The Very Engine of Life

He might have been in a deserted village. We picture the world as thick with conquering and elate humanity, but here, with the bugles of the tempest pealing, it was hard to imagine a peopled earth. One viewed the existence of man then as a marvel, and conceded a glamour of wonder to these lice which were caused to cling to a whirling, fire-smote, ice-locked, disease-stricken, space-lost bulb. The conceit of man was explained by this storm to be the very engine of life. One was a coxcomb not to die in it. However, the Swede found a saloon.

In front of it an indomitable red light was burning, and the snowflakes were made blood-color as they flew through the circumscribed territory of the lamp’s shining. The Swede pushed open the door of the saloon and entered.

…from The Blue Hotel, by Stephen Crane

What is excellent?

Alexander to Aristotle, greeting. You have not done well to publish your books of oral doctrine; for what is there now that we excel others in, if those things which we have been particularly instructed in be laid open to all? For my part, I assure you, I had rather excel others in the knowledge of what is excellent, than in the extent of my power and dominion. Farewell.

Alexander the Great, in a letter to his childhood teacher, Aristotle, as reported by Plutarch in his Life of Alexander.

Women and Horses

That’s how we lost Khlebnikov. I was very upset about this because Khlebnikov had been a quiet man, very similar to me in character. He was the only one in the squadron who owned a samovar. On days when there was a break in the fighting, the two of us drank hot tea. We were rattled by the same passions. Both of us looked upon the world as a meadow in May over which women and horses wander.

…”The Story of a Horse,” from Isaac Babel‘s Red Cavalry, which, and I say this with complete honesty, is among the two or three most astonishing, most blinding, most important things I’ve ever read in my life.

The Wonderful Women in Bath

The worst of Bath was the number of its plain women. He did not mean to say that there were no pretty women, but the number of the plain was out of all proportion. He had frequently observed, as he walked, that one handsome face would be followed by thirty, or five-and-thirty frights; and once, as he had stood in a shop in Bond Street, he had counted eighty-seven women go by, one after another, without there being a tolerable face among them. It had been a frosty morning, to be sure, a sharp frost, which hardly one woman in a thousand could stand the test of. But still, there certainly were a dreadful multitude of ugly women in Bath; and as for the men! they were infinitely worse. Such scarecrows as the streets were full of!

…from Persuasion, by Jane Austen, the apparent queen of low blows. Woof. Remind me to never visit Bath.

Looking Back at Hong Kong

Looking Back at Hong Kong Anthology Book Cover

Amidst the reshaping of Hong Kong’s social, cultural, political and ideological landscape, how do we reenvisage a city that exists in our memories? For those who have left their hometown—or the place they once called home—the question, “What does it mean to be a Hongkonger?” marks a constant shift between conflicting realities, identities and perceptions. Beyond the act of remembering, how do we reimagine our relationship with Hong Kong in the present and the future?

Beyond honored to see my work featured in this brilliant anthology from Chinese University of Hong Kong, about a place that I miss, alongside luminaries like Xu Xi and Jennifer Wong who are the English voice of the city (as it is, as it was).

I lived in and on the edge of Hong Kong for fourteen years. It’s a kind of home that would never let me call it such. It made me grumpy. It often caught fire. It gave me an endless well of stories, and to be considered a Hong Kong writer, even in this tiny fleeting way, is a rare and surreal reward.

Looking Back at HK is available now from CUHK, and will be on Amazon via Columbia University Press in Jan. 2020.

With pride I’ll wear it to the grave

“Rose Tattoo,” lead track from the Dropkick Murphys‘ 2012 album, Signed and Sealed in Blood, contains the following lyrics:

This one’s for my family name With pride I’ll wear it to the grave

In 2021, what percentage of Americans would make that statement? How many would choose their family name over their political party? If they had a choice, how many would print something else on their gravestones? How many around the world? Perhaps these questions shouldn’t be presented to the young.

Works of War

The Boeotian and Chalcidian peoples were tamed
by the sons of Athenians in works of war,
Who quelled their arrogance in dark bonds of iron,
And set up these horses as a tithe for Pallas.

…from Herodotus‘s Histories, Book 5, 5.78, describing the inscription on a bronze chariot dedicated at the gateway of the Acropolis in the 5th century BC.

There’s something about a world where men conclude war with works of poetry and sculpture.


Bella ciao ciao ciao

Seppellire lassù in montagna,
o bella ciao, bella ciao, bella ciao ciao ciao,
seppellire lassù in montagna
sotto l’ombra di un bel fior

Paris Review “The Art of Fiction” Complete List

The nearly 250 interviews within the Paris Review “The Art of Fiction” series contain, I suspect, the only education any hopeful writer of fiction ever needs. Perhaps far more. It is a remarkable achievement. There are no MFAs more valuable.

Were one to read each interview, and the authors’ work, it would take lifetimes, and be ridiculous. But to read the work of every author they reference, their inspirations – the Chekhovs, Balzacs, Wolfes, Sophocleses, Maupassants, and one another – an unusually devoted and introverted teenager might complete this effort by the end of high school. Then, they’d walk away terrified, either persuaded to never write again, or to never do anything else.

The numbering conventions are sometimes odd. The interview styles vary. But for the $49 price of a year’s subscription, this series offers a modern library of Alexandria, worth more than a dozen literature degrees, and hopefully this list will make it easier to browse.

Happy reading,


The Paris Review: The Art of Fiction

1. E. M. Forster
2. François Mauriac
3. Graham Greene
4. Irvin Shaw (Part 1 and 2)
5. William Styron
6. Alberto Moravia
7. Joyce Cary
8. Ralph Ellison
9. Georges Simenon
10. James Thurber
11. Nelson Algren
12. William Faulkner
13. Dorothy Parker
14. Isak Dinesen
15. Françoise Sagan
16. Thornton Wilder
17. Truman Capote
18. Robert Penn Warren
19. Frank O’Conner
20. Angus Wilson
21. Ernest Hemingway
22. Henry Green
22. James Jones
23. Lawrence Durrell
24. Aldous Huxley
25. Boris Posternak
26. Ilya Ehrenburg
27. Mary McCarthy
28. Henry Miller
29. Katherine Anne Porter
30. Evelyn Waugh
31. S.J. Perelman
32. Norman Mailer
33. Louis-Ferdinand Céline
34. Jean Cocteau
35. Simone de Beauvoir
36. William S. Burroughs
37. Saul Bellow
38. Blaise Cendrars
39. Jorge Luis Borges
40. Vladimir Nabokov
41. Jack Kerouac
42. Isaac Bashevis Singer
43. John Updike
44. John Dos Passos
45. John Steinbeck
46. Jerzy Kosinski
47. Eudora Welty
48. Anthony Burgess
49. Christopher Isherwood
50. Gore Vidal
51. Joseph Heller
52. Bernard Malamud
53. J. P. Donleavy
59. Kingsly Amis
60. P. G. Wodehouse
61. Stanley Elkin
62. John Cheever
62. Erskine Caldwell
63. P. L. Travers
63. William Goyen
64. Kurt Vonnegut
64. Jean Rhys
65. William Gass
65. Rebecca West
66. Donald Barthelme
66. Marguerite Young
67. Paul Bowles
67. Jessamyn West
68. Carlos Fuentes
68. Anthony Powell
69. James M. Cain
69. Gabriel García Márquez
70. Margaret Drabble
71. Malcolm Cowley
71. Joan Didion
71. William Maxwell
72. Joyce Carol Oates
73. John Gardner
74. Heinrich Böll
75. Guillermo Cabrera Infante
76. Raymond Carver
77. Nadine Gordimer
78. James Baldwin
79. Elie Wiesel
80. Arthur Koestler
81. Milan Kundera
82. Edna O’Brien
83. Julio Cortázar
84. Philip Roth
85. J.G. Ballard
86. John Barth
87. Elizabeth Hardwick
88. Rosamund Lehmann
89. Thomas McGuane
90. Robert Stone
91. Alaine Robbe-Grillet
92. John Hersey
93. John Irving
94. E.L. Doctorow
95. Cynthia Ozick
96. Francine du Plessix Gray
97. Walker Percy
98. Anita Brookner
99. Peter Taylor
100. Hortense Calisher
101. William Gaddis
102. Dorris Lessing
103. Marguerite Yourcenar
104. Jim Harrison
105. Edmund White
106. John Mortimer
107. Robertson Davies
108. William Trevor
109. John Fowles
110. Elizabeth Spencer
111. William Kennedy
112. Josef Škvorecký
113. Max Frisch
114. Manuel Puig
115. Nathalie Sarraute
116. Mary Lee Settle
117. Iris Murdoch
118. Wallace Stegner
119. Maya Angelou
120. Mario Vargas Llosa
121. Margaret Atwood
122. V.S. Pritchett
123. Tom Wolfe
124. Günter Grass
125. Wright Morris
126. Harold Brodkey
127. Reynolds Price
128. Claude Simon
129. Naguid Mahfouz
130. Italo Calvino
131. Grace Paley
132. Mark Helprin
133. James Salter
134. Toni Morrison
135. Don Delillo
136. Ken Kesey
137. Alice Munro
138. Louis Auchincloss
139. Chinua Achebe
140. Primo Levi
141. P.D. James
142. Patrick O’Brian
143. Susan Sontag
144. Richard Price
145. Camilo José Cela
146. William F. Buckley Jr.
147. Richard Ford
148. Amos Oz
149. John le Carré
150. Jeanette Winterson
151. Martin Amis
152. Russell Banks
153. Ismail Kadare
154. V.S. Naipaul
155. José Saramago
156. William Styron
157. Peter Matthiessen
158. Shelby Foote
159. Tahar Ben Jelloun
160. Mavis Gallant
161. T. Coraghessan Boyle
162. Gustaw Herling
163. William T. Vollmann
164. Beryl Bainbridge
165. Julian Barnes
166. Rick Moody
167. Lorrie Moore
168. A. S. Byatt
169. Budd Schulberg
170. Luisa Valenzuela
171. John Edgar Wideman
172. Louis Begley
173. Ian McEwan
174. Guy Davenport
175. Richard Powers
176. Amy Hempel
177. Jonathan Lethem
178. Paul Auster
179. Jim Crace
180. Andrea Barrett
181. Paula Fox
182. Haruki Murakami
183. Tobias Wolff
184. Barry Hannah
185. Shirley Hazzard
186. Salman Rushdie
187. Orhan Pamuk
188. Peter Carey
189. Stephen King
190. Javier Marías
191. Harry Mathews
192. Jorge Semprún
193. Norman Mailer
194. David Grossman
195. Kenzaburo Oe
196. Kazuo Ishiguro
197. Umberto Eco
198. Marilynne Robinson
199. Annie Proulx
200. John Banville
201. James Ellroy
202. Ha Jin
203. Ray Bradbury
204. David Mitchell
205. Norman Rush
206. Michel Houellebecq
207. Jonathan Franzen
208. Louise Erdrich
209. Ann Beattie
210. Samuel R. Delany
211. William Gibson
212. Nicholson Baker
213. Dennis Cooper
214. Alan Hollinghurst
215. Jeffrey Eugenides
216. Bret Easton Ellis
217. Roberto Calasso
218. Deborah Eisenberg
219. Mark Leyner
220. Imre Kertész
221. Ursula K. Le Guin
222. Edward P. Jones
223. Joy Williams
224. Aharon Appelfeld
225. Herta Müller
226. Hilary Mantel
227. Lydia Davis
228. Elena Ferrante
229. Jane Smiley
230. Dag Solstad
231. Jay McInerney
232. Alasdair Gray
233. Elias Khoury
234. Walter Mosley
235. Percival Everett
236. Ali Smith
237. Dany Laferrière
238. Elena Poniatowska
239. Charles Johnson
240. László Krasznahorkai
241. Penelope Lively
242. Sam Lipsyte
243. Pat Barker
244. Alice McDermott
245. George Saunders
246. Rachel Cusk
247. Enrique Vila-Matas
248. Allan Gurganus
249. Arundhati Roy
250. To be continued

The Shademakers

If Canadian folk-rock band The Shademakers (and frontman David Seymour) had come out fifteen years later, they’d be opening for Steve Earle, terrorizing Nashville, and stomping coffee mugs off of NPR’s Tiny Desk.