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Just resting

Monty Python's Dead Parrot sketchThis article in Lapham’s Quarterly on Roget’s Thesaurus got me thinking (pondering, contemplating, considering, musing, putting through the meat grinder). The thesaurus has a mixed reputation, and is often derided as a hollow crutch for writers who are unable to find their own language.

Its creator, Peter Mark Roget, was a 19th century Englishman and apparently compulsive list-maker who pursued his life’s work with an Enlightenment-inspired religiosity. Lapham writes:

“His efforts to create order out of linguistic chaos harks back to the story of Adam in the Garden of Eden, who was charged with naming all that was around him, thereby creating a perfectly transparent language. It was, according to the theology of St. Augustine, a language that would lose its perfection with the Fall of Man, and then irreparably shatter following construction of the Tower of Babel. By Roget’s time, Enlightenment ideals had taken hold, suggesting that scientific pursuits and rational inquiry could discover antidotes to Babel, if not a return to the perfect language of Adam.”

Roget ordered the unruly language into 1,ooo categories of meaning.  “The synonyms that we find gathered together in a thesaurus are typically … like siblings that share a striking resemblance,” Lapham writes.

I was surprised to learn that Roget’s index was an afterthought. I’ve turned to that index with greater or lesser frequency since I received a thesaurus for my bar mitzvah in 1972. It may be my most-loved and most-used present that I received that day. It sits near my computer, much closer than “up on a high shelf,” where poet Billy Collins describes his as resting in the poem “Thesaurus,” an indication, writes Lapham, that Collins believes the best place for the book is at arm’s length.

Because if Roget sought to tame the language, he is often undone by the wild humans who use the thesaurus.

“To be sure, the potential for abuse is a constant danger, especially for eager students who may go overboard when hunting for impressive words,” according to Lapham.

Lapham was thinking of college students, eager to express their intellectual bona fides. In my case, the thesaurus was like a ticket to the circus midway.

In a short story I wrote in 1973 called “A Clash With Death,” two high school friends, Eric and Jim, must overcome Death in an ordeal to save their lives (I had just learned about “The Seventh Seal“). Jim, as I wrote him, never went anywhere without his thesaurus.

“I’ve come to get you, Eric,” said Death.

“You won’t take me without a fight!”

“That’s right!” said Jim. “OK, well, I’ll be seeing you guys later.

“Wait a minute,” said Eric. “You can’t leave me in my hour of need.”

“I have to. I’m one who in a perilous emergency thinks with his legs.”

“You mean a coward?”

“Gritless would be a better word,” said Jim.

This was the exuberance of discovering the rhythms and colors of language. I was learning the humor of the unexpected and the freedom in an unwieldy accumulation of words. Far from wanting to sound impressive, I reveled in a chaotic  derangement of the senses.

When “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” came to America a couple of years later, I recognized the same exuberant impulse, particularly in the Dead Parrot sketch:

Mr. Praline: VOOM?!? Mate, this bird wouldn’t voom if you put four million volts through it! He’s bleedin’ demised!

Owner: No no. He’s pining.

Mr. Praline:  He’s not pining. He’s passed on. This parrot is no more. He has ceased to be. He’s expired and gone to meet his maker. He’s a stiff. Bereft of life, he rests in peace. If you hadn’t nailed him to the perch he’d be pushing up the daisies. His metabolic processes are now history. He’s off the twig. He’s kicked the bucket, he’s shuffled off his mortal coil, run down the curtain and joined the bleeding choir invisible! THIS IS AN EX-PARROT!

Yes, and Death is The Pale Priest of the Mute People, That Grim Ferryman, The Old Floorer.


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The journalist yells ‘fire’

I used to know Andrew Adler. When I worked at the Atlanta Jewish Times, he was the newspaper’s former managing editor. He’d come to our office periodically to have his start-up Jewish newspaper designed by our art department. It was an odd arrangement, and it didn’t last long, as he positioned his Maccabiah Press as a competitor to the Jewish Times.

Like the name of his publication, Andrew’s journalism was a bit tone-deaf, a touch parochial and essentially superficial.

Along with these fairly harmless sins I now suspect he has one that can be crippling for a serious journalist: an inability to see the big picture.

That could be why Adler, as  publisher of the Atlanta Jewish Times, wrote a column last week in which he suggested that Israel might want to consider assassinating President Obama. The text of his “Publisher’s Letter” is here.

Adler subsequently apologized and explained that he wrote what he wrote “just to see what kind of reaction I would get from readers.”

It turns out the reaction has been “overwhelmingly negative,” Adler told JTA.

If there’s a learning moment in any of this, it might be in the overwhelming revulsion Adler’s column caused. Most people, regardless of their politics in the U.S. or Israeli contexts, still have their heads screwed on the right way.

That’s a cause for hope as American Jews as a group move to the right on the Israel-Palestinian conflict, as their position hardens on what Israel must be willing to do for a negotiated peace, and more often people are willing to demonize those they disagree with.

In the American context, as Chemi Shalev wrote in Ha’aretz, Andrew Adler’s column is part of a larger movement which seeks to delegitimize Obama as president.

Adler’s crazy and criminal suggestions are not the ranting of some loony-tune individual. They were not taken out of thin air. Rather, they are the inevitable result of the inordinate volume of repugnant venom that some of Obama’s political rivals, Jews and non-Jews alike, have been spewing for the last three years.

In such an atmosphere murder may seem to someone as the only possible course to take. That’s what happened in 1996, back when Andrew Adler was launching his Maccabiah Press,  when a Jew assassinated Yitzhak Rabin after a Tel Aviv peace rally.

Yes, this may be a learning moment, and we may become better for it. It may also be a reminder why we don’t shout “fire” just to see the reaction.

Jan 24 —

Following Andrew Adler’s resignation, J.J. Goldberg wrote this fine piece in the Forward. What made Adler “wander so far off the reservation?” Goldberg writes. “The answer is, he didn’t.”

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Top 9 books of 2011

Top 9 Books of 2011Last month, the New York Times came out with its 10 Best Books of 2011. Seth Rogovoy at the Berkshire Daily mentioned that he hadn’t read any of them, and when I checked the list, I saw that I hadn’t either. Yet we’ve all been reading. Something.

So here is my list of the top 9 books I’ve read in 2011 — fiction and non. (I wasn’t able to come up with a 10th that still resonates with me.) Only two were published this year, but that’s what reading for pleasure is like.

Non Fiction

City Boy, by Edmund White (2009), is White’s memoir about life in the rough and randy NYC of the ’60s and ’70s. White amiably fills the pages with beautiful insights into art, the people he knew and the new paradigms of identity and relationships that gay liberation tried to bring into the world.  The first part of Chapter 1 is so wonderful it should be read aloud:

“In the 1970s in New York everyone slept till noon…” it begins.

Life, by Keith Richards. Here is the rare guy who got to do his thing, and overall seems to have enjoyed it. As a book, Richards’ life is a fun ride, although things get thin after 1980. Sure I was thrilled to read how he plays those songs, but do I care how he makes bangers and mash? Still, A natural storyteller as well as musician, he manages to share his pleasure with the reader.  After I read the book I read Greil Marcus’ review, which fleshed out shortcomings that I had only sensed. (“Richards needs a Dominican retreat to get away from his Jamaican retreat.” Cry me a river.)

“Positively 4th Street,” by David Hajdu. (2002) Dylan is a nerdy creep. Joan Baez is a narcissistic channeler for Joe Hill. Her sister Mimi is sweet and ethereal and too young to have been swept into the folk music pantheon. Mimi’s lover-then-husband, writer-turned-musician Richard Fariña, always a half-step behind Dylan, pulls the couple into the folk-rock mainstream. Easily the most engaging of the four main characters in this history of the folk boom, Fariña was the kind of guy who would meet you in a bar for drinks, and you’d walk out hours later having agreed to a grandiose plan to write a joint novel.

“Dylan was offensive in that he would really be rude to people, and Dick wouldn’t really be rude to people. But Dick was like, ‘Look at me — here I am. Dig me!’ Dylan was like, ‘Look all you want. You’ll never see me.’ ”

The First Tycoon,  by T.J. Stiles. (2009) I loved American history when I was growing up, but had an aversion to Captains of Industry like steamship and railroad pioneer Cornelius Vanderbilt. But the story of “The Commodore” was instructive to me in this time of teetering economics. Vanderbilt was among the first to understand the power of the abstract economics of capitalism: corporations, the stock market, competition and monopolies. He constructed his railroad empire as much in the board room and on data as on the ground of running tracks.  His relentlessness over some 80 years makes for a biography that doesn’t flag.

Secret Historian,  by Justin Spring. (2010) The fascinating biography of  the American writer Samuel Steward who began his career as a novelist in the circle of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas and later reinvented himself as tattoo artist Phil Sparrow. As Phil Andros he wrote gay porn. Steward was a lifelong journal keeper, who kept detailed notes of his sexual experiences which he provided to researcher Alfred Kinsey. Born at the beginning of the 20th century and dying at the start of the AIDS epidemic, Steward’s remarkable life is a reminder of how awful things were for gays, of the price paid for being in the closet — or for not being in the closet.

Colonel Roosevelt, by Edmund Morris. (2010) Even in decline, Theodore Roosevelt was more vital, more vivid than most people. This is the last of Morris’s trilogy on the 26th president. It begins with the set piece of Roosevelt’s post-White House African big game hunt in 1910. It follows through endless election seasons, including a failed run for president in 1912, the disastrous Amazon expedition of 1913, and Roosevelt’s energetic lobbying for national preparedness in the run-up to World War I. Between it all, Roosevelt wrote, wrote, wrote. A late-life magazine profile was titled, “The Most Interesting American.” In Morris’s telling, that description is certainly accurate.


History of the Siege of Lisbon, by José Saramago. (1996)  On the potency of words and imagination, and the Christian conquest of Muslim Portugal. A milquetoast proofreader alters a historical text with the addition of a single word and his life changes, as he struggles to re-imagine the history of his city to conform to his emendation, and win the woman he loves.

House of Meetings, by Martin Amis. (2006) The first book by Amis I ever read, and the first of two that I read this year.  An intense, grimly absorbing exploration of Stalinism and the Gulag and a probe of the Russian mentality, reflected in the lives of two brothers.

State of Wonder, by Ann Patchett. This is the only book listed on the Washington Post’s “Best of” list that I’ve read. It’s also the first of Patchett’s books that I’ve read, and I found its story of hide and seek in the Amazon jungle, with its twists and revelations, neither shallow nor deep. The character of overbearing, manipulative Dr. Annick Swenson, though, is a fascinatingly drawn study of  ego and will. Glenn Close could play her in the movie.

That’s my list. Please add your top 9 books of the year, or top 10, or 5…


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From Edward Lear’s Jewish Alphabet


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Murray’s Boswell. An interview.

The Book of Murray by David M. BaderDavid M. Bader writes quiet, spare, funny books. His newest, “The Book of Murray,” was published last week.  Its subject is the until-now lost book of the prophet Murray — part Moses, part Elijah, part Shecky Green. A man who draws a blank when the people put too much pressure on him to prophesy. So he grabs the first topic that he can think of: doom.

God, he warns the people, “hath had it up to here, and the day of reckoning is nigh.”

Bader is the dry wit behind “Haikus for Jews,” “Zen Judaism,” and a couple more. He brings his less-is-more style to the tale of Murray, a man who answers God’s call only to find that He never picks up the phone or even checks His messages.

Murray is a modern man in late-Bronze Age clothing, and his concerns are those that beset contemporary Jews, rendered in pitch perfect King James Bible English, poetic redundancies included:

And it came to pass that one day, when tending a small bush, lo, a sheep appeared before him. And the sheep was ablaze and aflame and also on fire.

That’s how Murray’s ministry begins. And through his prophetic words, we see the problems that have bedeviled Jewish theology ever since the days of ancient Israel:

And though thou wilt be enslaved, persecuted, and downtrodden for centuries, look on the bright side. For though the Lord will destroy you, later he will redeem and bless you.

Here is my conversation with David M. Bader:

David Holzel: The book jacket says you began working on this book after an image of the Prophet Murray appeared to you on a toasted bagel. What happened after that?  How did this book come together, and how long have you spent on it?

David M. Bader: First, I ate the bagel.  I have priorities. Then I spent a lot of time reading the Bible, especially the books of the prophets.  And then I tried to figure out how a book of an ancient prophet could be more modern and entertaining.  Something like the Book of Jeremiah – but funny.

This book shows you as more than conversant with the Bible/Tanakh.  Are you?

I’m no expert, really.  I’ve read it and re-read it, parts of it many times, but I’m not a biblical scholar in any way whatsoever.  For writing humor,
sometimes it’s helpful to be a little clueless.

These days it can be dangerous to treat religious persons and texts with anything less than gravitas.  Do you fear a fatwa for publishing “Murray”?

I didn’t think there would be a fatwa for this particular book.  I was worried about a fatwa for my planned sequel to “Haikus for Jews,” which I was
going to call “Haikus for Islamic Fundamentalists.”  But I decided not to go forward with that when I realized it didn’t rhyme.

With Jews continuing to assimilate and newer ethnic groups taking our place, I’m surprised that it’s still possible to make Jewish jokes. Are you finding it easier or harder than ever?

Interesting question.  For me, Jewish humor is a challenge right now because some of the older subjects are still good targets of satire for Jews of a certain age.  But then there are younger Jews, some secular, some Modern Orthodox, who have a new, very different set of idiosyncrasies. We’re a diverse bunch.  I’ve tried to strike a generational balance in “The Book of Murray.”  Most Jews still share a sense of humor, so I’m hoping people will laugh even at jokes that don’t quite apply to their personal circumstances.

Your earlier work, your haikus especially, was widely circulated electronically. I was amazed and somewhat appalled to receive them in emails year after year. No one appeared to recognize or wonder about the source.  Did you receive those emails?

Yes, I’ve received those e-mails and found chunks of my books posted on web pages without attribution.  It’s both flattering and upsetting.  I once told someone I had written “Haikus for Jews,” and she said, “You didn’t write that, it’s from the Internet.”

Someone else once forwarded me an e-mail containing excerpts from my book “Zen Judaism.”  She said, “This reminds me of your work, but it’s not as funny.”

Some people seem to think that I merely collected my haiku from the Internet, when in fact I started writing them before the Internet even
existed for all practical purposes.

I’m glad that people enjoy my writing, but it’s frustrating that they don’t take two seconds to find the source and mention it when they share passages over the Internet. One Google search usually leads right to the books.

Am I ranting? Ok, I will stop now.

You have enough books out to have an oeuvre. How would you sum up your published works, your style, your themes to date?

An oeuvre? You are too kind.  The books are all pretty short, so it’s really more of an hors d’oeuvre. They are mostly parodies, as whimsical as
I can make them, touching on Jewish themes.  I have also written on topics that are not Jewish.  “One Hundred Great Books in Haiku” has no Jewish references that I can think of.  I didn’t set out to write exclusively on Jewish themes, but they do show up a lot, I suppose.  The Jewish references tend to be more cultural than seriously religious — Jew-ish, perhaps. Possibly it’s a New York thing.

In this book I hear echoes of the younger, funnier Woody Allen, and Allan Sherman. Who has influenced you?

Woody Allen looms large, as do Mel Brooks and other Jewish greats, including Borscht Belt stand-up comics, the Marx Brothers and so on.  But I like lots of non-Jewish humor and satire, everything from James Thurber and Stephen Leacock to British writers – Jerome K. Jerome, P.G. Wodehouse and that sort of thing.  Plus, I’ve watched a lot of bad television.

Will there be a “Murray” movie and, if so, who will star?

That would be fun, but Steven Spielberg and George Clooney aren’t taking my calls.  I do think it’s a fun narrative that could work on the screen or
stage, but I don’t have any plans yet.

What’s next for David M. Bader, writer?

Hmm… I’m thinking about lunch and maybe a nap.  Longer term, I have a couple of book ideas that I’m working on and we’ll see if they end up being funny and publishable.  And maybe I will find another ancient scroll somewhere.


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Write What You… No.

lady-writingFor any of us who has taken the adage “Write what you know” as received wisdom, this contrarian opinion from P.J. O’Rourke should come like a refreshing shpritz of seltzer to the face:

“Creative writing teachers should be purged until every last instructor who has uttered the words ‘Write what you know’ is confined to a labor camp. Please, talented scribblers, write what you don’t. The blind guy with the funny little harp who composed The Iliad , how much combat do you think he saw?”

I’ve kept that quote in a Word file for a long time, and I have no idea where I found it. I’ve hung on to a tearsheet of “First Aid for Young Writers” by Willie Davis for even longer. Published in Writer’s Carousel, from the  Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Maryland, the article expands on O’Rourke.

Here’s the argument for writing what you know, according to Davis: “Writing should sound genuine, and genuiness is a byproduct of knowing your subject matter. Therefore you should write what you know.”

The trouble, he says, is in that conclusion. It’s wrong. “The conclusion should read: know what you are writing about.”

Doing that takes research, which sounds like a drag, but which can be fun, “provided that you’re researching a subject that interests you.” And, Davis adds, “writing what you know ignores the whole purpose of creative writing. Writing is an act of the imagination.”


“It is important to remind young writers that good writing is generally bigger than the writer — that if we only write about ‘what you know,’ our work will never be more compelling than we are.”

P.J. O’Rourke and Willie Davis convinced me.  What do you think?

(BTW, I can’t find “First Aid for Young Writers” or Mr. Davis on the web.)


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10 Ways to rhyme ‘night’ and ‘light’ (courtesy of Prof. Springsteen).

bruce-springsteen-4311)  They’re built like light
and they dance like spirits in the night

— Spirit in the Night

2)  Yeah he was blinded by the light
Cut loose like a deuce, another runner in the night

–Blinded by the Light

3)  The midnight gang’s assembled and picked a rendezvous for the night
They’ll meet ‘neath that giant Exxon sign that brings this fair city light

— Jungleland

4)  Hold on tight, stay up all night, ’cause Rosie I’m comin’ on strong
By the time we meet the morning light I will hold you in my arms

— Rosalita

5)  And sit at the light, as it changes to green
With your faith in your machine, off you scream into the night

— Night

6)   Sandy the aurora is risin’ behind us
The pier lights our carnival life forever
Love me tonight for I may never see you again
Hey Sandy girl

— 4th Of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)

7)   Throw your arms around me in the cold dark night
Hey now mama don’t shut out the light

— Shut Out The Light

8.   Rockaway the days, rockaway the nights
Gimme something to last me, baby, ’til the morning light

— Rockaway the Days

9)   A friend of mine became a father last night
When we spoke in his voice I could hear the light

— Valentine’s Day

10)   Bouncing off a satellite
Crushin’ the last lone American night

–Radio Nowhere


I gathered the lyrics from brucespringsteen.net


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