Friday, October 2, 2009

Dan Brown is Back with The Lost Symbol

By Chip Schrader
Book Review Editor
Dan Brown’s new novel The Lost Symbol is a guaranteed blockbuster with national news reports about Masonic architecture and symbolism in Washington D.C., and the documentaries about “decoding” Da Vinci’s work and Freemasonry in anticipation of its release. Like the protagonist of the series, Professor Langdon, Dan Brown has become the Rock Star of his field, and every struggling author wants desperately to hate the man who made adult fiction interesting again.
The book begins when Langdon is called by an old friend’s assistant to give a lecture in Washington D.C. After a little gentle coercion, he finally concedes and flies out to discuss symbolism to a crowd of restless college students. But upon getting to the Rotunda, a severed hand pointing to the ceiling sends the Professor into a whirlwind treasure hunt for a very elusive and transformative Masonic Portal that could change humanity forever.
On his tail is a man covered from head to toe in tattoos named Mal’akh, a name derived from a cannibalistic demon of ancient lore. This figure was also referenced as “Moloch” in Allen Ginsberg’s epic poem Howl, for those who find the name familiar. As for Mal’akh, the very powerful criminal wants something that very few men have been able to obtain, and Langdon, he knows, is his gateway.
As he chases through the capital after this great mystery, Langdon is reunited with another old friend, Katherine Solomon. A brilliant and beautiful scientist who does noetic research in the bowels of a secure government facility, her findings uncover the possibility that human thought is an actual physical entity, that in large volumes can have an impact on the physical world. A chase that occurs in a scene involving her and Mal’akh will make every reader relive their childhood fear of dark places.
Brown gleans from rudimentary aspects of string theory, psychology, mysticism, ancient symbolism, American and Roman history to tie in the mystery, and to build a logical context for the story. Throughout the novel, Brown makes sure Langdon deciphers the facts and myths of Freemasonry so as to not make the novel just another conspiracy tale about the brotherhood.
While it would be easier to make an interesting novel making the fraternity evil with creepy powers that make them control the world, Brown takes on the challenge of representing the Masonic brotherhood more realistically, and as a result, makes a believable piece of speculative fiction.
The chapters that are brief ensure quick action, and the chapters that are longer grip at the spleen making the reader want to know what happens next. Brown utilizes expert pacing. Admittedly, when first opening the book, the phrase “since the beginning of time” pops up, and it will make some readers cringe. But the occasionally canned phrase is a sin that any master storyteller may not only commit, but in the context of the whole work, make the cranky reviewer dismiss the misstep as only a minor detail.
As a whole, this book is an endlessly entertaining thriller with plenty of action. Many might look for The Da Vinci Code Part Two, but honestly, that is not what we want, and it is not what we get. The Lost Symbol is a fun and engaging novel that will not touch the tabletop until it is finished.
Photo caption: Book cover of The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown. (Courtesy photo)

Trolley Museum welcomes ASL 100 Locomotive

By Larry Favinger
Staff Columnist
The locomotive sat in front of the visitor’s center, much as it might have a hundred years or so ago, awaiting passengers for a trip around the tracks.
The completely restored Atlantic Shore Line Railway electric locomotive No. 100 was unveiled at the Seashore Trolley Museum, the star in a series of new exhibits and projects involving people of all ages. The Seashore Trolley Museum, which is celebrating its 70th anniversary. is the oldest and largest electric railway museum in the world.
This $180,000 project included the restoration of ASL-100, development of a curriculum for local schools, and interpretive exhibits for area museums, societies, and schools.
The restored locomotive will now return to use for public demonstrations and educational purposes at the museum.
An ironic twist to the restoration of ASL-100 is that it once “operated right through this property,” Jim Schantz, chairman of the Board of Directors of the museum told a crowd of more than 200 guests attending the ceremony.
The project took “a little less than three years” to complete, according to Phil Morse, ASL 100 project director, including more than 4,000 volunteer hours. There was, he said, more volunteer hours than staff hours on this particular project.
At one time trolleys ran regularly on the Seacoast from Kittery to Biddeford, including the ASL 100, one of only two to survive in North America.
Local use of those trolleys “changed the social fabric of society,” he said, noting that records show about 5 million people were carried by the trolleys in 1907. “The electric railway system changed people’s lives.”
The companion exhibit at the museum is History in Motion: Public Transportation Connecting Maine Communities, that depicts how trolleys changed the lives of Mainers.
Maine State Sen. Nancy Sullivan praised the work of the museum saying it was “one of the favorite things” she has the pleasure of supporting. “This is a first class act,” she said, because it’s “interested in the past, lives in the present, and plans for the future.”
The third part of the project, done in conjunction with the Maine Department of Education and the Boston Museum of Science, is the development of Engineering is Elementary Program of the National Center for Technological Literacy. The ultimate goal is to develop curricular materials that integrate science and technology learning with social studies and assist teachers in meeting the best national practices in instructional design.
The major source of funding for the project came from the Federal and State Transportation Enhancement Act. More than $100,000 came from the Federal Highway Administration and more than $46,000 through the Maine Department of Transportation.
The remainder of the funds came from interested organizations and individual donors.
Those joining Morse, Schantz and Sen. Sullivan at the ceremony included Patricia Erikson, exhibit curator and education project manager.
Photo caption: The ASL 100 locomotive was unveiled on Sept. 25 at the Seashore Trolley Museum. (Larry Favinger photo)

Enrollment Surge Continues at
York County Community College

The upward enrollment trend continues at York County Community College (YCCC) as over 1,400 students, an increase of 32% from Sept. 2008, fill the classrooms for the Fall 2009 semester. This marks the fourth consecutive year that YCCC has experienced an increase in both full and part-time enrollment. The incoming class of first year, transfer and returning students is the largest ever in the college’s fifteen year history. The largest gains are seen in total new applications, which increased from 749 to 1,021.
“The dramatic admissions growth can be attributed to a variety of circumstances,” said Fred Quistgard, Director of Admissions. “A poor economy influenced a broad spectrum of applicants to choose YCCC. Traditional students who couldn’t afford private 4-year colleges, laid-off workers who need re-training and transfer students burdened with high tuition bills all saw the economic and educational benefits of a YCCC education.”
YCCC, which is the youngest of Maine’s seven community colleges, showed application growth in all majors including Criminal Justice, the newest degree program. “The addition of a new and enthusiastic department chair undoubtedly influenced the application growth in that major,” Quistgard explained. Tracey Cornell, former crime analyst with the Portland Police Department, accepted that position in May 2009.
YCCC President Charles Lyons attributes the bursting enrollment to “families having tough conversations regarding the financial realities of higher education; while at the same time, believing in the quality education we offer at an affordable cost.” The in-state credit hour tuition at YCCC is $84.
In reporting preliminary 2009 enrollment numbers, MCCS President John Fitzsimmons noted that degree seeking enrollment is up by 1,553 students over last fall and nearly 6,300 students since the seven institutions made the transition from technical to community colleges in 2003.The number of students entering directly from high school has also continued to grow, up 87% in seven years and 10% this year alone (to 2,337).
The steady growth in enrollment does put additional strain on the colleges’ resources, however. “At one point this summer, we were nearly ‘sold out’ of seats. Fortunately, it was early enough that Academic Affairs responded and added additional sections, but finding the classroom and lab space was challenging,” advised Corinne Kowpak, Dean of Students. The leadership of the single-building college campus is currently looking into the possibility of erecting a second building to help ease the space crunch.
York County Community College, established in 1994, is one of seven community colleges in the Maine Community College System. The college enrolls over 1,400 students in associate degrees and transfer programs and over 1,600 individuals in non-credit continuing education and professional development areas.