Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Book Review: Dark Age Ahead (Jane Jacobs)

Jacobs, Jane Dark Age Ahead (2004) This is a gloomy book, yet reading it was not as depressing as the title its contents might suggest. Jacobs’ style is so clear, she can compress so much meaning into a small space, that the sheer pleasure of reading the book may seduce one into overlooking the catastrophic implications of her analysis.
     Note the date of the book. In her analysis of suburbia and the suburban housing bubble, she’s predicted the financial collapse of 2008/9 and its consequences. She’s predicted what became the Ford Nation in Toronto, and Ford’s antics follow precisely the script she wrote for those who believe that the car is the be-all and end-all of personal transport. Awesome.
     Yet if she is right about the cultural amnesia that is afflicting us, a Dark Age will happen. The only question is how dark it will be: Will the rising power of China and other non-Western nations off-set and compensate for the decline of the West? Perhaps. But even so, the West faces at least a couple of generations of political, social, and economic decline. As in past dark ages, there will be small (and short-lived) flares of light in the darkness. Cold comfort, that. ****
     Postscript: Here’s a link to a NYT op-ed piece about how the suburbs created by and catering to cars are dying out, and are already being bulldozed:
http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/26/opinion/the-death-of-the-fringe-suburb.html?nl=todaysheadlines&emc=tha212.
     At first glance, the GTA doesn’t seem to have gotten the message, though: the growth of an exurban ring of dormitory developments consisting of single family homes continues unabated. Why? Because you get about twice as much house per dollar there than in the older suburbs, those that are now part of Toronto, such as the Danforth-Woodbine Avenue area, the ones served by the original subway lines. These homes sell at a premium in part because the corner store thrives in these neighbourhoods, a varied shopping experience is available within a 20 minute walk or less, as are restaurants, libraries, parks and schools, and most of all because the nearest subway stop is no more than 15 minutes away on foot. That’s close enough to qualify for “steps away” in the real estate ads.
     So Jacobs’ point, that people prefer neighbourhoods that provide for most of their needs within walking distance, is already borne out by the GTA real estate market, and proven with a vengeance in those US cities where malls are being bulldozed to make way for medium- to high-density housing. The new suburbs north of Toronto are viable only because people calculate that the lower mortgage costs will pay for the necessary car(s). They’re wrong, of course, because they assume they would own a car if they lived closer to the centre of the city, and that transit will never compete with the car. That’s not likely: as fuel and other costs of ownership rise, funding transit will become a political necessity. ***-1/2

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Book Review: The Daughters of Cain

Dexter, Colin The Daughters of Cain (1994) Morse and Lewis are brought in on Dr Felix McClure’s murder because Det. Insp. Phillotson’s wife is dying. Many twists and turns later, two murderers have been brought to justice of a sort, and we have gained some insight into the darker recesses of the human heart, and into the occasional flashes of charity that illuminate the darkness
    The Daughters of Cain are three women who ensure that a vicious wife abuser, who is also McClure’s murderer, gets his just desserts. His wife, who killed him, will get a few years in prison. Her daughter, who was designed to be the apparent murderer, but with insufficient proof to convict, may be done as accessory. The mistress-mind who planned the diversionary tactics that almost defeat Morse will die of a brain tumor before any trial could take place. Justice has been done, but neither Morse nor the reader can be wholly satisfied, merely sad that so much pain and cruelty had to be inflicted to achieve that end.
    This is one of Dexter’s more subtle books, despite his annoying habit of signalling future events: the “little did he know...” ploy of creating narrative tension has never appealed to me. Dexter also likes sleaze a little too much, I think; or else his readers do, for he serves up a lot of it. Morse’s streaks of cruelty show up more strongly in print than on the screen. I prefer the videos: the characters are more complex, the sleaze is balanced with scenes of ordinary life (such as drinks in pleasant pubs), and Lewis less of devoted dog. **-½