Sunday, January 25, 2015

Life Photographers What They Saw by John Loengard

John Loengard was a photographer for Life magazine back in the sixties.  In the nineties he sought out every living photogapher that was ever on staff at Life.  This could not have been easy since the magazine was discontinued in 1972.  In his introduction, Loengard states that was able to interview half of the 88 photographers that had worked for Life.  

In his book he asks each photographer why they chose their profession, how they got started, their philosophy on taking photos and their most interesting moments.

While the questions are largely repetitive the stories are completely unique.  Each photographer has their own history, what drove them to photograph historical moments even at the risk of their own lives.  Loengrad includes some of the photographers' most famous photographs, many of which the reader will recognize.

Some of the photographs are interesting because they are of famous people such as Harry Benson's photos of The Beatles pillow fighting on a bed or Loomis Dean's portrait of Noel Coward in a full dress suit calmly smoking a filtered cigarette  in the middle of the Nevada desert.

Others are poignant like the Navy chief petty officer playing the accordion with tears streaming down his face as President Roosevelt's casket passed by. Some are horrific, such as the photos of skeletal prisoners of war.  

Famous moments in time are included:  Bill Eppridge's photograph of Robert Kennedy lying on the ground his final life seconds quickly ebbing and Carl Mydans' of General MacArthur landing on Luzon.

The photographers explain their photos and the story behind their most famous ones. This is a good book for any lover of documentary photography and useful for those interested in becoming an amateur or professional photographer.

If you'd like to see a lot of these photographs in addition to the latest Time/Life photos you can click on the link below:

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Witchcraft by Charles Williams


Charles Williams was one of the Inklings and good friends of Tolkien and C.S. Lewis.  Although his works are less known, perhaps due to his untimely death at forty-five, they have their own attraction.  

Witchcraft is a study of the art of sorcery through the ages.  It does not give a glamorous description or any salaciousness that seem to be hallmarks of contemporary studies on the subject. In his own words:

These pages must stand for what they are -a brief account of the history in Christian times of that perverted way of the soul which we call magic, or (on a lower level) witchcraft, and with the reaction against it.  That they tend to deal more with the lower level than with any nobler dream is inevitable. ...No one will derive any knowledge of initiation from this book; if he wishes to meet 'the tall, black man' or to find the proper method of using the Reversed Pentagram, he must rely on his own heart, which will, no doubt, be one way or other sufficient.  I have not wished to titillate or to thrill; so far as I can manage it, this is history, and...accurate history.

Williams begins with pagan times and records the acts of witchcraft in ancient Greek and Roman times.  He quickly moves on to the middle ages when there was a great conflict with the practitioners of Witchcraft and authority.

Interestingly, it was not the Church-inquisition notwithstanding- that diligently sought out and persecuted those convicted of witchcraft, it was the secular court.  However, it is important to remember that "secular" did not hold the connotations that it does now.  The court still grounded itself in religious principals.

Something else to understand:  The culture of that time produced different motives than they do now.  Today we have serial killers or societal deviants that engage in criminal activity and we say they have a chemical imbalance or some type of psychosis.  They didn't view things that way hundreds of years ago.  Things were seen on a spiritual level.  Not only were serial killers, perverts- what have you, accused of witchcraft, the perpetrators of certain crimes committed them believing themselves to be practicing witchcraft.

The crimes these criminals committed in order to attain supernatural power for themselves and over others were sordid indeed and if you read them you wouldn't protest the punishment that was meted out to the people who engaged in such horrible acts.

But this isn't to say that people weren't falsely accused.  Throughout Europe there seemed to be a hysteria against witchcraft that caused persecution far greater than there could have been witches.  After all, all one had to do was accuse someone, then the accused was tortured until they confessed.  If they did confess they received absolution, thus saving their soul from damnation.  They were still executed, but with the blessings of the Church bestowed upon them.

I thought about this from a Christian perspective.  In Roman times, Christians were compelled to renounce their "pagan, atheistic faith" or be tortured and killed. In this past century in Communist countries being a Christian prevented one from getting an education, owning land or getting a job.  A friend of mine from Hungary shared with me that her grandmother was a member of the Communist party.  On joining she had to agree that no living relative went to church or professed the Christian belief in any way. (Interestingly, on her death bed she told her children to baptize the grand children).

 In modern times, throughout Asia and Africa, Christians are persecuted for their beliefs.  Converting from Islam to Christianity brings the death penalty.  

So here comes the Middle Ages.  Europe is owned by the "Holy Roman" Church.  If I were Satan and I wanted to force people to renounce Christ how would I do it?  How about torture people until they confess to being witches?  Because if you're admitting to being a witch what are you also doing?  Renouncing your faith in Christ.  What does John 16:2 say? fact, the time is coming when anyone who kills you will think they are offering a service to God.

The strangest part I found was the involvement of children and how many accused others, including their own family members of being witches. Why would a child do that?

Williams devotes whole chapters to different countries:  England, Spain, Germany.  There's some bizarre tales of the court of France prior to the French revolution.  Apparently the king's mistress practiced "Black Sabbath's" to maintain her hold over the king as well as killing off any potential threats to her position.

The last chapter is left for America and the Salem witch trials.  It all started with hysterical children.  Why did they do it?  Did they understand what they were doing?  And why did adults give them any credence?  It's easy to believe that a malevolent Spirit simply possessed a whole community-all believing they were serving God.  Satan must have been laughing his head off.

On record the pastors and judges who were involved later recanted and asked pardon for the offenses they committed against innocent people.  Not that that brought anyone back to life but at least they lived to regret their actions.

This book is strange, horrific and utterly fascinating.  If you would like greater insight into the psychic of the mind and how it operated throughout history, this is a good book for it.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

The Blood and The Shroud by Ian Wilson

The mystery of the Shroud of Turin has always been a source of fascination for me.  Is it really the imprint of the crucified Christ?  Is it a medieval hoax?  How did the imprint come to be manifested on this ancient sheet?  How can we tell how old the sheet really is?

Ian Wilson intends to answer these questions in his book The Blood and The Shroud.  Personally, I don't have a dog in this fight because it's not important to me whether the shroud is authentic or not, but I do consider it a significant piece of history, even if it does only date back to the Middle Ages.

According to a scientific team headed by British Museum scientific director, Michael Tate, radiocarbon 14 testing resulted in the shroud being dated to the years of the 13th century.  This also corroborates with a letter by a Bishop of that time who insisted that the shroud was a hoax.  It is also true that the 13th century was the height of relics of all sorts being peddled and revered.

Wilson attempts to debunk this claim in his book as well as other arguments:  that the shroud image is a painting, medieval photograph -perhaps even a self portrait made by Leonardo da Vinci- or simply a blood image made by someone wrapping a dead person, albeit crucified, in the shroud, just not Christ.

Frankly, Wilson writes as though he does have a dog in this fight.  Like many scientists I believe that he became enamored with his project and is not being perfectly objective.  While I found his arguments interesting, he seemed to make quite a few leaps from fact to fact, inserting formulations and speculations that I did not find altogether persuasive.

I will admit that I thought the biggest argument against the shroud's authenticity was the simple act of wrapping a crucified body in a sheet and making the same imprints.  Of all of his explanations, his reason for why this can't have happened seems plausible.  He asserts that the distribution of blood and how it was imprinted onto the sheet could not be contrived to such a degree of accuracy.  This gives me pause to think.

Another persuasive argument comes from another source.  In 1978 a team of American scientists known as STURPA made a 3D image of the shroud as well as conducted a number of tests on the matter that was on the shroud.  Their final conclusion was that they could not trace the photographic image to human origins-even though they are quick to point out that they don't know what caused it.

None of that really matters to me because it is still an excellently written book and Wilson is exhaustive in his background research, tracing the shroud as far back as possible and giving an interesting and informative history of the families and leaders who owned the shroud all the way back to the middle ages, which is as far back as it can be traced. 

Not that Wilson doesn't try to reach farther back in time.  We receive a good historical account of the times between Christ's time and the 13th century and how it was possible for the shroud to survive all those years as well as who might have been holding onto it during that time. It's just by this time, Wilson is purely speculating as even he admits.

The shroud will be on exhibit next year.  It is only allowed out of its vault every so many years.  I wish I could be in Turin to see it.  Not because I know for a fact it is the shroud of Jesus Christ but because it is still an ancient relic of bygone days.  Even the 13th century is a long time ago.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

The Bean Bread Book: A Completely Different Way to Make Bread by Anna Purdum

To say I fly by the seat of my pants in the kitchen is a bit of an understatement.  I've always been pretty good at making something out of whatever is there, but it's hard for me to envision and plan for what I'm making ahead of time.

Our family became gluten free and dairy free nine years ago when my husband was diagnosed with various food intolernaces.  At that point I had to relearn everything I ever "knew" about cooking.  My skill in "making something out of whatever is there" proved useful with our dietary restrictions.  I became very creative because there were so many things that we couldn't eat.  

This book grew out of pressure from friends and family to codify my recipes....From the introduction.

For the very first time I am reviewing something I rarely ever use or read:  a cookbook!  Why, you may ask, am I treading strange waters?  Because this is a unique cookbook that fulfills a demand for an ever growing population that has special dietary needs.  Anna Purdum has compiled a plethora of recipes all of which are gluten and dairy free and devoid of processed sugar.  

The bean bread book, as the subtitle states, is a completely different way to make bread. Her first chapter makes the case for bean bread.  The incentives are that it is quick, easy, inexpensive, nutritious and-most important of all-completely yummy!  I can vouch for this because I have had the muffins.

Her next chapter explains the equipment, such as a blender not a mixer, a microwave not an oven and ingredients needed (cooked beans, not flour) as well as the procedure (add beans slowly).  Chapter 3 explains how to use a conventional oven if you need to,  as well as the sort of beans and sugar substitutes.

Then we get to the heart of the matter.  How to make everything from fluffy white bread, waffles, pancakes to pizza crust.

I found the most interesting recipes in the cake section:  Hummingbird Cake, Lemmon Poppy seed, and my second favorite was Chocolate Fondue and Orange Essence Chocolate.  

She has a chapter listing the different beans one can use like black, great northern, kidney, lima navy and white.

If you need a wider variety of interesting and tasty recipes to include in your gluten free diet, I recommend Ms. Purdum's book as a valuable addition to any cookbook collection.

Go to Ms. Purdum's website to see a short video of her making a bean loaf. 

Anna is also a songwriter.  You can check out her face book page:

You can also join Bean Bread on Facebook. 
Bean Bread on facebook

Saturday, December 27, 2014

December reading: The Oxford book of Ghost Stories, Are Women Human? A Jane Austen Education, Aesop's Fables, Dear Donald, Dear Bennett, Arthur Rackham

It's the end of the year and I have six books to review.   I have to drive to Florida tomorrow and I want these books shelved.  So here's a synopsis of each one.

The first one is a biography of one of my favorite illustrators.  I have a collection of fairy tales, Aesops's Fables and also an edition of Dicken's A Christmas Carol, illustrated by Rackham.  I read in his biography that C.S. Lewis loved him so I splurged and bought this book because of all the large prints of his illustrations.  Rackham illustrated Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland plus numerous fairy tales and other stories of the fantastical.  He often caricatured himself as a goblin or other weird and wonderful character in the illustrations he painted.  This book gives the usual biographical information:  where he was born, grew up, got educated, who he married, what children he had and how his career developed. 

In Dear Donald, Dear Bennett we have the letters of the two men who founded the book publishing company, Random House.  Donald Klopfer joined the Air Force and served overseas.  Bennett Cerf stayed home and ran the business while maintaining a constant correspondence with his partner and friend throughout the war.  The letters take place during WWII and show the profound affection and friendship these two had for each other.  The homesickness and concern for safety is only glimpsed and immediately laughed off but show the real concern and love these men had for each other. Through all the joking, jibing and detailed accounts of how their books were selling we learn a lot of about shrewd business acumen and how professionals were able to maintain a life long friendship while building a publishing empire during dark years.

Aesop's Fables are famous and after rereading them I appreciate why.  These stories are mostly told through animals but the morals are perspicacious.  The brief stories use a couple of formulas.  An animal, often a predator like a wolf or fox, tries to trick a goose, sheep or other potential prey to come into reach so they can devour them.  Of course they don't admit that.  They coach it in terms that indicate they "care" about them and wish to help them.  Depending on the story, the animal doesn't buy it or is deceived.  Each way a moral is told at the end.  Another type of story is one where might makes right whether you like it or not.  This is often illustrated through a lion who demands his unfair share of the spoils, even if another animal has worked for it.  If the weaker animal protests, he's killed.  This isn't moral, just an observation of life.  Another type is an animal acting foolishly by thinking too highly of himself, only to be humbled.  This edition is beautifully illustrated by Arthur Rackham.

This is mostly a delightful book.  William Deresiewicz intertwines his own life story and how his view of life and relationships were altered by reading the novels of Jane Austin.  He left his angry, pretentious "I'm an angst filled college student who only reads Vonnegut, Mailer, and any other dark, modern realist type author" attitude and began to emulate the charm he saw in the characters of Pride and Prejudice, Emma, Sense and Sensibility, Persuasion, Northhanger Abbey and Mansfield Park.  He came to understand that true love isn't a feeling but an act of the will and the fruit of a committed relationship, that what really counts isn't the loud and bombastic but in the little details of the every day, that real friendship can't be qualified by a bank account, glamor, sophistication or living in a cosmopolitan city. He studies each character in the novels and shares his own insight, which I enjoyed reading.  My only complaint is that he doesn't understand the important role sex has as the final and ultimate act of intimacy that defines marriage.  He delegates it to something on the same level as table tennis and insists that if Austen were alive today she probably would too.  So as charming and witty as I found his writing I wonder if he truly got Austen after all.

  This is an old favorite that I've read countless times for the past twenty years.  It's been a cold, rainy December so what better than to curl up with a hot cup of tea or coffee and read?  This anthology spans about a hundred and sixty years.  Some stories are scarier than others but all are flavored with the English culture-whether Victorian, Edwardian, WWII, or more modern.  They offer a nice spooky experience -whether on the English countryside in a haunted house or in the city being stalked by a murdered victim the protagonist thought he had left behind in his past.  Authors included are Sir Walter Scott, J.S. Le Fanu, F. Marion Crawford, Bram Stoker, Henry James, H.G. Wells, W.W. Jacobs, M.R. James, Algernon Blackwood, E.F. Benson, W. Somerset Maugham, John Buchan, Edith Whaton, Walter de la Mare and an especially disturbing psychological one by Charles Willams.  These aren't the only authors but probably the best known if you're a ghost, vampire or horror story connoisseur. 

And finally, a short work by Dorothy Sayers. 
Sayers was the only woman admitted into the Inklings and was great friends with C.S. Lewis.  She is mostly known for her Lord Wimsy Detective Stories and her translation of Dante's Inferno

This was a great book which contains two essays that Sayers gave concerning how women are viewed by both men and women.  The biggest thing I got out of her commentary -which is filled with rapier wit I might add- is that both male chauvinism and militant feminism have got it wrong because they insist on classifying women as a gender rather than as individuals.  I love music, art, math, engineering etc..because I'm a person who does so, not because I'm a woman.  There's interests and abilities I share with women, but there's many things I also share with men. In some ways Sayers is obviously speaking from a bygone time viewpoint.  The modern man wouldn't dare speak outside the politically correct dictates that today's culture imposes on him.  And personally I'm sick of being viewed as disadvantaged or as a victim because I'm a woman.  I find that just as demeaning and limiting as old fashioned chauvinism.  Until our work is seen as good work and not women's work (i.e. women's literature, women's art, a woman doctor, a woman scientist) women haven't really overcome bias.  

 Sayers also pointed out something I had not previously considered.  That men have stolen much of women's work because a lot of what is in the context of professional business was originally organized in the home (think the Proverbs 31 woman).  Business transactions, organizing agriculture, managing households became paying jobs outside the home, leaving women little else but cooking and cleaning.  Those things can be dull, although the raising of children never can be if you put your heart in it.  But I'm with Dorothy Sayers, I celebrate my life-not as a women but as a child fearfully and wonderfully made by God. 

That's it for this year.  I'll see you all in the next.  Have a wonderful holiday and many blessings to you all for the upcoming year!

Monday, December 22, 2014

Inventing the Christmas Tree by Bernd Brunner translated by Benjamin A. Smith

I'm noticing that a growing trend among Christians is to forgo the celebration of Christmas.  I once belonged to a church that gave the holiday barely a nod.  No carols, no advent, a scant Communion service on Christmas Eve.  More than one friend informed me that the holiday has become too secular, too materialistic and its practices are more pagan than Christian.

This was all surprising, even shocking, to me because I grew up in a family that attended a church where the entire church year was celebrated.  Advent started the Sunday after Thanksgiving and was the day we put up the Christmas Tree, Nativity set, and all our other decorations.  Each Sunday we lit the advent candles, read the scripture for that week and sang carols.  We weren't taught to believe in Santa Claus, but we didn't care because presents are presents and coming from our relatives rather than the Jolly Old Elf was just fine with us.

After I left my parents' home I came to realize that not everyone was raised as I was.  This caused me to reevaluate my own customs and traditions.  Why do I celebrate Christmas?  There's no mandate in the Bible for it.  The only occasion that is explicitly called on to be remembered is the Lord's Supper and Christ's death and resurrection.

So why do we celebrate Christmas?  Are most people actually celebrating the Mass of Christ?  Why put a tree in our house and cover it with ornaments?

Because of my questions I have been researching the origins of many church traditions.  During this Christmas season I read a book about the Christmas tree.

Bernd Brunner is a German freelance writer who, according to the dust cover inset, "explores the intersection of cultural history and the history of science."

In Inventing the Christmas Tree, Brunner traces all the threads back to the earliest records of people decorating trees and keeping them in their houses.  The earliest record is 1414 in Estonia where a tree was set up in front of the town hall for a dance.  Another is in 1419 where the Freiburg Fraternity of Baker's Apprentices saw a tree decorated with apples, wafers, gingerbread, and tinsel in the local Hospital of the Holy Spirit.

At first the Church prohibited the cutting of trees for Christmas, but eventually the nobility and bourgeoisie began the practice of putting trees up and decorating them with presents in the form of cookies, nuts and fruit.  Later, the poorer classes also began to put trees in their houses as well.

The Evergreen was chosen because of its perennial greenness.  Greenery was celebrated prior to the Christmas tree or even Christianity.  The ancient Romans also celebrated with greens.  Still the color represented a belief in the eternal.  Eternal life, the immortal soul.  Candles were added as "stars".  This symbolized the Holy Spirit or the light that came into the darkness (John 3:19).

What I didn't know was that for many years Christmas trees were considered Protestant (the Luther tree) and even into the late nineteenth century Catholic aversion to Christmas trees was so strong they called it the "Tannenbaum Religion".  In 1909 two Benedictine monks spoke of the "fraud of the Tannenbaum tradition" in their Lexicon for Preachers and Catechists.  Anti-tree sentiment eventually lessened and I daresay that today there are as many Catholic households that contain Christmas Trees as Protestants in the United States.  It is still uncommon in Catholic countries.  In these countries small Nativity sets predominate.

Tree decorations also changed through out the years.  At first they were adorned with candles and all sorts of edible goodies such as sweets and fruits.  Sugar cookies were shaped to look like knights, birds, hearts, flowers or pretzels.  By the nineteenth century decorations with Christian symbols became common.

Silver thread also adorned the trees, some say this was to represent snow, others say angel hair, still others as a reminder of summer or of the threads that were woven into church vestments in the Middle Ages.

The final section of the book describes different tree stands, the practice of putting presents under the trees and the different sort of trees people choose to best represent their families beliefs and needs.

The book is illustrated with Vintage post cards of the turn of the last century.  All in all a very charming book.

So should we celebrate Christmas?  Are we celebrating the pagan past?  Are we being greedy for presents (I plead guilty on that one), has it become too secular?

I can only answer for myself.  I am an old fashioned traditionalist.  No one has to celebrate Christmas if they don't want to, but as for me and my house we will remember the birth of Christ through our cultural heritage and traditions.  Merry Christmas and God bless you all!


Monday, December 15, 2014

The Seven Good Years and other stories of I.L. Peretz translated and adapted by Esther Hautzig


This book is a collection by one of the master Yiddish writers, I.L. Peretz.  I love folklore and don't have many of the Jewish culture.  This book was adapted for children but they bring to life the culture and the plight of the 19th century European Jew.  

Most of the stories deal with a man and wife with their family dealing with dire poverty in a European village.  Often a supernatural being, an angel, the prophet Elijah, a magic Rabbi or elderly, pious lady who is now dead comes to visit and rewards the family's piety with gold, money or prosperous circumstances.  

Sometimes they are tested as in The Seven Good Years.  A man, Tovye, is very poor but meets Elijah, who gives him seven years of plenty.  Tovye laments to his wife what does it matter to be prosperous for seven years when they will only return to poverty afterwards.  His wife, Sarah, insists that they be grateful for what they have now and not worry about what comes next.  At the end of the seven years, Tovye find that his wife has been a wise and good steward with their money and saved up so they still have good fortune.

The stories show the mettle and inner strength of these families as in Peace at Home.  Chaim is only a porter with no money but he and his wife, Hannah, still adore each other and don't consider their poverty.  When Chaim asks the Rabbi what he must do to enter into paradise, the Rabbi gives him several instructions:  Learn the Torah, read the Talmud, pray ardently- all of which Chaim insists he is unable to do.  The Rabbi says he must then serve water to the scholars.  Chaim is delighted!  This he can do.  The Rabbi says that he will then be able to enter paradise.

But what about Hannah? Chaim wants to know.  The Rabbi informs him that Chaim's wife will be his footstool in heaven.  Chaim returns home, throws his arms around his wife and insists that she will never be his footstool.  God will allow them to be equals in heaven.

I find this story interesting because I ask myself, is Peretz denying the authority of the Rabbi?  Or can Rabbi's teaching be questioned, unlike the Pope's who Official Catholic doctrine asserts is Christ's spokesman on earth? I'm not familiar enough with Jewish custom to know.  It would seem that Peretz certainly feels the injustice of so unfair a proclamation.  Of course, as a Christian (and a woman) I have Galatians 3:28 to fall back on (God is not a respecter of persons, all are one in Him.)

Every story seems to contain a test for the protagonists.  In their harsh circumstances will they fall  into temptation or rise above it and do the right thing?  The supernatural visitors are not known until afterwards, thus invoking the lesson that we do not know who is watching us so don't be good for the praise of others but because it is the right thing to do.

One story I found disturbing was The Poor Boy.  A beggar boy approaches a man at a soup kitchen for a little change in order to pay for a night's shelter.  The man harshly turns the boy away.  He hasn't hardly any money for himself.  Then he is plagued by guilt.  He searches for the boy but can't find him.  The man argues within himself.  He should have helped the boy. No! He shouldn't, the boy will never learn to help himself.  He hasn't any money, he should trust God's provision and give what he has.  He even begins to regard himself as the murderer of the boy because of his neglect.  Back and forth he debates.  Finally he returns to the soup kitchen where he is again approached by this poor child.  He gives the boy a ten cent piece.

The next day the boy asks again and this time he turns the boy away.  He leaves the soup kitchen ashamed of himself.  He remembers his late grandfather's words:  "He who is not pious lives with heartache and dies without consolation."

All of the stories end with some kind of moral.  Since none of the stories sugar coat the hardship the families endure, the message must be to find that inner strength that will see one through to be good and moral no matter what.

This differs somewhat from the Christian message which states "Through Christ I can do all things Who gives me strength (Phillipians 4:13)." These stories seem to indicate that the Lord rewards those who do right, but without an intimate relationship with Him. 

The stories are illustrated with the soft charcoal drawings of Deborah Kogan Ray which give them an added poignancy.  A very nice collection of interesting stories that provide an insight into traditional European Jewish culture.