In the Shadow of the Moon: A somewhat disappointing look at solar eclipses

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In the Shadow of the Moon by Anthony AveniIn the Shadow of the Moon by Anthony AveniIn the Shadow of the Moon by Anthony Aveni

I really wanted to like In the Shadow of the Moon (2017), Anthony Aveni’s look at eclipses across time and culture, but while it had its moments, it never really compelled for any length of time and its sometimes abrupt shifts and almost random approach created a sense of distance between reader and subject.

Aveni mostly handles the scientific aspects fine, whether it has to do with the main focus of the book (such as explaining what causes an eclipse and why they repeat in the patterns they do) or with one of his many digressions (a concise explanation of a bee’s communication dance, a brief look at the craze to find the planet Vulcan). Sometimes the numbers get a little overwhelming, mostly in the section dealing with the various eclipse cycles. Here’s an example of where he began to lose me a bit:

Any closely matching whole (or half) multiple of each of the two periods will yield an eclipse cycle; for example, 38 node passages = 35 lunar synodic months, a 1,033.5-day cycle; and 439.5 node passages = 405 lunar synodic months, an 11,060-day cycle. The latter cycle was noted in ancient documents written by Maya astronomers … The saros is easy to recognize because it is a seasonal cycle; in other words the eclipse happen at the same time of the year, backing up only eleven days every eighteen years. Because of the extra one-third of a day, or eight hours, succeeding eclipse in the saros series occurs 120 degrees.

There are several pages of this, though it’s rare, and to be fair, Aveni toward the end of In the Shadow of the Moon does tell the reader, “don’t worry if you don’t understand all the details associated with the saros cycle” (though perhaps that might have come better prior to all those numbers).

There’s a lot of territory covered in the relatively slim work, including: Stonehenge’s creation and discussion of whether or not it served as an astronomical computer, Chinese divination, Babylonian astronomy, the Crucifixion darkness, Munch’s The Scream, eclipse expeditions, various folktale/mythic stories about eclipses, and more. Much of the historical information was interesting even if a good portion was somewhat familiar (probably less so for an audience who doesn’t read much in these areas), but I can’t say the commentary on them was particularly striking or surprising. And while the breadth is something to praise, because he covers so much one runs into the problem of not delving too deeply into any one area. Plus, the shifts from topic to topic at times were a bit jarringly abrupt and while Aveni always made connections clear at some point, there were times the moves felt a bit random. Meanwhile, the prose style, while always clear, is mostly just sufficient in terms of conveying information.

As a general first overview of the topic for those who haven’t read much in the science history or archaeo-astronomy, In the Shadow of the Moon is a solid choice for its range, its accessibility, and for Aveni’s thoughtfully civil approach to historic cultures, but I wouldn’t be telling the truth if I didn’t say I was disappointed both in terms of style and content. Which is why I’d recommend it as a library pick-up versus a purchase.

Published April 25, 2017. In anticipation of solar eclipses visible in 2017 and 2024, an exploration of the scientific and cultural significance of this mesmerizing cosmic display. Since the first humans looked up and saw the sun swallowed by darkness, our species has been captivated by solar eclipses. Astronomer and anthropologist Anthony Aveni explains the history and culture surrounding solar eclipses, from prehistoric Stonehenge to Babylonian creation myths, to a confirmation of Einstein’s theory of general relativity, to a spectacle that left New Yorkers in the moon’s shadow, to future eclipses that will capture human imaginations. In one accessible and engaging read, Aveni explains the science behind the phenomenon, tracks eclipses across the ancient world, and examines the roles of solar eclipses in modern times to reveal the profound effects these cosmic events have had on human history. Colored by his own experiences—Aveni has witnessed eight total solar eclipses in his lifetime—his account of astronomy’s most storied phenomenon will enthrall anyone who has looked up at the sky with wonder.

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BILL CAPOSSERE, who’s been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the “Notable Essays” section of Best American Essays. His children’s work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he’s not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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