My Top 10 Eric Clapton Songs

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Slowhand playing his psychedelically painted Gibson SG in the ’60s

My day job as a magazine editor has some pretty neat perks, one of the biggest being that sometimes I get to interview my heroes. I’ve gotten to talk to Robert De Niro, Anthony Bourdain, and Ice Cube, among others, and a couple of weeks ago, I had maybe the coolest one yet: Eric Clapton. (It’ll be in the May issue of Hemispheres.) I’ve actually never considered Clapton to be my favorite of the guitar gods—Hendrix will always be number one for me, and my devotion to Jimmy Page borders on the religious—but I’ve had people tell me that they hear Clapton’s influence in my own playing. This is completely absurd—but I’ll take it!—and after having a nice conversation with Slowhand himself, and listening to a ton of his music while prepping for the interview, I figured I should give him his due on this blog, with one of my Top 10 lists.

Honorable mentions: Crossroads probably has Clapton’s greatest solo, but I’ve just listened to it too many times; Tears in Heaven is beautiful and perfect and just waaaaaaay too painful to listen to; Wonderful Tonight is a beautiful love song and also an anthem for every dude who’s gotten annoyed sitting around waiting for his girlfriend to get ready; Let It Rain has some seriously sick lead licks on it; the entire John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers album; and I can’t really explain why, but I’ve always really liked Anyone For Tennis—though it’s obviously not Top 10 material. On to the list.

10. Key to the Highway

The list starts with a bit of a deep cut, one that I didn’t even start listening to until fairly recently. The truth is that for a long time I actually wasn’t much of a fan of Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs, the classic Derek & The Dominos album. But in prepping for the interview, I went back and gave it a good listen. I don’t know if it’s the wisdom of age or whatever, but I did a total 180 on that album. It is AWESOME, and my favorite track on it (except for the obvious title track) is this rendition of a blues standard that was first recorded by Charlie Segar in 1940. The song begins with the track fading in and the band already playing, as if you’ve just opened the door to a room where a jam is going on. And that’s what this track really is, an epic, epic blues jam that sees Clapton trading bars with the great Duane Allman, the former’s lightning licks versus the latter’s howling slide phrases. It’s a clinic in electric blues guitar.

9. Sunshine of Your Love

Clapton’s second-most famous riff was actually written by Cream bassist Jack Bruce, but Eric makes it his own by employing his unique “woman tone,” which he conjured on The Fool, his psychedelically painted Gibson SG, by playing over the bridge pickup but turning the treble all the way down. He explains in this BBC interview:

It’s actually a simple riff, one of the first that most aspiring rock guitarists learn to pluck. But it’s also so iconic that it’s gotta be on the list. I also enjoy this song just because the lyrics are very unsubtly about fucking.

8. Layla

I try to leave the most obvious songs off these lists: my Hendrix list had no Purple Haze, and my Zeppelin list had no Stairway. But it’s pretty impossible not to include Layla, Clapton’s declaration of love for Pattie Boyd (who was married to George Harrison at the time, and later left the Beatle for Clapton), given that the song gave Clapton two hits: first, the original Derek & The Dominos version, with the famous electric riff E.C. played on his vintage sunburst Strat, Allman’s wailing slide-guitar solo, and the extended piano outro written by Dominos drummer Jim Gordon.

And then the Grammy-winning Unplugged version, which Clapton sang a full octave lower than the original and which features both a fantastic acoustic solo played on a 1939 Martin 000-42 and some sweet piano work from former Allman Brother Chuck Leavell. See if you can spot this one.

7. Running on Faith

This somber song first appeared on Journeyman, but I’m referring to the version from Unplugged. What really does it for me on this is the extended coda, when Clapton sings “Love comes over you” before launching into a wonderful slide solo on what I’m sure is a very old and very expensive resonator, with the background singers echoing the lyrics throughout. It’s just lovely. Also, I’m not sure exactly why, but my college roommate and good friend Rob used to listen to this song all the time, and so every time I hear it, it makes me think of him.

6. White Room

From the first heavily vibratoed notes of this song you know you’re in for something awesome, and it just keeps building and building. Through the first verse, Clapton’s mostly in the background, but in the second verse he starts throwing in these fills with heavy wah and bent strings, and the licks just get nastier in the third verse. (My favorite fill is what he plays along with the “yellow tigers crouched in jungles in her dark eyes” line; as with Hendrix’s solo on Hey Joe, it’s an example of emotive playing—his notes sound like a tiger leaping for its prey.) And one of the most awesome minutes of music ever recorded is White Room’s outro, which features a nutty guitar solo over drumming that gets progressively heavier and more complex. Ginger Baker is fucking awesome.

5. Lonely Stranger

It’s back to Unplugged one more time. I can be pretty depressive, and as I’ve often said, there’s nothing I like more than a “miserable suffering bastard” song (my ex-girlfriend, who was a Clapton fan, hated that I loved this song). Few songs cut to the core of the way loneliness feels than this one, which Clapton plucks out on a lovely nylon-string classical guitar. I don’t know what’s going on, and I’ll be on my way.

4. Can’t Find My Way Home

Speaking of songs about loneliness: It’s not on Unplugged, but there’s one more acoustic number on this list. Steve Winwood wrote this song for Blind Faith, the short-lived supergroup he and Clapton formed with Baker. Winwood fingerpicks a lovely rhythm track, while Clapton fires acoustic licks, and Winwood’s high voice floats sadly over the top of it all. A beautiful, sad, perfect song. If you happen to get your hands on a copy of the duluxe version of Blind Faith, there’s a particularly awesome extended version of this one that’s worth checking out.

3. Spoonful

All right, enough with the acoustic shit, let’s get back to business with some righteous electric blues. Written by Willie Dixon and recorded by Howlin’ Wolf and Etta James, Spoonful is a junkie’s lament of the highest order, and no one ever brought out the raw scream of veins-being-ripped-out-of-your-arms heroin angst the way Cream did on their first album. And then on Wheels of Fire, there’s an incredible 16-minute live version. The jam goes on forever and ever, and the interplay between the bass, drums, and guitar is just amazing. This isn’t the same version, but just watch it and appreciate how fucking nuts these guys were.

 

2. Tales of Brave Ulysses

One of my favorite Cream songs—and my father’s absolute number one—is this psychedelic acid trip of a tune. The Odyssean lyrics were written by an artist and poet friend of Clapton’s named Martin Sharp, and Clapton set them to a descending D-riff, which he plays with a heavy wah (the song is historically most notable for being the first one on which Clapton employed the wah). If you Google “psychedelic rock,” Tales of Brave Ulysses should be the first entry.

1. Badge

This isn’t Clapton’s or Cream’s biggest hit, but it’s been my favorite pretty much from the first time I heard it. Clapton co-wrote the song with George Harrison for Cream’s Goodbye album, and its title comes from a cute misunderstanding: When Clapton picked up the sheet it was written on, he misread the word Harrison had written on the top—”Bridge,” for the signature arpeggiated bridge—as “Badge.” Ta da! The song is best known for that bridge, and also for its beautiful, soaring, bent-string solo, which Clapton played on a Cherry Red Gibson ES-335. And it’s also just a nice song for the end of a great band’s run, with the way the music all comes to a stop at the final lyric: “She cried away her life since she fell out the cradle.”

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2016 Super Bowl Pick

Two weeks ago, when I made my picks in the conference championship games, I was wrong about pretty much everything. I thought the Patriots would walk all over the Broncos. Instead, Denver’s defense, led by an otherworldly Von Miller, decimated Tom Brady, thereby allowing Grampa Simpson Peyton Manning to play in his fourth, and surely final, Super Bowl. Meanwhile, I thought Carolina-Arizona would be the game of the year, with the Panthers only surviving because Carson Palmer would turn back into Carson Palmer at exactly the wrong time. Well, it sure wasn’t the game of the year, but I WAS right about Palmer. Man oh man, did he pick a bad time to remember that he’s a shitty quarterback.

Anyway, I don’t have a lot to say about Super Bowl 50 in San Francisco the very expensive Silicon Valley strip mall the Niners call home. I may not even watch it, just because I’ll be at risk of having a rage-seizure every time they show an overhead of beautiful San Francisco without mentioning that the stadium is 50 (hey, that’s appropriate!) miles from the City by the Bay. About the only thing that makes me happy about this whole situation is that someone tagged “evict ed lee” on the statue at Alamo Square (my old hood).

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Now THAT’s my San Francisco

So let’s just get to the pick, which I think is a pretty simple one. Denver’s defense is great, but the Broncos are going to have a tougher time with the Panthers than they did with the Pats. Carolina’s solid run game—from both Jonathan Stewart and Cam Newton—will keep Miller and DeMarcus Ware from pinning their ears back and launching themselves at the quarterback on every single play. And Newton has a much better shot of evading those guys than cement-footed Tom Brady did.

Meanwhile, does anyone believe that Denver will be able to move the ball against the hyper-physical Carolina defense? If Thomas Davis is limited—and you have to think he will be, given that he broke his arm two weeks ago—it hurts the Panthers a little bit, but the Broncos had one of the worst offenses in the league this year, and Manning, again is basically Grampa Simpson out there at this point.

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I laughed when I found this. Bless you, Internet

The Panthers’ ball-hawking defense had five pick-sixes in the regular season, and Luke Kuechly already has two in the playoffs. I’d be shocked if they don’t get one off Peyton in this game. Frankly, I’d be shocked if Peyton survived this game. (Which raises a question: If the NFL’s favorite son died on the field during the Super Bowl, would the league immediately disband?)

Anyway, I just don’t believe that Denver can score against Carolina. And with the way Carolina has come out guns blazing in the first halfs of the last couple of games, I could see this getting out of hand early. And honestly, I don’t think I can live in a world where Peyton Manning gets to walk off the field a champion after his final game. I mean, doesn’t this just feel like the year when we pass the torch from the old white guy quarterback to the hip-hop generation quarterback?

The pick is Carolina 32, Denver 16. Dab it, Super Bowl Champion Cam Newton.

kmEmrr

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2016 Conference Championship Picks

And in this season that I have not enjoyed at all (I even missed the epic Cards-Packers game on Saturday), we’re down to the final four. Last week I once again went 3-for-4 in my picks (although I was just 2-for-4 against the spread). How do I feel about this weekend? Well, I’m about 99 percent sure of how one of these games will go … and I have no idea what’s going to happen in the other one. Let’s go with the sure thing—which just happens to be Sunday’s early game—first.

New England at Denver

I’ve written this a million times, and I will never, ever stop believing it: Tom Brady is this generation’s equivalent of Joe Montana, and Peyton Manning is this generation’s Dan Marino. One is a consummate winner; the other puts up gaudy stats but comes up short in the playoffs. (Note: I am not saying that Brady is as good as Montana, and frankly, I am very much NOT looking forward to the two weeks of Brady/Montana stories we’re going to get with the Super Bowl being in San Francisco the Niners’ home stadium.) I will always, always, always pick Brady over Manning—especially this version of Manning, who is physically shot. It just feels right that Peyton should lose his final playoff game, at home, to his longtime rival, doesn’t it? I’m calling this one Patriots 26, Broncos 13.

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I am already sick of this photo

Arizona at Carolina

In this game, on the other hand, I have no idea what’s going to happen. I think these are pretty clearly the two best teams in the NFL, and I’ve been stoked about the prospect of this matchup for weeks. Both teams have hard-hitting, aggressive defenses, and both have big-play capabilities on offense (the Cards through their passing game, the Panthers through their running game). Before the Division round, I felt pretty confident that Arizona was the better of these teams, thanks to all of their downfield weapons, but the Green Bay game shook me. Specifically, it reminded me that Carson Palmer has never gone this deep in the playoffs. Of course, neither has Cam Newton, but Newton played with confidence in the Panthers’ win over the Seabitches, while Palmer looked like the shaky, turnover-prone QB he was during his Raiders days, not the MVP candidate we saw this year. I still think Arizona is a better team from top to bottom, but I just have a feeling that Palmer is going to kill them with a big turnover at exactly the worst time. So, in what I’m pretty sure will be the game of the year, I’m taking the Panthers, in overtime, 33-27. Dab it, Cam.

kmEmrr

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2016 Divisional Round Picks

As usual, my Wild Card picks last week illustrated just how little I know about football. I thought Chiefs-Texans would be a tight game; instead, it was a blowout. I thought Pittsburgh and Seattle would beat Cincy and Minnesota easily; instead, the Steelers and Seabitches both needed epic chokes from their opponents in order to advance. I thought Green Bay was toast; instead, the Pakers beat the Racial Slurs by 17. So, even though I was actually 3-for-4 last week (albeit just 1-for-4 against the spread), I don’t feel any more knowledgeable about this week’s games. But not knowing what I’m talking about has never stopped me before, so here are this weekend’s picks.

Kansas City at New England

The Chiefs are the hottest team in football, having won 11 in a row. The Pats looked pretty beat up and pretty bad the last few weeks of the season. But still, it’s Belichick and Brady vs. Andy Reid and Alex Smith. Gotta go with the Pats, right? Maybe not. Granted, this was a million years ago in football time, but the Chiefs crushed the eventual Super Bowl champ Pats early last season, and they’ve retained the formula to do it: ball-control offense, a murderous pass rush, and an opportunistic secondary. Maybe I’m over-thinking things, but I feel like there’s some bad energy around the Pats … and there’s usually one upset in the second round … and come on, y’all know how I feel about Boston sports.

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I’ll never get tired of running this image

So I’m calling the upset: Chiefs in a 22-20 nail-biter.

Green Bay at Arizona

When these teams played three weeks ago, the Cards slaughtered the Pack 38-8. Has anything changed since then? Sure, Green Bay won on the road last week, but I remain unimpressed with them, and I think Arizona is probably the most complete team in the NFL this year. I think Rodgers will do more to keep his team in it this time around, but I just don’t see anyway the Pack pulls this one out. I’ll say 35-24 Cards. My only regret is I won’t get to see Rodgers and Alex Smith play against each other in the Super Bowl on the Niners’ homefield.

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I wish I could stop running this image

Seattle at Carolina

Most people think this is the game of the weekend, and I admit it’s the one I’m most likely to clear my schedule to watch. On the other hand, I think people are being a little too quick to jump on the Seabitches bandwagon. I mean, Seattle would have lost to a pretty mediocre Vikings team if Blair Walsh had made a 27-yard field goal. Finkle?

Also, I think people are forgetting that Carolina went 15-1 and that they have Cam Newton, an awesome defense, and an extra week of rest. I’m pretty sure Steph Curry’s boys have got this. Let’s say Panthers 24-16.

Pittsburgh at Denver

Goddammit, I was so excited to pick one final Peyton Manning home playoff chokejob. And then they drew the Steelers, who are coming off a brutal Wild Card game in which all of their best players got injured. I would literally run across the Jersey swamp to bet on Pittsburgh Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown were healthy, but the Steelers are just too banged up. So I’m saying 20-13 Broncos. Peyton’s final playoff choke will have to wait until next week.

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hehehe

 

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2016 Wild Card Playoff Picks

Good lord, I hated this football season. My beloved San Francisco 49ers were a complete abomination—the laughingstock of the entire league. Two of my three most hated teams (the Deflatriots and the PEDhawks) are still Super Bowl contenders. (At least the Cowboys were nearly as bad a mess as the Niners.) Nearly every Sunday this fall, I woke up at noon and looked at the slate of games and said, “Nope, I can do something productive with my time today.” (Note: I never actually did anything productive. I still wasted my time—I just didn’t get to enjoy football while I was wasting my time.) The NFL as a league and a corporation continued to be a despicable cartel of money-grubbing, hypocritical assholes. I have slim to no interest in watching these playoffs.

But I’ve also been making playoff picks for too many years to stop now. So here goes. If you want to make some money, take these to Vegas and go the other way, because I’m always wrong (except for that one glorious time when I nailed the exact score of the Niners-Packers semi-annual Holy War).

Kansas City at Houston

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If you’re looking for a reason to bet against KC…

As usual, the early Saturday game is an unwatchable dog. Houston is one of the worst playoff teams in recent memory, a team that basically has two good players—all-world receiver DeAndre Hopkins and all-universe defensive lineman J.J. Watt. Kansas City has won 10 games in a row and has a fearsome defense and a decent quarterback (Alex Smith has actually played very well in two of his three career playoff starts) … but they also have a long streak of crushing playoff losses and a coach, Andy Reid, who has a history of being, let’s say, “unreliable” in the playoffs. I wouldn’t put a ton of money on the Chiefs because of those two historical mitigating factors, and because I could imagine Watt going full destructor mode—four sacks, two forced fumbles, a TD, and multiple offensive lineman getting their arms torn off—and singlehandedly winning the game. But I also can’t bet on a team that started Brian Hoyer at QB in a playoff game. It’ll be an ugly, defensive affair, but I’m guessing it’ll end up something like 17-13 Chiefs.

Pittsburgh at Cincinnati

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Poor Cincy

Football, like life, can be so unfair. If Andy Dalton hadn’t gotten hurt, the Bengals would probably be the one seed in the AFC. Instead, they have to host their powerful division rivals with either A.J. McCarron or a broken-thumbed Red Rifle under center. Ben Roethlisberger may be a fat-assed woman-abuser, but he’s not losing a playoff game to either of those guys. I’m saying Steelers 27-17.

Seattle at Minnesota

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Nope

This one’s easy. There’s no way Teddy “Two Gloves” Bridgewater is beating Russell Wilson and this Seattle defense—even at home. Minnesota’s defense will keep it close early, but I see Seattle getting a long TD off one of those Wilson scrambles and then a big turnover to seal it late. We’ll call it 27-10 Seabitches.

Green Bay at Washington

I really can’t believe that I’m going to pick Kirk Cousins over Aaron Rodgers in a playoff game. But let’s be honest, even with Rodgers, the Packers have been garbage for almost three months now. Their defense can’t stop anyone, their running back looks like a Biggest Loser contestant, and their receivers can’t get open. Plus, if I go with Green Bay, that means I’m picking all four road teams to win Wild Card weekend—and that shit NEVER happens. So, while I don’t feel great about this pick at all, I’m taking the Racials Slurs 20-17.

No, Kirk, I don’t like it. Not at all.

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36

Dear Lolly,

You were 19 when I met you, in 1999, on the eve of your sophomore year of college. That was more than 16 years ago. There are kids out there who weren’t out of the womb when we met who are now old enough to drive cars. Those kids are almost as old as I was, 18, that first night, when I got drunk at your parents’ house under the guise of “getting some advice on what classes I should take at UCSB.”

You were 23 when we started dating, in 2003. You were sick, having recently quit grad school. I was 22, a fresh graduate, working my first post-college job, at a used bookstore. We were so young. The things that you faced, that I tried to help you face, made us grow up so fast.

You were 29 when we broke up, in 2009. It was mid-November, right before the holidays. It was a month after our sixth anniversary. We hadn’t really gotten along in months, had gone through one very brief breakup already, and had taken a trip to New York for our anniversary in the hopes that it would help improve things. You were sick throughout the trip. We fought for most of it. We were too far gone.

You were 31 when you died, in 2011.

You would have been 36 today, the last day of 2015. Thirty-six isn’t a round number, it doesn’t hold any special significance, but none of the ages I already mentioned stand out as obvious life markers, either. Who knows what would have happened for you in 2016? I suspect great things.

Looking at all those numbers, I’m struck by how much time has passed since you came into my life—and since you went out of it. We were together for six years and one month, and as I write this, that’s the exact amount of time that has passed since we broke up.

I don’t know what my life would be if you hadn’t been a part of it, and at the same time I don’t know what to make of the life I’ve lived since you ceased to be a part of it. I’ve had moments of joy in the last six years, though probably none as elevating as the best times I had with you. I’ve had terrible times too—the worst right after your death, of course, but others that made me wonder what the point of any of this is.

When I wrote this note to you last year, I was coming to the end of a successful year. I felt full of hope for what was to come in the year ahead. Sadly, 2015 wasn’t what I hoped for. It turned into a malaise, both personal and professional. I had financial problems. I had problems at work. I had problems with women. I celebrated nearly all of my friends’ weddings—including your sister’s, at which I gave a pretty profane speech—but at the end of each of these events I felt lonely, left out. Given some of the things I said to you about marriage, I don’t know that you’d be sympathetic to hear me say that now. This year I was often reminded that you never got to have your own wedding day. I will always feel guilty about that.

I’m not here to muck around in guilt or self-pity. It’s just that I’m struggling a bit for words this time around. I’ve written a few of these birthday remembrances for you now, and I don’t want to repeat myself. Nor do I want to turn this into an annual occasion for taking stock of my own life. I want these to be about you, not about me.

And yet, as much as those of us who loved you will always carry you in our hearts, the truth is that we have to move forward. Tomorrow it will be a new year, and while we can use the memory of you for inspiration or motivation or whatever, ultimately we have to live for the living.

But I can worry about the coming year, and my place in it, tomorrow. Today, before I move forward into whatever 2016 holds, I’m taking a pause, as I always do, to look back.

To remember the ways that you helped make me what I am today.

To say that while you may not be a part of my life anymore, no matter how much time passes, you’ll always be a part of me.

To have a very Lolly breakfast of Oreos and milk.

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To say happy birthday, and that I wish you were here.

Love always,

Justin

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The Best Books I’ve Read Since 2008

December is the time of the year for listmaking: All the critics name their best movies, songs, sandwiches, whatever, from the previous year. And since y’all know how much I love lists, I don’t want to get left out! Hell, I already did a post on my 10 favorite songs of this year.

When it comes to books (the only thing I’m more holier-than-thou about than music), I have a little bit harder time coming up with a year-end list. This is largely because I rarely read any new hardcover novels—I stick to cheaper, easier to carry on the train paperbacks. But, even though they may not have come out this year, I did read a bunch of great books in 2015, and I wanted to write about them. And then I got to thinking that it’d be fun to look back at the best book I’ve read every year for the last few years. Fortunately, I’ve been a member of Goodreads since 2008 (coinciding with my matriculation into my MFA program), so I have a record of everything I’ve read and how I rated each book in that time period. So, I decided to take a little stroll down memory lane and figure out what was my favorite book each year. Consider this a Christmas gift for all my bookworm friends.

2008

The year I joined Goodreads and entered grad school. Out of the 16 books I read, I gave four of them 5-star ratings. My two favorites were True Notebooks, Mark Salzman’s deeply moving memoir about teaching creative writing at juvenile hall in Los Angeles (which I read while I was preparing to teach a workshop at juvie in Oakland), and Waiting for the Barbarians, South African Nobel Laureate J.M. Coetzee’s masterful allegory of the evils of colonialism. I truly love Salzman’s book, but the edge goes to Waiting for the Barbarians, which may have been the best book I read in grad school.

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2009

This was a big year. I was immersed in school and trying to get better at writing, and so I read constantly—to the tune of 42 books in one year. I’ll never get anywhere near that again. I gave nine of those books 5-star ratings, so we’ll have to whittle down. We’ll disqualify Marilyn Robinson’s Housekeeping and Raymond Carver’s Cathedral, as I had read each of those previously; we’ll eliminate Dexter Filkins’ The Forever War, about his time covering the Iraq War for the NYT, due to my preference for fiction; we’ll toss out Nicholson Baker’s hilarious and profane Vox, a fun book that doesn’t have quite the same emotional resonance as some of these other choices, and we’ll scratch Edward P. Jones’ The Known World, a brilliant novel about slavery, because I don’t love it quite as much as the remaining four. That leaves us with Italo Calvino’s beautiful, evocative, fabulist Invisible Cities, in which Marco Polo describes all the wondrous cities of Kublai Khan’s vast empire to the emperor, who will never see them, and three Cormac McCarthy novels: The Road, Suttree, and The Crossing. As enchanting as Calvino’s book is, it has to be one of those three, because this was the point at which McCarthy became my favorite writer, and the one that stands out the most is The Crossing, the second book in the Border Trilogy. I read this novel while I was traveling in Europe (I bought it at Shakespeare & Co. in Paris) , and I became so engrossed in the tragicomic tale of Billy Parham, who traps a wolf and then decides to return it to its home in the mountains of Mexico, that I actually burned one of my five days in Paris just lying in a hostel bed reading the book. It’s probably my favorite book of all time.

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2010

The year I finished grad school and moved to New York. Read just 21 books this year—I spent a lot of time writing a novel of my own—and gave just four of them 5-stars. All Quiet on the Western Front is a classic; I loved William T. Vollman’s sad, lewd novel about Southeast Asian prostitutes, The Butterfly Stories; and Jennifer Egan’s narratively dexterous A Visit From the Goon Squad was the rare book that left me so intrigued that I paid full price for a new hardcover. But the best book I read this year was David Foster Wallace’s Consider the Lobster. His essays range from tales of the porn industry to a moral investigation of crustacean consumption to a dive inside John McCain’s presidential campaign, and each one of them leaves little doubt that DFW was his the greatest writer of his generation.

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2011

Read 22 books this year, and gave five of ’em 5-stars. DFW very nearly repeated, as I followed up Lobster by reading A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. And I was deeply impressed by Snow Falling on Cedars, David Guterson’s story of racial strife in post-WWII Puget Sound. But easily my favorite book of this year was Joshua Mohr’s Damascus, a novel set in a Mission District dive bar that captured so much of what I feel about art, post-Iraq America, and gentrifying San Francisco. (Just look at that cover!) This book feels like home.

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2012

As far as quantity, this was my second best year of the past decade, with 26 books. I gave eight of them 5-star ratings, including two of Jeffrey McDaniels’ collections of cracked, surreal poems; another great San Francisco book, Stephen Elliott’s memoir The Adderall Diaries; and Stewart O’Nan’s weirdly poignant Last Night at the Lobster, a novel set in a mall Red Lobster during a snowstorm. I also re-read McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, which I hadn’t loved the first time, but upon second examination I came to my senses and realized it’s a masterwork, featuring one of the great villains of all time, the Judge. My favorite book, though, was Katherine Dunn’s brilliantly weird Geek Love, about a father who uses radioactivity to breed himself a family of carnival freaks. This novel features another of literature’s greatest villains, Artie the Aquaboy, the manipulative mutant who starts a cult in which he convinces his followers to amputate their own limbs. It’s so fucking weird—and so fucking brilliant.

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2013

Again, high quantity this year, with 25, but only four 5-star ratings. One was Thomas Bernhard’s shape-shifting collection of vignettes, The Voice Imitator, and two were pocket-size short story collections I bought from Hobart Press at the AWP conference: Dylan Nice’s Other Kinds and Mary Miller’s Big World. I especially love Miller’s stories, which read like Raymond Carver shorts—if Carver wrote about young women and teenage girls in the South. But the best book I read this year was Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin, a shattering novel (and deserving National Book Award Winner) of numerous plots and characters that all revolve around the day Phillippe Petit walked between the Twin Towers on a tightrope. It’s like if Crash had been a great novel instead of a sophomoric film.

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2014

Sort of fell off a cliff this year. Read just ten books, and only gave two of them 5-stars: The House of the Spirits, Isabel Allende’s magical-realist allegory for Chilean history (which I read on a trip to Santiago); and Like You’d Understand, Anyway, Jim Shepard’s versatile collection of comic yet depressing short stories. While I didn’t have as much to choose from, Like You’d Understand, Anyway is a fantastic collection, and a worthy winner.

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2015

I haven’t quite bounced back to grad-school levels of quantity, but of the 14 books I’ve finished this year, a very respectable six earned 5-stars. These books were diverse: Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, a darkly funny satirical look at a squad of soldiers being honored during the Dallas Cowboys’ Thanksgiving Day game; Claire Vaye Watkins’ fantastic collection Battleborn; Alexis M. Smith’s Glaciers, a quiet yet moving novella about a librarian in Portland who falls in love; Phil Klay’s stunning collection of Iraq War stories, Redeployment; and Mario Alberto Zambrano’s Lotería, an inventive, deeply tragic tale of an immigrant family in Texas, told from the perspective of an abused 11-year-old girl. As great as all of these were, the winner was the last book I read, Marlon James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings. This epic novel, a sort of Trainspotting/Mean Streets mashup about gangsters in 1970s Jamaica (with some 1980s New York thrown in) was the longest book I read this year, and even though it was almost 700 pages long, at no point did I feel like I could put it down. I often disagree with literary awards, but James won the Man Booker Prize for a reason.

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That’s all folks: the best books I’ve read since 2008. Now stop reading my ramblings and go pick up a book. And always remember what John Waters said: “If you go home with somebody, and they don’t have books, don’t fuck ’em!”

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