the Great) while elevating the Eastern (Kievan Rus, the Orthodox Church). In that, he is reminiscent of Stalin, who recognized the need for patriotic fervor and national myths and symbols to unite and ensure the oppression of the masses.

A lucid, astute text that unpacks the myths of Russian history to help explain present-day motivations and actions.

Pub Date: Sept. 20, 2022

ISBN: 978-1-2507-9689-9

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Metropolitan/Henry Holt

Review Posted Online: June 8, 2022

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2022

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A lucid (in the sky with diamonds) look at the hows, whys, and occasional demerits of altering one’s mind.

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Building on his lysergically drenched book How to Change Your Mind (2018), Pollan looks at three plant-based drugs and the mental effects they can produce.

The disastrous war on drugs began under Nixon to control two classes of perceived enemies: anti-war protestors and Black citizens. That cynical effort, writes the author, drives home the point that “societies condone the mind-changing drugs that help uphold society’s rule and ban the ones that are seen to undermine it.” One such drug is opium, for which Pollan daringly offers a recipe for home gardeners to make a tea laced with the stuff, producing “a radical and by no means unpleasant sense of passivity.” You can’t overthrow a government when so chilled out, and the real crisis is the manufacture of synthetic opioids, which the author roundly condemns. Pollan delivers a compelling backstory: This section dates to 1997, but he had to leave portions out of the original publication to keep the Drug Enforcement Administration from his door. Caffeine is legal, but it has stronger effects than opium, as the author learned when he tried to quit: “I came to see how integral caffeine is to the daily work of knitting ourselves back together after the fraying of consciousness during sleep.” Still, back in the day, the introduction of caffeine to the marketplace tempered the massive amounts of alcohol people were drinking even though a cup of coffee at noon will keep banging on your brain at midnight. As for the cactus species that “is busy transforming sunlight into mescaline right in my front yard”? Anyone can grow it, it seems, but not everyone will enjoy effects that, in one Pollan experiment, “felt like a kind of madness.” To his credit, the author also wrestles with issues of cultural appropriation, since in some places it’s now easier for a suburbanite to grow San Pedro cacti than for a Native American to use it ceremonially.

A lucid (in the sky with diamonds) look at the hows, whys, and occasional demerits of altering one’s mind.

Pub Date: July 6, 2021

ISBN: 978-0-593-29690-5

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Penguin Press

Review Posted Online: April 14, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2021

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