Two separate book clubs, one with friends and one with family, prompted me to make a conscious effort of reading more this year. I’d started to slowly pick reading back up as a hobby in my post college years, dedicating myself to at least one book every couple months. It was a slow process for sure retraining myself to read for pleasure rather than to prepare for tests and assignments. I’ve also started to pick back up reading comics and manga, something that had completely fallen off by my later years in high school. The cost prohibitive nature of buying single issues and manga volumes meant that I stopped reading them without that extra disposal income. It’s been great buying physical volumes again but also having digital options has allowed me to sample comics and read backlogs of them. I’ve been enjoying reading old superhero comics and keeping up with new X-men, which is also the first time in my life I’ve really dug into the variations of that superhero team. Reading manga has really taken the cake and I’ve finally finished the runs of two Shonen ones because of digital subscriptions.
Overall the printed word and illustrations remain just top rate and I’ve found a better way to slot them into my life. Here’s a collection of some of my favorite books and manga that made my year better:
Wizard of Earthsea & Tombs of Atuan by Ursula K Le Guin
I’d always heard good things about the Earthsea books but had never taken the time to read them. After I read my The Dispossessed (more on that later) I knew I had to slot in more of Ursula K. Le Guin’s novels. Wizard of Earthsea is pretty unique for a young adult fantasy book, a more intimate and personal journey of self discovery. There’s no saving the world plot, instead the protagonist Ged works to right his mistake and learn to accept himself. Ged’s journey is humbling; he’s brought into the magical world as a wunderkin before his ego eventually gets the best of him. He unleashes forces that he can’t control, that physically hobbles him and continues to haunt him. The novel is concerned with Ged’s mission to overcome this shadowy being as he grows older and learns what it means to confront this mistake and accept himself. I loved the metaphor of the shadow self and Ged’s failing and running away. He runs away, engaging in interesting fantasy stories along the way, until he’s ready to grow and reckon with himself. Having this story be about Ged’s growth outside of a more stock “save the world” plot made it so much more impactful.
The world of Earthsea is incredible too, a large grouping of islands and archipelagos dotted with seafaring civilizations. Ged is a unique protagonist in that he’s dark skinned, revolutionary in 1968 and still refreshing now. The civilization he journeys to is all dark skinned too with a more cooperative ideology interested in engaging work and goods rather than engaging in commerce. Magic also comes directly from nature and is in direct harmony with it. To evoke magic is to pull from nature or command it so there’s a necessary five and take. Everything has a “true name” as well and to learn that name is to have mastery over it. That extends to people too and the ultimate show of trust in another is to share that with someone else. The Taoist themes of balance and harmony fit in perfectly with Ged’s journey, of finding balance with himself and the world around him.
I was also pleasantly surprised to find that the sequel was a completely new story instead of picking up where Wizard left off. I’m a bit over halfway but I’m enjoying the darker tone. Tombs of Atuan could also be described as a coming of age story but it’s more concerned with the structures that suppress and twist people. Tenar, or as she’s known in the Tombs as Arha, is a girl indoctrinated into service for the religion that serves an all powerful god king. She is believed to be the reincarnation of the former high priestess, which affords her more power even though she is enslaved. Her life is solitary; she was ripped away from her parents as a child and her ranking alienates her from the other priestesses. Her journey is concerned with her questioning the structures that keep her imprisoned, even though it doesn’t feel like she is, and learning how to evoke and attain her autonomy. She’s a complicated character and her complicity in the rites of the temple make her morally gray at best. The temple where she’s at reflects the secrets that surround her life, full of dark tunnels, tombs, and labyrinths over which she has command over. So far Tenar’s journey for truth has been a rich one.
The Dispossessed by Ursula K Le Guin
I’m loving the Earthsea books but this is my absolute favorite of the year. Although it’s considered Science Fiction it doesn’t resemble the same fascination with technology and space that other works in the genre do instead using fictional planets (or rather one planet and one moon) and their societies to explore different societal structures and ideologies. It’s a utopian novel in which the utopia depicted is anarcho-communist, meaning no central government and a cooperative structure to working and living. This structure is found on Anarres, the former barren moon that was claimed long ago for the Communist rebels. It is allowed to live in relative harmony with the moon planet of Urras which has a society that Americans will recognize; capitalist and patriarchal. The governors of Urras moved the Communists to Anarres to maintain their order on Urras when the social movement grew too strong. Both societies now exist peacefully and independently thanks to a trade agreement that ships important resources off Anarres to Urras.
There’s a lot to chew on there and it’s doled out relatively slowly allowing for a deep exploration of how these two societies function. Our point of view is Shevek, an Anarres scientist who has developed a General Temporal Theory that would enable faster space travel. He becomes the first person from his Anarres to travel to Urras, something that is meant with physical violence in the opening pages of the book. The Dispossessed juxtaposes Shevek learning about Urras society with his upbringing on Anarres allowing you to understand the contrasts between the two societies but the contrasts that exist in our modern capitalist society. Le Guin seems to be pointing at another way of life, not one free from hardship but one where individual people are valued more. Anarres’ society is one of cooperation where the greater good is valued more than individual power or social climbing (in fact the latter is seen as derogatory). That also means that people must make sacrifices neglecting individualistic pursuits to help the community in times of need. Le Guin doesn’t paint Anarres as this problem or hardship-free society and takes great pains to elucidate the benefits and comprises that one has to make living in a communist society. The great valleys between Anarres and Urras is the differentiator, as Shevek slowly starts to see the great disparity between the rich and the common people of Urras. The last sections on Urras move quickly but show a dark picture of how the government exerts control over social movements in a way that’s reflective of modern civil rights and racial justice movements. The one place where this book stumbles is it’s discussion of gender, one place where Le Guin herself has noted as a blind spot in her pre-1990s writing. Women are not given the same dedication or character depiction that men are afforded. One chapter on Urras uses sexual violence as a way to illustrate the way womens bodies are used to give women standing in society, but shies away from any true culpability for the attacking parties and is dropped by the next chapter. Otherwise this book is phenomenal and Ursula K Le Guin creates a well realized universe that distills political theory and ideology into a deeply instructive fiction story.
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
I was a bit wary before reading this because I’m not a big true crime fiction reader. Truman Capote’s novel is in a sense the ur novel of this genre, a subjective and fictionalized look into a real tragedy. I’m glad that we chose this for the book club as it ended up being compassionate in ways that I wasn’t expecting. Capote uses real interviews, court documents and newspaper articles (with the help of Harper Lee, who got nothing other than a dedication for all her hard work) to piece together a retelling of the vicious murder of a family in small town Holcomb, Kansas. He writes the novel like a fiction story using a third person narration and inserted dialogue rather than the traditional nonfiction approach of laying out facts and using direct quotes. It’s a strange approach, often inserting or creating scenes and events that the actual people he’s lifting from did not care for. It’s a compelling work though, starting with the impact that this heinous act has on the town at large and the interpersonal community at play. That’s something that’s part of the appeal of true crime to people or even works like Twin Peaks. The truly remarkable part is it’s depiction of the killers. Capote doesn’t let them off for their actions but instead depicts their backgrounds and tragic lives that led them there. He sees them as humans in a way that stands against the usual depictions as criminals as monsters. Capote notably came away from his experience against the death penalty and that’s easy to see coming from the cruelty that’s depicted in the final section of the book. Hicock and Smith suffer greatly waiting on death row and the inhumanity of their lockup is vile. The obvious mental illness affecting both of them makes their treatment all the worse. In Cold Blood seems like the rare true crime book that actually reckons with our criminal justice system rather than depicting the lurid details of the crime. The novel shows the need for treatment and the factors that contribute to breeding abhorrent behavior. In our current true crime obsessed landscape, more novels and podcasts should be leaning toward the uncomfortability between the disgusting actions and “justice” rather than glossing over and co-signing any police methods that result in a conviction.
Galapagos by Kurt Vonnegut
I would say that Kurt Vonnegut is my favorite author, but I’m really under read on his entire bibliography. I’ve only read about 5 of his books, but that does include big favorites Slaughterhouse Five and Cat’s Cradle. Thank god that Emily chose Galapagos for the book club as it’s one of Vonnegut’s best books. Galapagos tells the story of the last surviving members of the human race who find themselves stranded on the Galápagos Islands after a cruise gone wrong. The novel is mostly concerned with the lead up to the world ending and peppering in views of these peoples’ lives after the catastrophe. Our point of view comes from the ghost of Leon Trout, son of Vonnegut stand-in/ recurring character Kilgore Trout, as he haunts the cruise ship that he died building. Vonnegut uses these characters to cover our obsession with technology, ineffective human communication, first world mistreatment of third world countries, war, violence and more all in his typical droll and manner of fact writing. Vonnegut’s black comedy shows the hypocrisy of modern living. Take for example the evolutionary endpoint of humanity as seals, no longer having to worry about going to work or learning new languages. This new state is described as a positive as the remaining members of humanity are freed from the shackles of civilization.
Vonnegut toes the line between smart satire and being mean spirited all in the effort of analyzing humanity’s selfishness and self-destructive habits. His handling of race and even queerness can guessture toward racism and homophobia, specifically with the tribe of Kanka-bono girls, but he hits more than he misses. James Wait for example, a swindler and con artist who is queer, is used to critique our vision of poor people and how the lower class is actively created by socioeconomic forces. Throughout the main party’s misadventures and misdeeds Leon continues to reassure the audience that soon humanity will evolve past the need for thinking and “big brains.” Vonnegut’s typically removed and pessimistic writing unexpectedly opens up late in the book. A chapter centering on Leon’s life and his passage to the afterlife is touching, as Leon wrestles with the specter of his father and his wish to continue being a part of humanity. One can imagine that Vonnegut is attempting to reconcile his negative view on the world with his wishes for his son. Even though he has nothing nice to write about people, Galapagos shows that his inspections into humanity are because he cares so deeply for it.
Akira by Katsuhiro Otomo
The movie version of Akira is huge, one of the first to hit big ahead of the 90s anime boom in the US. It’s a cult classic telling a science fiction story of the government using technology to meddle with forces that can’t be controlled. It’s got cool motorcycles, a post apocalypse setting, great soundtrack and slick visual design which includes some wild images like Testuo slowly becoming a giant grotesque baby that swallows people. The story at its center is pretty weak, so I’ve found that while I liked the movie it never really left a lasting impression. The manga however is a true action comic masterpiece.
It’s truly strange to see how different the two adaptations are despite the movie being directed and written by Otomo himself. The movies condensed nature and release, it came out when the manga was still running, shaved away some of the more interesting beats and drastically changed character relationships. Tetsuo and Kaneda have a brotherly relationship but Tetsuo is more resentful and Kaneda is more petty. The two butt heads in the boyish “masculine” way trying to prove their superior. I wouldn’t call their characterization in the movie good natured but in comparison to their manga counterparts they’re practically saints. Kaneda is an absolute shitheel who early on in the manga basically tells his pregnant girlfriend to get lost. Tetsuo is impotent rage and once his powers start manifesting commits more and more heinous acts of violence. The whole manga has a mean streak; these are rough and tumble characters that don’t care about getting their hands dirty in a society that has completely forgotten about them. That extends from the punk kids to the military brass and there’s a lot of violence and bloodshed all over this series. The manga’s longer runtime also means a much larger cast, including Akira actually being a character and the US military, and a truly wild story. I wasn’t expecting where this manga ended up going with a huge shift coming at the end of volume 3. The beautiful images from the movie are represented in gorgeous comic illustrations. The panels are really expressive and benefit the complex action scenes throughout the series. It’s a fantastic series from start to finish and an absolute must read.
Witch Hat Atelier by Kamome Shirahama
Speaking of beautiful books, this is the most gorgeous manga or comic I’ve ever read. This is the first series by Shirahama that’s been released in English and is a long time artist known for her comic book covers. The images in this series are intricately detailed and bring to life the images of the fantasy setting. There are floating islands, undersea castles and dark caves alongside intricately dressed people. There are multiple points I’ve had to stop and show images off to Emily and the full page art included in the volumes are nothing short of incredible. They’ve more than earned their spot on my shelf.
The story is just as beautiful, a smartly written coming of age story in the “magical girl” genre. Coco is a common girl who accidentally dabbles in magic and encases her mother in stone. She’s then whisked off to a world of magic and joins a witches “Atelier,” ie group of witches in training, to learn how to reverse the spell and understand how exactly she came to be in position of the magic. The series is primarily interested in exploring the responsibility of magic and its impact on the world. Magic is drawn, literally with a pen, meaning that any little misstep can spell disaster. There are also strict rules about how to use it and Coco sees firsthand the dangers of darker magic. Witch Hat Atelier also explores themes around learning, knowledge, class and disability in a gentle way. The compassion amongst the characters can be heartwarming and heartbreaking in equal turns, whether they’re lifting each other up or finding their own limitations. It’s a tender story that isn’t afraid to explore the darker side of life. I cannot recommend it enough.
Naruto by Masashi Kishimoto
The last two series on this list need no introduction and I also wrote a bit about the two earlier this year. I’d rather focus then on just my general thoughts on two of the biggest manga on the planet. Also god bless the Shonen Jump app.
Sometimes you just need that YA popcorn and Naruto absolutely delivers on that front. It’s a Shonen series to a T, with big arcs dedicated to new villains and ever escalating conflicts and powers. Naruto is plucky and determined but in a way that starts out pretty charming since he’s constantly getting the shit kicked out of him. It starts to wear off the more he becomes a god, the problem with most Shonen protagonists that aren’t Goku (no one could be as perfectly head empty as him). Good thing the cast is stacked with great characters. Sasuke is an absolute shit head but also the only one that might understand that people should be skeptical of the structure of their nation? I don’t stump for Sasuke the way others do but I understand that he’s the only one that grasps ideology. He’s right even when he’s wrong. Sakura deserves better as she’s constantly shuffled to the side to make way for the boys. The concept of turning healing energy into immense physical power is great but the series constantly points out how she’s lesser. Justice for Sakura but really justice for all women in this manga. Even Tsunade is measured as lesser to her counterparts even when she’s capable of wrecking shit.
My favorite characters remain mostly the same, Kakashi and Gaara, but Shikamaru has shot straight to the top. An extremely capable and smart layabout? Hell ya man. He’s the most fun to be in action because he’s the only one that uses complex tactics. It’s really fun watching his version of mouse trap payoff. He’s also the most level headed in any given situation and loyal. Everyone deserves a friend like Shikamaru. I’ve always had a fondness for Gaara because I love a villain to friend arc in an anime/manga. His mirror to Naruto is an interesting one; what if people still hated and feared you but realized they could use you as a tool for violence? Even though he becomes a head of state I can’t help but cheer for him. Sometimes we just love royalty. Kakashi is definitely “cool guy” aesthetics but it’s complemented by his ability to nurture his students. He cares for the trio of protagonists and is always there to help them along the way. And the fact that the story of his Sharingan pays off in the final arc is icing on the cake. Another new character that’s become a favorite of mine is Rock Lee. That boy gets treated like dirt by the comic but boy does he make his scenes memorable. His two big fights are incredible and you just want to stand up and cheer for him. Too bad he was always written to be outclassed.
My final thought on Naruto: god the big ninja war is too long. Too many pages dedicated to characters slowly performing their abilities on faceless enemies.
Dragon Ball by Akira Toriyama
I’ve been a Dragon Ball fan my whole life and had never read the full manga series (which covers both the original anime and Dragon Ball Z series). It’s one the funniest series I’ve ever read filled with Loony Tunes energy from start to finish. You can see where Toriyama really wanted to spend his energy, writing random adventures of Goku traveling from place to place and getting into escapades. Arcs like the Red Ribbon Army are so fun as Goku battles silly enemies and engages in comedy farces. Of course Toriyama had no idea how big that first tournament arc would hit, which while also being incredibly funny introduced readers to a different mode of storytelling and one that foreground action. This action is what garnered the series its popularity which is a bit sad in retrospect. I’d be interested in seeing what the series would have been if Toriyama would have had it the way he originally planned. That doesn’t mean the comedy goes away, just that action slowly creeps to take over as the main draw. Despite my reservations on this, I think the Piccolo Jr. arc is probably the best in the comic.
Once it tilts into what was adapted as Dragon Ball Z, the focus on power levels and action take over everything. Maybe it’s because I watched the show religiously but this last half of the manga didn’t really hit me as an adult. The action is still good but I missed the more zany energy of the younger Goku half. Not that there still isn’t comedy, I was surprised at how funny Gohan attending high school really was. A saiyan playing baseball is top tier silliness. Maybe more surprising was that I wasn’t completely put off by the perverted humor. There’s a fair amount of stuff that is gross in here but it’s complemented by a long list of well written jokes. That’s not to excuse some of the more leery jokes aimed at underage girls but it never tilts fully into being completely disgusting or taken seriously. I guess I’m also grading on a curve given the genre, so your mileage may vary. Luckily there’s a whole lot of other good stuff to take with it. Dragon Ball as a whole series is just fantastic and deserves every bit of its popularity, so much that I’m thinking it might be time for another read of it…