Wednesday, March 29, 2006

The Dictator as Slacker

This is Valentine Strasser.

(Photo swiped from the BBC.)

Born in 1967, he was a junior military officer in Sierra Leone until a group of his friends almost inadvertently overthrew Joseph Saidu Momoh, and installed him as leader in 1992, when he was only 25. (Too young, as it turns out, to constitutionally run for re-election.) He seemed pretty ineffectual as a leader. He was an unremarkable African dictator. Unable to defeat or make peace with the former corporal Foday Sankoh's Revolutionary United Front, Strasser hired South African mercenary firm Executive Outcomes to do the job for him. Executive Outcome quickly incited a counterrevolution, and proceeded to "loot[] and burn[] their way through RUF territory."

Strasser was overthrown in 1996 by Julius Maada Bio in a bloodless coup, and wound up, at the age of 29, going to school in Warwick, England, under the auspices of the UN (which, apparently, gave him a one-year scholarship). He attended more clubs than classes, though, and, at one point, claimed he was assaulted in an alleged racial incident.

He currently lives with his mother in Sierra Leone, where the government had to urge people to stop making fun of him and throwing rocks at him. Last year, resurfaced as head of the People's Redemption Party in a bid to run for President (now that he was old enough to under the constitution). He didn't win.

There's a novel or a short story in here somewhere.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Historical Characters: Michael Scott, The Pope's Merlin

Today's (and don't ask why I was reading that ...) has an article on Michael Scott, a thirteenth-century Scottish magician (and Oxford graduate) who served as court astrologer for Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II (last seen fictionally in Umberto Eco's Baudolino), and as an advisor to Popes Honorius III and Gregory IX. (Not as unusual as it sounds -- Popes at that time frequently subscribed to astrology.)

In addition to various magic acts that were ascribed to him (including changing the course of the river Tweed and foreseeing his own death following an accident with falling masonry), Scott also translated a number of Arbaic books into Latin.

He has since been immortalized in Dante's Inferno, as well as in Sir Walter Scott's (likely no relation) Lay of the Last Minstrel, and, oddly enough, a British children's television series.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Wilderness Justice

Went for a quick hike at Great Falls, Maryland this week, and ran across a plaque commemorating how the park became a park. Usually, these are pretty dry affairs, but it turns out that the story behind this one involved a Supreme Court Justice -- Douglas -- responding to Washington Post editorial by challenging the reporters to hike the old C&O canal path with him. 189 miles of wilderness, handled by a bunch of Washington lawers and reporters. There's a novel in there somewhere, most likely something comic.

Link to some primary source excerpts.
Link to the National Park Service account, which includes a fourteen-stanza poem commemorating the hike. Awful poetry, but gives a good idea of the route traveled and the complaints lodged.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Last Bit of Da Vinci Trial

Oh what a difference a closing argument makes. The lawyers for Holy Blood, Holy Grail are making a pretty sweeping argument for copyright. At least, from the newspaper summary.

"Brown has used 'H.B.H.G.' with the intention of appropriating the work of its authors," Mr. Rayner James said. "He and/or Blythe has intentionally used 'H.B.H.G.' in order to save the time and effort that independent research would have required."
So, in other words, you can't use a book that synthesizes the history you're researching for a novel because it will save you time and effort, and that's bad? That's just a bad argument.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Ancient Nubia

The University of Chicago's Oriental Institute has opened a new exhibition on ancient Nubia. (Not redundant -- there were approximately eight distinct historical epochs for the region, starting with what archaeologists call the A-Group and leading up through a Christianized period that lasted from circa AD 550-1400.)

More on ancient African civilizations:

Freeman Institute's chronology.
University of Pennsylvania's collection.
Oriental Institute's 1992 exhibition brochure.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

What the Hell is Reworking?

Today's Times has an article about the Dan Brown trial in the UK. (Disclosure: I still haven't read The Da Vinci Code all the way through. After two attempts, I just couldn't get past the leaden prose.) Before the trial started, I had assumed that the trial was just proof that Brown had gotten rich and famous enough to draw lawsuits. It happens. But the lede bothers me:
On his third day of testimony in a London court yesterday, Dan Brown acknowledged "reworking" passages from another book for his best-selling novel "The Da Vinci Code," but rejected charges that he stole key ideas for his thriller ...
The word is stripped of all meaningful context, but "reworking," to me, sounds like someone took a nonfiction passage, wrote it down, and then, instead of treating it as research notes, revised it until it fit into their work. "Drew on," "relied on," "read," all stuff I could see an author doing while researching something. But "reworked," that sounds like it's getting dangerously close to plagiarism.

Brown's former publisher apparently defended the book by calling it a "romping piece of good fiction," which sounds more like ad copy than a cogent response. ("You reworked my passages!" "Yes, but now they romp.")

Next entry: something not from the New York Times Books section.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Paging Detective Crosetti ...

I have to admit, I've walked by Manhunt about ten times in the bookstore, and never thought to pick it up. Probably because every time I saw the book, I would think of ill-fated Detective Steve Crosetti from the late, lamented series Homicide. He spent the entire first two seasons bothering his partner with his pet theories about who really killed Lincoln. It was a nice touch for a homicide detective character, and I remember thinking it was a smart parody of many people's obsession with the Kennedy assassination.

This article in today's New York Times makes Swanson sound like a real-life Crosetti. Not that he's a conspiracy theorist. Just that he's got that monomaniacal touch that makes people interesting to read about. His fixation started early:
Mr. Swanson owns all four of the known wanted posters advertising $100,000 rewards for the capture of Booth and his co-conspirators. He bought the first for $2,000 when he was 19, with money he saved working at a Chicago can manufacturing plant throughout high school. "Some people saved their money to buy a car; I wanted the reward poster," Mr. Swanson said.
And there's no question it continued on through his writing.
During the three years that it took him to write the book, Mr. Swanson said he all but imprisoned himself in his house. He listened only to Civil War-era music and read original documents from the time. He purchased a full run of The Chicago Tribune from April through July 1865 as well as originals of The New York Herald, spreading the papers over the length of his 14-foot dining room table to study every detail, for days at a time. ... For breaks from his isolation, Mr. Swanson would clear out his papers and give impromptu parties to reconnect with his high-powered friends in the outside world — and, no doubt, to generate interest in his project.

At this point, I'm tempted to pick up the book. I could still take or leave the subject matter, but I would love to get inside his head and see what kept him so interested in those twelve days.
"When I [Univeristy of Chicago Professor John Hope Franklin] read the book I smiled and said, 'There is James.' "
Yeah, that.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Dime Store History

OK, this is the first post, so we'll make it short and sweet.

Hello, and welcome to Dime Store History. I'm a sucker for good stories, so much so that I took some serious time off from my day job to try and make a go at writing a historical novel. (It's going, great, thanks for asking. Just peachy. Rewriting Chapter 10 isn't giving me fits at all.) Sometimes I'll focus on history, sometimes on fiction, sometimes, when it's really good, on both.

Mostly, this is a research dump for me, so I can keep all of my story ideas and other random stuff for my writing in one place. It's also, hopefully, a way to keep me writing daily, and unfreeze that part of my brain that locks up when I realize I might have to put some of this writing in front of an audience. Write-for-hire stuff? No problem. That I get where it's supposed to go as soon as the deadline arrives. But the stuff that just amuses me? I could sit on it for years.

I have no idea where this will go, but hopefully, it'll be an interesting ride. So come along, and buckle up. And if you see the turn I'm supposed to be taking, sing out.