Sunday, August 24, 2008

Eye Candy

Alive in Necropolis

Alive in Necropolis, by Doug Dorst
$17.13 in the Hansisgreat Gift Shop
ISBN: 9781594489877
This first novel by a new author is an interesting mix of crime, drama, and supernatural suspense. It involves a young police officer and a teenage assault victim in Colma, California, a town noted for its unusual number of cemeteries.
Mike Mercer is twenty-nine when the story begins. He has a respectable job and a satisfying sex life, and seems to be settling comfortably into the routine of adult life. When he attends the funeral of a fellow police officer killed in the line of duty, and meets his widow, questions begin plaguing him about the nature of his coworker's murder and the town of Colma.
One of his first cases is the rescue of sixteen year-old Jude DiMaio, the son of a prominent film director, whom he finds tied up naked and drugged in one of the town's many cemeteries. When questioned, Jude refuses to say anything about how he got there. His parents shuffle him off to a rehab clinic, but Mercer suspects there's more to the boy's story than a simple case of youthful over-
indulgence.
Mercer's investigation into the two crimes soon brings him into a bizarre world of brutal murder and betrayal: in Colma, and from beyond the grave.
Much of the plot is devoted to the characters' personal lives, which often gives them added depth, but sometimes simply slows the story down. Mercer is dating an older woman named Fiona who has little to contribute besides being a sounding board for her boyfriend's musings. 
A bit more enjoyable is his police force partner, an outspoken cop-stereotype who emits a constant barrage of profanity filled diatribes which are cynical, but genuinely witty.
The supernatural element is blended fairly well into what is otherwise a fine tale of ordinary, earthly crime. The author even includes some crime reports, police documents relevant to the story which go one for several pages.
Overall, Alive in Necropolis is a thrilling diversion. A bit heavy on the personal drama, but otherwise quite imaginative and original. Fans of both crime and ghost stories should find this the perfect hybrid.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Eye Candy

Egypt

Hansisgreat features a regular column on the Nations of the World. Today, we offer a very short history of one the first and greatest nations: Egypt.

Egypt was in the delivery room during the birth of civilization. Regular flooding of the Nile River provides life, while legendary king Menes brings early political unification. They adapted technology from nearby Mesopotamia (the earliest known literate cultures), but its position at the edge of the desert allowed relative safety. Expulsion of the Hyksos, their neighbors to the North, was followed by conquest of Nubia, modern Sudan.

Total Area: 386,660 sq. miles (slightly more than three times the size of New Mexico)
Population: 78,887,007
Language: Arabic
Monetary Unit: Egyptian Pound
Capital: Cairo
President: Mohammed Hosni Mubarak (since 1981)
Prime Minister: Ahmed Nazif (since 2005)

The origins of Egyptian civilization cannot be established with certainty. Menes established the position of Pharaoh, which was part ruler and part god on earth. This arrangement endured for 30 dynasties, until Egypt was conquered by Alexander the Great in 332 BC, after which Egypt would never again be a major world power. After Alexander's death, the area was ruled by his successors, called the Ptolemaic Dyanasty. Cleopatra, the last Ptolemaic ruler, committed suicide in 30 BC and the region became part of the Roman Empire.

The Nile Delta quickly became the breadbasket of the empire, and many emperors rose or fell based on their ability to ensure that grain shipments from Egypt reached their destination in Italy. In 212, Emperor Caracalla extended Roman citizenship to all Egyptians.

Egypt was also an important center of early Christendom, but soon Arabs occupied the country, bringing the religion of Islam which began a new chapter in Egypt's history. Alienated from Europe by religious intolerance and heavy taxation, Egyptians offered little resistance to their Arab conquerors.

Under the Abassid Caliphate (750-868), the nation was plagued by a series of insurrections arising from conflicts between the Sunni and Shiite Muslim sects. Ahmad ibn Tulun was sent to rule the area on behalf of the caliphate, and did so wisely and well. He turned Egypt into an autonomous province. Under his benevolent rule, Egypt prospered and expanded to annex Palestine and Syria.

After the fall of Tulun's dynasty, the country fell into a state of anarchy which made it easy prey for the Fatmids, a Shiite group that expanded from Tunisia to control most of North Africa. The Fatmids coexisted peacefully in Sunni Egypt, and founded al-Azhar, the oldest university in the world.

Tranquility disappeared during the eleventh century, when famine and the Crusades weakened the region. Control passed to the Ayyubid Sultanate, the Mamelukes, Napoleonic France, and Great Britain. The World Wars were a period of great hardship for Egypt, which caused increasing resentment against the British and eventual independence. 
In 1948 Egypt and several other Arab states went to war in an unsuccessful attempt to prevent the establishment of the state of Israel.
The series of Arab-Israeli wars lasted through the 1960s, and were disastrous for Egypt. On Yom Kippur, 1973, Egypt launched and air and artillery assault across the Suez Canal into Sinai. By the end of the month, however, Israeli forces rallied and were able to encirlce Egyptian forces. The UN imposed a cease-fire.

President Anwar Sadat had been elected by opposing political factions as a compromise candidate, on the assumption that he could be manipulated. Quite to the contrary, he shocked the nation by attending the Camp David Accords. As his country's financial situation went from bad to worse, he negotiated peace in an historic conference with US president Jimmy Carter in 1979. The rest of the Arab world denounced Egypt for making a separate peace with Israel, and Sadat was ruthlessly assassinated by religious fanatics in his own army on October 6, 1981.

Through the 1990s Egypt was troubled by bombings and assassinations by Muslim extremist groups, but government crackdowns later in the decade seem to have been effective. The government has remained on friendly terms with Israel and the Us and has gradually improved relations with the rest of the Arab world. During the Persian Gulf War, Egypt sided with the US in exchange for remission of $7 billion of debt.

The Suez Canal, operating since the second millennium BC but closed during the wars with Israel, re-opened in 1975. It has 27,000 ships passing through it per year, 8% of the world's total shipping traffic. Peace, glory, and prosperity seem to be returning to this magnificent nation.

For my previous posts on Nations of the World, click here.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Eye Candy

Colonizing Mars

Earth is in danger. Constantly threatened by impacts with large meteors or blasts of powerful radiation, our planet might one day encounter cosmic forces which could make all of human civilization extinct. We could go the way of the dinosaurs at any time.
For this reason, it would be beneficial to colonize another planet, so that if life here is wiped out, our species will survive. And if a giant meteor does head our way, it would be nice if we had someplace to flee.

Mercury and Venus are far too hot to consider colonizing, and the outer gas giants have no solid surface on which humans could live. Our best bet for a vacation home is our nearest neighbor, Mars. It's about half of Earth's size, has days which last 24.6 hours, and there's considerable evidence that it used to have liquid rivers and seas on its now dry and frozen surface. Probes have detected the presence of methane gas, which could support oxygen-producing bacteria.

Mars and Earth revolve around the Sun at different speeds, which means the distance between the two planets changes. At its closest, it is "only" about 35 million miles from home, which might be traveled in a fast moving spacecraft in three months.

There have been several unmanned explorers on Mars in the past few years, scouting for a good landing site and further evidence that colonizing the planet is possible. Solar powered rovers Spirit and Oppurtunity arrived in June, 2004, and showed conclusively that there was once liquid water on the planet. Phoenix arrived in May of this year, and is searching for evidence of organic material, evidence that life existed there millions of years ago, or that it might support life today.

There are significant barriers to success. The red planet has a very thin atmosphere, which means it's constantly bombarded with powerful UV radiation. Its mean surface temperature is -63oC (-81oF), and the air is 95% carbon dioxide.

To establish permanent habitations, Mars would eventually need to be terraformed. Terraforming is the process of transforming a planet to make it more hospitable to humans. Water frozen in the ice caps could be melted for human use, and energy could be harvested from the still volcanically active interior. Producing greenhouse gases would warm the surface, just like global warming here on Earth, but in a good way.

Nothing like it has ever been attempted before, but NASA and ESA are hoping to launch the first humans within 20 years. Terraforming would take centuries, but the first Martian colonists may arrive within our lifetime.

One theory says we should set up a permanent base on the Moon first. It's weaker gravity would make it easier to launch high speed shuttles for the remaining distance; and although it's been established that the Moon is completely inhospitable to life, it could serve as a way station, as Iceland and Greenland did to Vikings crossing the Atlantic to the New World.
Dissenters say this isn't necessary: Mars is a much better place to establish our first extraterrestrial colony.

NASA is launching its Mars Smart Probe in 2009, looking for a good first location in the Martian Temperate Zone. Thousands have already volunteered for the first manned mission.

For my previous posts on outer space, click here.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Eye Candy

An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England

An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England 
by Brock Clarke
$16.29 in the Hansisgreat Gift Shop
ISBN: 1565125517
A strange comic mystery novel by a new author, this is the story of Sam Pulsifer, whose one-time slip up makes him the fall guy for an absurd crime spree. Intriguing from the first page, you'll laugh out loud while trying to unravel what's really going on in the complicated world of literary arson.
When he was eighteen years old, Sam accidentally burned down notable American poet Emily Dickinson's house, killing two people. He was sentenced to ten years in prison, and our story begins, like 
Les Miserables, when he's released at the age of twenty-eight.
He rebuilds his life, graduating from college as a packaging engineer, eventually marrying and becoming a loving father to two kids in a prosperous suburb called Camelot. His family has no idea about his nefarious past, a secret which soon comes back to haunt him.
He and his parents receive countless fan letters, asking him to burn down other writers' homes. These are people who, for some reason, have a grudge against Mark Twain or Nathanael Hawthorne. One day the son of the two people who died in his fire shows up on his front porch, 
looking for an apology and possibly revenge.
Naturally, things start to fall apart for poor Sam. His wife leaves him, taking the kids. His father lapses into a deep alcoholism and his mother disappears every night for parts unknown. As he tries to make sense of it all, a copycat arsonist starts burning down the homes of other famous American writers, and Sam becomes a natural target. His only path to redemption is discovering who the real arsonist is.
It's funny how a lifetime of misfortune seems to have sprung from one accident at the hands of a teenager. Everyone in Sam's life is losing their marbles, and as he tries to patch things up, they only become further unwound.
The mystery aspect of this book is quite engaging, but overall it's a comedy in the style of A Confederacy of Dunces. After all, who could really have a grudge against Willa Cather or Ernest Hemingway? Set in a quaint New England town, where skeletons are expected to stay in the closet, the story grows more hilariously absurd with each chapter thanks to the endless foibles of human nature. 
An Arsonist's Guide is a terrific new novel by an exciting new writer. Matches and gasoline not included.