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Books: The Best Books of 2015 According to a Panel of 10 Experts. Our Sixth Expert – Thom Shackleford

Auckland writer Thom Shackleford chooses a memoir by the divine Patti Smith, a brilliant  investigation into social media shaming by Jon Ronson, and a story collection featuring the divinely brilliant Don DeLillo.

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M Train, by Patti Smith.

No one does melancholic cool quite like Patti Smith. With the independence of her children and the distant passing of her husband, Smith has adopted a life of artistic solitude: becoming a post-punk monk who searches for consolation within the mind’s rich tapestries. Her memories, dreams and beloved muses bleed into an outwardly bleak world, colouring it in a way that makes even the smallest of moments feel alive with painful beauty. M Train, with its coffee-fuelled reveries, wanderlust, and aching nostalgia, is a book that argues for the mythos of the artist. To create, it says, is to find joyful participation in the world’s suffering. And if you listen to its mantra, its phantasms will stay with you long after you put it down.

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So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, by Jon Ronson.

Who doesn’t like a little bit of internet justice, right? Remember the Minnesota dentist who shot Cecil, the people’s lion? In a moment of global harmony, the internet came together to trash his practice’s yelp page and demand his extradition. And I, for one, got my share of sweet schadenfreude from his comeuppance. Then I read this book. Equal parts hilarious and sobering, Ronson deftly investigates how the pillories of yesteryear have been replaced with the twitter accounts of today. His real success, however, is the humanisation of virtual lynching victims. He proves they’re not actually grotesques, but emoting people with pulses, who live with the consequences of our cathartic need to persecute. And in doing this, he shows that anyone can be singled out by society today – indelibly changing the way you’ll see social shaming.

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New American Stories, edited by Ben Marcus.

There seems to be two types of short-story anthologies. There’s the literary equivalents of Now That’s What I Call Music!, crammed full of modern crowd-pleasers that are already played-out; and then there’s ye olde classics, with their tales of men who doff hats and women on the verge of neurotic collapses. Marcus’s collection is different. His stated intention is not provide a ‘museum piece,’ but instead to show what a story is capable of. He sees language as a drug, dealing out hallucinogenic experiences – ecstatic highs and hellacious comedowns – which can capture the whole spectrum of existence. To achieve his vision, he’s curated an eclectic, yet harmonising, array of contemporary voices. Some are well-known, some obscure. And while they can’t all be to everyone’s tastes,  there’s enough on offer to ensure every reader discovers something profound and treasured. Personal favourites include the contributions of: DeLillo, Coover, Noviolet Bulawayo, George Saunders and Denis Johnson.

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