Saturday, October 22, 2016

Book Review: "Angels of Detroit" by Christopher Hebert

Angels of Detroit (2016)
Christopher Hebert (1973)

422 pages

News reports on Detroit’s decades-long decline and its citizens on-going struggle to climb up out of the resulting despair tend to include two dramatic facts about the city, stark realities that author Christopher Hebert works into the opening pages of his engaging novel Angels of Detroit:
a city of one hundred forty square miles, a third of it abandoned, the emptiness combined larger than the entire city of San Francisco. Boston. Manhattan. Almost two million inhabitants at the city’s height. Two-thirds of them now departed.” (9)
These facts, aside from highlighting the depth of the city’s fall, also reveal a challenge facing its recovery: Detroit is not simply a city down on its luck, it’s a city that’s been abandoned and left to whither. How can one hope to change the city's direction, and then construct a successful recovery, when so little remains in terms of people and industry to provide the necessary impetus and support?

Precisely this dilemma bedevils many of the characters in Angels of Detroit. Though not wanting to simply give in to the city’s desolate reality, they struggle to find effective ways to change its future for the better. In the face of the decay that surrounds them, each seeks ways, within their limited individual means, to change those surroundings: a young revolutionary doggedly pushes a small group of friends into resistance against what she sees as destructive corporate behavior; an old woman won’t take no for an answer as she co-ops people into helping her create an urban garden on a vacant lot; an executive of a corporate behemoth tries to prevent her company from giving up on Detroit even as she herself no longer recognizes the streets of her youth.

Hebert assembles a colorful mélange of characters in the novel, all of whom --- with the not surprising exception of the corporate executive --- live in neighborhoods where many of the homes are empty and decaying, if still standing at all. These are Detroiters largely invisible in news reports about the city, reports that often seem to describe a wasteland filled with a featureless mass of impoverished, listless unemployed, preyed on by violent, incorrigible criminals. Hebert, by contrast, gives faces to the lives of those just trying to survive in these collapsing parts of the city; he has created compelling characters with conflicting hopes and fears, dreams and delusions.

The novel is constructed around a handful of parallel plot lines, each with its own set of characters, and it can be difficult initially to keep all those characters straight, especially as we shift quickly from one context to the next. Overall the story has a bit of the feel of a handful of vignettes about life in the city that Hebert has interlaced to form a book; and though characters from the various plot lines begin crossing paths already early in the story, those meetings are often tangential, with the contact sometimes only by sight, from a distance. It comes then as no surprise when Hebert opens the Acknowledgements following the story by noting that he “wrote this book over the course of a number of years.” (421)

Hebert does not shy away from disturbing reality in his descriptions of the decay and detritus that fill vast tracts of once --- not so very many decades ago --- comfortable, working and middle class neighborhoods. And he makes clear the damaging impact of such conditions on those who remain, those who somehow find it difficult, however, to give up on the city completely. The beauty of “Angels of Detroit” lies in Hebert’s ability to give his characters complex personalities and motivations, to make us realize that behind the simplified image of Detroit we see from across the city borders in the suburbs or the larger world beyond, live real people, making the best of the city they call home --- hoping, struggling for a better future.

Other reviews / information:

In Detroit: An American Autopsy, reporter Charlie LeDuff provides a personal account of life in modern day Detroit, from the challenged neighborhoods to the challenging politics; my review of his book here.

Have you read this book, others by this author, or even similar ones by other authors? I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts.
Other of my book reviews: FICTION Bookshelf and NON-FICTION Bookshelf

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Book Review: "Seven Brief Lessons on Physics" by Carlo Rovelli

Seven Brief Lessons on Physics (2016)
Carlo Rovelli (1956)

Translated by Simon Carnell and Erica Segre

86 pages

Though its origins lie farther back in time, a dramatic shift in mankind’s understanding of the physical universe occurred during the twentieth century: we passed from fundamental laws of physics that generally aligned with our intuitive, every-day experience, to models of the physical world that we find difficult to square with our intuitive understanding, models that can in the most extreme cases seem to contradict our common sense expectations of how the world works. And this transformation only continues to accelerate in the first decades of the 21st century.

The loss of this connection to our daily experience in the world has made understanding modern physics particularly challenging for those of us not experts in the field. As a consequence, we can be tempted to assume there is little to be gained by trying to learn about the new theories and models that have been developed, even as we enjoy the many benefits of the technological revolutions that have resulted from them. Have we, however, been perhaps a little too rash in deciding to remain ignorant of these ground-breaking developments?

Theoretical physicist and author Carlo Rovelli would answer that question with a resounding ‘yes!’, arguing in his book Seven Brief Lessons on Physics that by not cultivating some familiarity with the recent work in physics we miss out not only on the dramatic ramifications these theories have for our understanding of the universe, but also on the beauty contained within their complexity. To help introduce non-physicists to what we have been missing out on, Rovelli has collected together concise explanations of each of seven key topics in modern physics, from established theories such as Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity and Quantum Mechanics, to some of the latest areas of cutting edge research on the structure of the universe and the nature of human thought.

With one exception, Rovelli uses no equations in his telling --- and the one equation he does include serves to demonstrate the remarkable and elegant simplicity with which Einstein was able to express mathematically his General Theory of Relativity. Otherwise, Rovelli uses straight-forward language and occasional sketches to introduce us to the fundamental concepts at the center of these topics, and to their dramatic implications. Perhaps equally important, his lessons demonstrate the transcendent beauty to be found in these visions of the world beyond our everyday experience.

In one chapter, for example, Rovelli describes a theory that leads to the conclusion that space is not a continuous, empty medium, but rather a dense mesh of incredibly tiny particles, which he refers to as “grains of space.” (39) He examines how this view completely alters our understanding not only of the behavior and evolution of black holes, but also the origins and future of the universe itself.

In another essay he outlines physicists’ evolving understanding of heat, including the critical discovery by Boltzmann of “why … heat pass[es] from hot things to cold and not the other way around: … it is sheer chance. … it is statistically more probable that a quickly moving atom of [a] hot substance collides with a cold one and leaves it a little of its energy, rather than vice versa.” (53, italics in the original). Rovelli goes on to discuss the radical implications of introducing probability to physics, in particular for our intuitive understanding of time as flowing in one direction.

The final essay turns inward, as Rovelli reviews recent developments in our understanding of the complexity of human consciousness, and the challenging implications for the uniquely (among species on Earth) human concept of free will. He points out, however, that: “That which makes us specifically human does not signify our separation from nature; it is part of that self-same nature.” (76) Though we are integrally a part of nature, Rovelli concludes, our singular quality of consciousness does bring with it a terrible reality: we, uniquely as a species, have the ability to recognize and watch our own self-destruction from the “brutal climate and environmental changes that we have triggered.” (78)

Not being a theoretic physicist, I can’t vouch for the accuracy of his descriptions of the physics in these essays, but Rovelli does seem to ably walk the fine line of simplifying his presentations without trivializing them --- a reader leaves the book having gained a better understanding of these theories and the stunning vision of the universe that they describe, while still retaining a respectful awe for the apparent complexity of the work physicists have done to develop them.

In Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, Rovelli has condensed into engaging and poetic prose the remarkable beauty contained in mankind’s current understanding of the universe. This slim volume will whet your appetite to explore these ideas more deeply and intently.

Other reviews / information:

In The Meaning of Human Existence, renowned biologist and Pulitzer prize-winning author Edward O. Wilson also discusses the thorny concept of free will; my review here.  At the end of that review I include text from an interview with theoretical physicist Brian Greene on the radio program On Being with Krista Tippett, in which he describes his take on the idea of free will in a humorous exchange with an audience member who clearly fundamentally disagrees with him.

I have since also read Rovelli's Reality is Not What it Seems (my review here).  In the preface to that book he mentions that although Seven Brief Lessons on Physics appeared in English earlier, it was actually written and published in Italian a couple of years after Reality is Not What it Seems, which he describes as providing a more in-depth treatment of the topics; that book also goes back to review the historical underpinnings of the millennia long path over which the developments have occurred.

Have you read this book, others by this author, or even similar ones by other authors? I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts.
Other of my book reviews: FICTION Bookshelf and NON-FICTION Bookshelf