It’s a Wonderful Life

No, I’m not talking today about the 1946 film directed by Frank Capra. I’m talking about life. About why life is worth living. Which, by the way, is the theme of the movie. We are going to spend a little bit of time today chatting about philosophy. I know, I know. Philosophy. Boring. Bear with me and see how eminently practical philosophy is.

We all have one, you know. A philosophy, that is. We may not be able to articulate its tenets, but how we live our lives tells others what those tenets are. Even if they can’t enumerate specifics either, they know exactly what drives us and what we value.

What we value and what motivates us is in fact our personal philosophy. And if we can’t utter it with our lips, we certainly do so by our actions.

I’ve been interested in philosophy for nearly 50 years, ever since high school, and the one philosopher I continually come back to is the ancient Roman Stoic, Lucius Annaeus Seneca, known as Seneca the Younger.

Seneca was a fascinating individual in his own right. A man often at odds with his own school of thought. A man who was eminently guilty of not following his own advice.

However, where Seneca, in my opinion, redeemed himself was in his old age. There, in his last years, stripped of power, position, and wealth, Seneca embraced his philosophy and wrote the best advice one person could ever hope to give to another. His Letters to Lucilius are short and pithy and cover a wide range of topics. They are very readable and enjoyable today — almost 2000 years after they were written.

What in particular do I like about Seneca? I’d have to say it is his very practical and realistic approach to life. His advice is reasonable and not freighted with pietistic or moralistic sentiment. It is pre-Christian and fits well with those of us living in a post-Christian age. Ironically enough, early Christian morality and ethics were based on Stoic principles.

As an example, let’s take a look at Seneca’s opinion about wealth. According to our philosopher, there is nothing wrong with having money. Even lots of money. The problem comes, according to Seneca, when we try to cling to our money. The solution, he offers, is to live as if we didn’t have any money. In other words, to live a simple life. By so doing our lives won’t be cluttered with the problems one encounters when one has lots of money.

Seneca himself learned this lesson the hard way. At the highpoint of his career he was one of two tutors to the very young Nero. He had tremendous power and was one of the wealthiest men history has ever known. Bill Gates’ wealth would have been casual spending money to Seneca. When Nero became of age and Seneca realized what the Emperor was truly like, our philosopher gave his money to the young man and retired from public life. Seneca went from being in control of the vast Roman Empire to being a humble patrician farmer.

From Seneca, I learned to value life for its own sake. Not for what I have, because tomorrow everything I have might be taken away from me — as it was for Seneca. The small things and the intangible things give value to life. Things like friendship and contentment. And those are found within a person, not without.

No one has friends who is not first a friend to himself or herself. I cannot love another, unless I first love me. I must, first and foremost, love myself and be friends with myself. Only then, am I capable of truly loving and befriending others.

Contentment does not come from without. It comes from within. If I am satisfied with who I am, then I will be satisfied with what I have. And I will be content.

The human being is a reasoning animal, Seneca wrote. And when reason has been brought to perfection in the soul, we fulfill the good for which nature designed us. We live then according to our nature, as reasonable beings. If we are out of control, if we lack contentment, is we lack love for ourselves, then we are imperfect beings and do not live reasonable lives. We are not living, Seneca would say, according to nature.

The goal of philosophy is to bring us to a state of mind where we live according to that for which we were designed. That is, lives marked by reasonable thoughts and behaviors.

This is a wonderful life if we live according to our nature, according to reason. If we are balanced and content, everything within us and around us will be wonderful.

That is philosophy. And why I find it such a wonderful, non-judgmental guide to life. The good life. The wonderful life.

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Day 4 of the Give In To The Feeling Blog Tour

Give in to the feeling - Blog Tour

Today is Day 4 of the Give in the Feeling Blog Tour and I’m pleased to have with us today, Sarah Zama, who is the author of Give in to the Feeling.

You can check out the entire schedule on Sarah’s website The Old Shelter.

I first met Sarah, I believe, on either Goodreads or 8 Sentence Sunday on Dieselpunks.org. In either case, I’ve gotten to know her and her wonderful world of Roaring Twenties Chicago. So without further ado, let’s talk with Sarah!

CW: Your story is set in 1926 Chicago. Why pick that year and city?

SZ: Blood’s and Michael’s stories were originally thought to happen in the 1930s, during the Great Depression, but as I researched the time period, I increasingly became fascinated with the 1920s. It was a time of great change in the life of people, but also in their hears and minds. And since the story of my trilogy deals with change and coping with it, I finally decided for a shift in the time period.

As for the city, although every place has an interesting story to tell, as I researched the Prohibition I quickly realized Chicago and New York City were the cities that offered the most in terms of setting. So many things where happening and the two cities (the two biggest in the US) were in the forefront in the changing habits of America.

I finally decided for Chicago because I was fascinated with the ‘city of neighbourhoods’.

CW: You note on your blog you try to make your story as historically accurate as possible but it is also fantasy. What is your definition of fantasy?

SZ:  I said ‘fantasy’, but I could have more accurately said ‘speculation’. Fantasy, for me, is anything that isn’t, but could be. Speculative stories go a bit further than mimic stories may go. They go that extra step that subverts reality in some way or another.

All stories exist to expand on our experience, to let us experience things we are unlikely to ever experience in our life. That’s the whole point of every story. Speculative stories come down harder on us. They subvert reality in a way that exposes what is normally hidden or taken for granted, and with the use of symbols lay meanings in front of us in a way that is more challenging.

Not all readers are comfortable with this kind of manipulation, though. Readers may not understand the symbols, or the subversion, and see only the surface, see a story that has no connection with reality.

In the end, it’s all up to the individual sensibility.

CW: How much of your story is history and how much fantasy?

SZ: With regard to my 1920s stories, most of them are history. Setting, historical events, and societies, I tried to present as close to history as possible. But in these stories, the spirit world exists and mixes with the world we know freely.

CW: As writers of alternative history, we are asking “What if such-and-such did or didn’t happen?” And then we try to answer that question. As readers of alternative history, each of us has a threshold beyond which we can no longer suspend disbelief. Are there any elements in your story where you are pushing the boundaries of fantasy in a historical setting?

Well, my stories can’t be considered alternative history. As I said, I tried to be as faithful to history as possible. But as a reader of alternative history there are lines I have a very hard time crossing.

I think that history always makes sense. We might not like what happened, we might not accept what happened, we might condemned what happened, but there is always a reason why certain things happened. I ask alternative history writers to keep in line with this. Their alternative history has to make sense. There has to be a reason why something, at a certain point, didn’t happen the way it did. And the consequences, the way the alternate history evolves, also have to make sense.

The moment I start questioning the alternate history, I’m out of the story.

CW: What is it about speculative fiction and Dieselpunk in particular that attracts you over say romance or mysteries?

SZ: As I said above, I think this is largely a question of personal liking and affinity. I actually love mysteries… though I would never be able to write them. Romances? Not so much. And there isn’t an intellectual reason for that, I don’t think one genre is better than another, inherently. I do think some genres are better than others for me, because some genres resonate with me while others don’t.

The reason why I love speculative stories is that I think their subversive elements can be used in a very powerful way to question reality as we know it, and so it has huge potentialities for philosophical thinking. Fantasy, SF, Horror stories push elements of our reality to such huge extremes that they naturally cause questioning… if the reader isn’t scared away.

I mean, think of a story like Animal Farm. On the surface, you could say there is nothing realistic about it. But that story was actually depicting a very specific historical moment and contains a universal message of freedom and equality that still speaks to us more than half a century later.

I’ve been a fan of fantasy since I can remember. I’ve been into mythology and legends since I was very little. And I’ve always loved history since I studied it at school. When I was very little, I would watched 1930s and 1940s mystery films on TV with my granny. I suppose all of this fell together when I finally met Dieselpunk. It happen by chance, I just stumbled upon the concept, and I was instantly fascinated. Serendipity, I suppose.

CW: Give in to the Feeling deals with the spirit world. What is it about ghosts that interests you?

SZ: I’m not sure I can answer this. I’ve always been fascinated with the fact that the world we see and touch isn’t all there is. That if we can – and are willing – to go that extra step, we can touch and see a different world.

Maybe this is just a way of symbolizing our connection with our deepest self. I don’t know. What I know is that in my stories, when the spirit world and the real world come together, good things normally happen… although not always in an easy way.

CW: Is your book a “classic” ghost story? Or are ghosts just lurking on the fringe?

SZ: Give in to the Feeling isn’t a ghost story at all. There are spirits in it, but no ghost.

Ghost Trilogy is of course a ghost story. There is only one ghost, but it’s a very important character, central to the story. It is also the catalyst of all the changes, especially inside the characters. Dealing with this ghost forces nearly all characters to look inside themselves and deal with what they find there.

CW: Why did you choose the cover you did for your book? As I recall, you had an Art Deco look as a possibility.

SZ: I commissioned a graphic artist to do the cover. We talked about what I was looking for and what she could actually do for me. The result is a compromise between the two.

CW: What makes the main characters in Give it to the Feeling tick?

SZ: I think it’s the aspiration for something more and better. They are all willing to go that extra step, because they know it will bring good things to them. Unfortunately, life doesn’t always cooperate.

CW: Blood is a rather unusual name for a character. How did he get it?

SZ: A lot of people seem to like Blood’s name, it is very popular among those who have read parts of the story.

It is part of his Lakota name, which is Wewacipi, meaning Blood Dance. There is a story of how Blood received his name, but since this is part of Ghost Trilogy, I’d prefer not to reveal it now.

CW: What is your next writing project?

SZ: I’m still working at Ghost Trilogy. It is completely drafted and the first novel is nearly ready to go. I’ve actually already submitted to agents, which is why I know it is not ready yet… Books Two and Three are still at the second draft stage.

I’m also playing with the idea of a series of stories again set in the 1920s but in Europe. The main character is Ombretta Vivaldi, an Italian folklorist. I created her for a challenge and I became fascinated with her, but her story is still an embryo. So much to plan still.

CW: I remember Ombretta from several snippets you shared on 8 Sentence Sunday. She impressed me as a fascinating character. I hope we get to see her soon. 

What does the future hold for you?

SZ: Success for my stories, of course!

CW: And here’s wishing you lots and lots of success!

You may connect with Sarah at the following:

Contact Info and Links

Email: oldshelter@yahoo.com

Blog: www.theoldshelter.com

Website: https://sarahzama.wordpress.com/

Social Media:

Twitter: www.twitter.com/JazzFeathers

Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/jazzfeathers
Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/jazzfeathers/
Google+: https://plus.google.com/+Theoldshelterdieselpunk
Pinterest: https://it.pinterest.com/jazzfeathers/

Biographical Note

A bookseller in Verona (Italy), Sarah Zama has always lived surrounded by books. Always a fantasy reader and writer, she’s recently found her home in the dieselpunk community. Her first book, Give in to the Feeling, comes out in 2016.

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Just the Facts, Ma’am

“Ladies and gentlemen, the story you are about to see is true. The names have been changed to protect the innocent.”

Those of us old enough to remember the original Dragnet TV police procedural show from the ‘50s will remember Sgt Joe Friday’s “All we know are the facts, ma’am.”

Facts, of course, are important to the plot of any good mystery. Factual integrity is also essential to any good story. As a reader, nothing yanks me out of a story faster than the author not knowing his or her facts. And in this day and age of easy research on the internet, there is no excuse on the part of the author for him or her to be guilty of gross factual errors.

Recently, a friend was telling me of a book she read that had 13 5-star reviews on Amazon. Aside from the fact the author broke most of the rules of good writing, the author (who shall remain nameless, as also the title of the book, to protect, in this case, the guilty) failed to do adequate research.

Now one would think 13 5-star reviews would indicate the book was going to be a fabulous read. Unfortunately, not so. Which goes to show how flawed the review system is on Amazon (and probably other vendors, as well). In spite of Amazon’s efforts, writers can still scam the system. Unless, of course, those 13 reviewers have such a low quality threshold they wouldn’t know what a well-written story was even if it jumped up and kissed them.

So what did the writer do, aside from the mediocre writing, that got my friend up in arms? Lousy research on Tylenol poisoning and hospital procedures regarding a person who’s attempted suicide. My friend, by the way, happens to be a therapist and knows something of procedures regarding attempted suicide.

A mere half-hour research, the old 5-click Google, gave me more information than I could possibly use, including case studies, on severe Tylenol poisoning. The result? Given the amount of Tylenol our ignominious author had the main character take, that character most likely would have died in a few days and not left the hospital the next day, all fine and dandy, as the author wrote.

But that’s where the second error comes in. A person suspected of attempted suicide, once in the hospital, would not be released the next day, but would be put on a 72-hour hold for observation and talks with mental health staff to prevent a repeat attempt. The main character in the book would not have been released the next day, even if okay, because the hospital wouldn’t want to be sued should the person make another attempt and succeed.

As a reader, such egregious errors on the part of an author make me stop reading and toss the book in the trash can. And I would not read another book by the author. There are, after all, a plethora of good books available to read and time is short.

In this day and age, conducting research has never been easier. The internet provides everyone with a surfeit of information on a wide variety of topics. Back in the late ‘80s when I wrote the initial version of Festival of Death, the first book in my Justinia Wright mystery series, any research I needed to do I had to go to my local library. If they didn’t have what I needed, the material had to be gotten through interlibrary loan. A very time consuming process and some of the information, such as that on the caves under Minneapolis, wasn’t even available.

When I rewrote the book two years ago, I never left the house. More information than I could possibly use on the Aztecs was found on the internet. Pictures, dozens of them, of the caves under Minneapolis and St Paul have been posted on the internet. The cave scenes, which previously had to largely be imagined, I was able to base on reality and thus minimize the use of creative license.

There is no reason for a writer not to get the facts straight. No reason other than laziness, that is.

My impression is today’s writer, this is especially true of indie writers, is in such a hurry to get his or her book published, and thereby get rich quick, he or she isn’t taking the time to edit, proof, and properly research the book. Such a practice is inexcusable. We readers deserve better treatment.

For myself, as a reader, because I’ve been burned once too often by shoddy editing and proofing and even worse by the often poor writing, I no longer buy indie books sight unseen. I at least read the “look inside” sample on Amazon or download a free sample. If the book passes muster on the sample read, then I will plunk down my hard earned cash. (As an aside, I no longer buy new traditionally published books because the cost is prohibitive. I only buy them used. And they too have too many errors for the cost. Gone are the days of the line editor, it seems.)

As a reader, I plead with writers to be quality conscience. Know how to tell a good story. If you need help, get it. If you can’t afford an editor, find a few good friends or relatives who know English grammar to read through your text. Read aloud a sample of one of your favorite authors and then read your text aloud. Does your text flow as smoothly as your favorite author’s does? Reading aloud is the quickest way to find clunky sentences and those which make no sense.

Writers, be proud of your work. Take the time to write well and accurately. Impress your readers and you’ll have a loyal following for life and maybe, just maybe, for the lives of your children and grandchildren. A legacy that lives long after you do.

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Book Review: A Bump In The Night

Fantasy is a genre I no longer find very interesting. To be honest, I don’t like magic and I’m very much tired of trolls, elves, dwarves, and the whole passel of Tolkienesque rip-offs. Having written that, I recently ran across two works of fantasy I very much enjoyed. They are by Crispian Thurlborn: The Chalice and A Bump in the Night.

Today, I’m going to review A Bump in the Night. It is a ghost story, but unlike any I’ve read. I bought the book on Amazon, where the Kindle version may be purchased for $2.99. This review is unsolicited. As I explained in last week’s post “Reading”, I’m intending to post at least one review a month. My purpose is to share books I’ve read that I think need a wider audience or that I consider to be memorable reads.

A Bump In The Night

Ghosts. Who doesn’t love a good ghost story? I know I do. With Mr Snaggle and Mr Snuffle, we have two ghosts on a mission to save their friend, Mr Bump from fading to oblivion. I shan’t say more about the storyline, as I don’t wish to give too much away. Suffice it to say, Crispian Thurlborn has given us a delightfully satisfying and whimsical tale where Mr Bump ends up getting help from a most unlikely source. And one which ends up helping us as well.

All of the characters are well-drawn and even though Mr Snaggle and Mr Snuffle are very often mischievous imps, they are a pair one is hard pressed not to love. Mr Bump is in many ways an example of modern, urban human beings. We, who in this age of luxury and plenty, find ourselves to have lost our sense of meaning and purpose. Mr Bump’s journey is our journey. A quest to find ourselves.

Mr Thurlborn’s writing style is superbly magical. The text flows effortlessly and carries you along, as a river a boat. Here we find an eloquence not often seen today.

This book’s entertainment value is top drawer. The tale is delightful and wonderful. Superbly rich. It is frozen custard in book form. Mr Thurlborn gives us a story with humor, sadness, philosophy, and a satisfying ending. I don’t often re-read books. This one, however, is a candidate for re-reading. Very highly recommended!!

Crispian Thurlborn is a phenomenal writer. I hope he gives us more treasure. Much, much more.

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Reading

Reading is a joy. I prefer it to watching movies or television. I can’t say I’ve ever been a voracious reader. Mostly because I’m slow. But I generally have at least one book I’m in the process of reading at any given moment.

Recently, I counted the number of books I read last year. The count might be incomplete because I don’t record the books I read and one or two of them might have slipped my mind. Nevertheless, as I recall, I read 25 books. Two of them were non-fiction. Three novels I started and didn’t finish. I also read at least half a dozen short stories.

Thirteen of the novels were by indie authors. The remaining 10 were by two traditionally published mystery writers. The quality of writing across the board was in the main good. The books I quit reading I did so due to my losing interest in the main character or the writing was not up to par.

I was surprised to discover I read more mysteries than anything else, 12 books. Followed by 6 science fiction novels (2 were steampunk). The remaining books comprised 3 works of fantasy, 1 horror, and 1 humor.

To satisfy any curiosity, the authors of the works I read are J Evan Stuart, George Wier, Marcia Muller, A A Fish (aka Erle Stanley Gardner), Crispian Thurlborn, Ben Willoughby, Felix R Savage, Chad Muller, Tim McBain & LT Vargus, Karen J Carlisle, Alice E Keyes, and Erik Ga Bean. The non-fiction was by James Scott Bell.

Reading, I find, exercises the imagination. Video, I think, tends to stultify it. The key word is “tends”. Video doesn’t have to chain our imaginations, it’s just that it too often does. Money is poured into special effects and little thought is given to the script.

The movie Twelve Angry Men is a study in what can be achieved with a good script and no special effects. The movie delves into the character’s psychology, it’s thought provoking, and a doggone good story.

When I read A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs, my imagination soared. When I recently saw the movie John Carter, while I enjoyed it, something of the tragedy in the book was lost. The special effects were great. However, the story suffered. And while the movie’s special effects made for some exciting eye candy, the book was better because my imagination made the story mine.

For the rest of the year, I intend to review at least one book a month so I can share with you some of the good reads I found last year and perhaps this year too.

Feel free to share some of the good books you read last year.

Until nest time, happy reading!

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