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Nocturne: A Journey in Search of Moonlight Hardcover – March 15, 2011

4.4 out of 5 stars 5 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews


 "[R]ambling . . . charming . . . spellbinding. . . . As we reel through Attlee’s idiosyncratic investigation of his subject—with detours that discuss Mussolini, the Madonna, the Victorian painter Samuel Palmer—he provides a magpie assortment of facts. . . . Modern man, in Attlee’s view, has done his best to ignore moonlight. And man will continue to vanquish it—at least until the power runs out. Attlee makes us question such folly. His journey has no final destination, just many stops along a path that could—and should—unwind for a lifetime. In this way, Nocturne is an inspiration. It makes you want to pull a chair out into the garden and bathe in the moonlight. No questions asked."

(Domionique Brown New York Times Book Review)

"Attlee is a true enthusiast, and is fascinated by, indeed loves, his subject. He writes beautifully and often thrillingly about the moon in all its--her?--aspects, and it will be a dull-minded reader who comes away from this book without a new or at least renewed regard for the extraordinary, silver satellite that is our world's constant companion"
(John Banville Guardian)

"One of the things that strikes you is how much pleasure Attlee, an aesthete, amateur astronomer and connoisseur, takes from simply looking. . . . Attlee has a considerable talent for capturing the thrill of historical moments. . . . But Nocturne becomes more than a series of loosely woven vignettes. Attlee's observations of the night sky take on a cumulative weight, forming a kind of guide for good living on Earth: late night walks, the pleasures of looking, the spectacular and forgotten thrills of natural phenomena, how we might find profound pleasure in the here and now we have overlooked."
(Adam O'Riordan Sunday Telegraph)

"One would be hard-pressed to find a better tour guide than English writer James Attlee. On his global quest for moonlight, he has a gentle sense of humor and an even temper when clouds and rain botch his well-laid plans. Best of all, he is perpetually illuminating about what the moon has meant to humans through the centuries."

(Jan Gardner Boston Globe)

"Attlee is a congenial writer, consistently readable, erudite yet modest. . . . Nocturne is never less than absorbing: moonlight may be tenuous stuff but there's a lot of matter here."
(Financial Times)

"A stellar appreciation for the myriad quantifiable and amorphous attributes that have made the moon a source of magic and wonder through the ages."

(Library Journal)

"Nocturne is an enchanting moonlit sojourn born of wisdom and celestial wonder."

(A. Roger Ekirch, author of At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past)

"Nocturne is a charming book, filled with hundreds and thousands of facts and stories about the moon, not one of which we really need to know but nearly all of which are fascinating. As a result we close the book enriched, with a pocket full of change we can spend wherever we want."

(Dave Hickey, author of The Invisible Dragon: Seven Essays on Beauty)

“This is a winner of a book. A luminous meditation on moon-glow and moon-glade and the sub-lunar landscape seen only by glimmer-struck savants.”

(John R. Stilgoe, author of Outside Lies Magic: Regaining History and Awareness in Everyday Places)

"Nocturne is a compendious, moving and impassioned guide to the heavenly body that its author calls, in a perfect metaphor, the 'Garbo of the skies.'"
(Irish Times)

About the Author

James Attlee is the author of Isolarion: A Different Oxford Journey, also published by the University of Chicago Press. He works in art publishing in London.


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: University Of Chicago Press; 1st Printing edition (March 15, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0226030962
  • ISBN-13: 978-0226030968
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.9 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (5 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,935,011 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Sometimes it seems like the genius of writing a really great book is finding the perfect topic. Nocturne is a prime example of this idea: moonlight is both an unlikely subject and, because so ubiquitous in so many aspects of our culture, the perfect jumping-off point for somebody with Attlee's inquisitive mind, broad interests, impressive knowledge, and writing skills. He uses moonlight as an opportunity to talk about religion, art, Japanese gardens, and even Nazi war criminal Rudolf Hess, as well as an excuse to visit places as unlikely as the Interstellar Light Collector in the Arizona desert and a Tsukimi autumnal moon-viewing festival in Japan. He does all of this in a style that is as smart as it is entertaining. Thanks to Nocturne, I will never look at the moon the same way: my understanding and appreciation of it is light-years richer as a result of reading this luminous gem of a book.
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Format: Hardcover
James Attlee, by profession an art publisher, could be said to be moonstruck, and this book is full of very discursive accounts of his own experiences of the moon. He often rushes out of doors at night to walk or even drive some distances to where he can observe it unpolluted by street lighting against which he rages many times. He is an acute and intense observer, noticing the minutest effects of moonlight where it touches water or material objects.

These accounts are interspersed with examinations (in which he displays an immense amount of knowledge) of the moon in all its cultural manifestations: in everyday life, myth and superstition (Mussolini, it appears, was afraid of moonlight), in astronomy, in lunar exploration and the junk it leaves behind, in literature and art (with a fine long passage about the art of Samuel Palmer), in the attempts by music to capture it. He discusses the role of the lunar months, the effect of the moon on the tides and possibly on the menstrual cycle, its association with the Virgin Mary's Immaculate Conception, the role it plays in Islam (there is a delightful story from one of the hadiths) and in the Romantic imagination, especially in Germany (archetypally in the paintings by Caspar David Friedrich. He discusses several painters of moonlight - but Munch is missing). He dives into optical science, explaining the physical difference between day vision and night vision (moonlight "triggers real physiological changes in our bodies"), and talks about the Lunar Society, so called because its members met on a Monday nearest the full moon each month so that the moon could light their way home. But there is only a passing reference to its association with madness and the word lunatic does not appear at all.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This wonderful little book made me want to go sit out in the lawn chair all night thinking the deep thoughts. The author brings the reader to many times and places and it works. A must for anyone who's ever been interested in history, art, science, and /or the moon and what the ancients (and not so ancients) thought about it. What a nice book.
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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
I found this book deeply satisfying--it has a narrative thread, a discursive structure, and a focus on the moon in a variety of cultural and human circumstances that should appeal to readers of the most varied interests--to anyone, at least, who's ever paused at all to look up at the moon. I read it, by choice, as an evening book, almost as a meditation, and it often composed my mind to sleep peacefully. The only qualm I had was when Attlee referred to Murasaki Shikibu as a "courtesan"; she was a court lady of the Heian period, and though the distinction may seem fine to us, given the marital arrangements and moral expectations of the time, it was clear to her.

Judith Moore
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Format: Hardcover
Something about this volume of moon-themed essays made it seem plodding, by which I mean that it called (in me at least) for a level of engagement and sustained attention that felt far more like work than I was expecting i.e. not quite the thing to read on the beach or summer vacation. To qualify myself a bit though, that might say more about my attention span than the book per se even though I read quite a fair bit, but the seemingly sluggish sense of progression did not help. There's a certain academic staidness to the author's cadence, along with a kind of acuity of attention to minutiae that reminded me of Annie Dillard in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek or Nicholson Baker in The Size of Thoughts. That's not to say that it didn't have merits - the author's breadth of knowledge and references spanning various cultures, realms of knowledge and historical periods had the effect of making one feel that much more informed when one's done reading. The theme though might lead one to expect a bit more levity, a less mulishly introspective and more engaging, lyrically aesthetic or poetic take and approach. I get that the author might have intended to convey a sense of reverence, awe or even devotion but for me at least, his prose seemed to have breached a thin line tilting towards pedantry even though he makes up (somewhat) for this with the range of his nuanced and erudite musings on how different cultures have regarded and appreciated the moon e.g. Japanese cultural tropes and practices, poetry through the ages, paintings of moonlit subjects and landscapes etc. Overall, despite the incipient impatience roused in me at times, the essays provided a larger sense of moon appreciation beyond our individual ken and fancies.
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