CSotD: Curl Up With A Good Book (or 3)

When Brian Fies lost his house in the wildfires of 2017, his friends were appropriately horrified.

When, shortly thereafter, he produced a short, multi-panel cartoon memoir of the disaster, however, I will confess to a bit of joy, in part because I knew that was how my friend heals, and in part because, we all admitted with a bit of shame, we couldn’t wait to read the more book-length version that was sure to follow.

I’ve had a chance to read a rough copy of A Fire Story, which will come out in March but can be pre-ordered now, and it is every bit as cleansing and fascinating and insightful as any of us could have hoped.

His first, shorter version of the story had gone viral, particularly in California among those who had been touched by the fires, and was the subject of an Emmy-winning documentary. 

The full-length version reminds me of his first book, the breakthrough Eisner-winning Mom’s Cancer, a graphic memoir which documented not simply his mother’s encounter with cancer, but his entire family’s experience.

And it particularly reminds me of a friend from college who had inoperable brain tumors and to whom I sent a copy of “Mom’s Cancer.” She wrote back that she loved it but, at the same time, it was painful to read because it was so true, both the frightening parts and the sometimes funny parts about the odd things that happen when you go up against the medical bureaucracy with your life on the line.

“A Fire Story” will, I am quite certain, bring a similar cathartic blend of pain and smiles to its core audience of fellow-victims.

But it is more important as a piece of journalism, bringing the experience of the wild fires to those who did not experience them.

Fies is both a journalist and a scientist and his way of dealing with disaster is to snap into professional mode, like MacDuff, disputing it like a man, but also feeling it like a man.

And so this is not Oprah or Ellen or Barbara Walters, sympathetically listening to the victims and hoping to draw a tear for the camera, but a stark, yet insightful, depiction of what it was truly like, from the inside.

Even John Hersey, walking through the shattered streets of Hiroshima, could not add that extra piece that blends journalism with personal experience, that makes the emotional response more bare-bones for your simply telling it, and showing it, in plain, true terms, from within.

So there is the panic of the evacuation, the dislocated initial confusion of how to get through the first days, the horror of learning that everything you didn’t cram into the car is gone forever, the mourning for the home in which you and your wife raised your daughters.

But what truly drives it home, what brings the experience to your doorstep, are the small, odd moments for which Fies has a stunning instinct.

Those trivial elements can be the ones that hit harder than the large horrors, because they come at such unexpected times.


At the risk of producing a panel from an unfinished version of the book (update: Brian has now provided the finished version), this — not the moment he and Karen realized their home was gone, not the list of priceless memorabilia now turned to ashes — this is the odd moment in the book that touched me most, the sad camaraderie of loss, and the weary mourning in that woman’s face.

The ability to turn the personal into the universal is a gift, and he’s got it.

Anyone can be excited in the face of a raging fire, anyone can depict tears at the moment of loss.

It’s that sharing of small moments that bonds survivors, and educates the public, and too often goes unrecorded.


Youth Department

Even smaller moments are recorded in Pajama Diaries creator Terri Libenson’s latest hybrid novel for young readers, Just Jaime, which will be released in May but, as with Fies’s book, can be pre-ordered now.

As in her comic strip, Libenson avoids the cliches and stereotypes of youth but embraces the true elements of the subculture: Her characters may spend a lot of time texting back and forth, but she doesn’t depict it with condescension but simply as how things are done.

Her earlier books, Invisible Emmie and Positively Izzy, tackled larger moments in her characters’ lives than in this latest book, and “Just Jaime” takes place over a shorter period of time (though in the same middle school, with some of the same players).

That is a strength, because, even in seventh grade, women have a greater awareness of relationships and a stronger response to the vagaries of personal interaction. A less dramatic plot allows greater focus on those feelings.

Libenson repeats her established format of alternating first-person narrators and adding a twist at the end, but, in “Just Jaime,” it’s more muted, with two girls whose friendship is in crisis, each presenting her story in a manner such that, as the day goes along, they, and we, gain insights and shift our views of the other characters.

With no gigantic events to distract, their narratives focus on the internal, and the intended audience will surely recognize Jaime’s confusion and pain as her social world disintegrates for reasons she cannot fathom, until she does.

As with Fire Story, this book will be of particular comfort to those who have been through the experience, in this case the same audience that gobbles down Raina Telgemeier‘s graphic novels and, particularly, who loved Cece Bell’s El Deafo.

But, if you buy it for your seventh grader, make sure she leaves it where you can pick it up yourself, because it’s also a valuable document for those who need to remember when life was so tender that dreams were kept beside your pillow.


Funny Business

Finally, here’s a book you can purchase right now and that I promise you has no great emotional messages except that life in the business world can be pretty damn silly.

Though there is a message here for cartoonists, which is that Alex has earned such a fond niche in the Daily Telegraph’s business pages that Peattie & Taylor were able to attract an underwriter for their yearly wrap-up, the result being a hardcover, full-color book with strips of a size not seen in newspapers since the 1940s.

I’m always a little reluctant in featuring Alex in CSotD because I have the advantage, first of all, of having been a business writer for over a decade and, second, of having my ex marry an Englishman who lived the life of grouse-shoots and cricket.

If that’s not your experience, you may find some of what goes on in the strip a bit impenetrable, but it’s worth the effort and, gathered in one volume like this, it’s easier to pick up on the cultural elements than you might by reading one strip a day on the website, though I also recommend that.

And it’s not all business, as poor Clive continues to navigate his seemingly endless divorce.

Nor is it hard to figure out why the office millennial is such an annoyingly clever fellow, even if you don’t work for quite such a high-flying company.

You may even feel a bit of jealousy over the occasional revelation of a law they have which we don’t.

In fact, you might even be envious of the ethical standards that have recently been imposed on British businesses, even as Alex and his friends work to find ways to game this new system.

And we’ve all been reading about Brexit, which will force British financial companies to create a presence within the EU, most likely in — alas for the poor sod who pulls the short straw — the less-than-thrilling city of Frankfurt.

(But imagine a world where the law requires you to go home at the end of the day.)

3 thoughts on “CSotD: Curl Up With A Good Book (or 3)

  1. I can’t wait to get “A Fire Story”. My favorite quote from the version on his blog is when he’s walking through his flattened neighborhood the first time after the fire: “The sun was a dim orange disk in a salmon-gray curtain of smoke. I inhaled my neighbors’ lives.” Yes, I agree, the ability to express this is a gift.

  2. I cannot *wait* to read A Fire Story. “I inhaled my neighbors’ lives.” is one of the most show-stopping, stunning lines I’ve ever read in literature.

    A close friend and co-worker just returned from spending Christmas week visiting family in England (East Anglia district). She mentioned the strict crackdown on impaired driving and how seriously it is being taken. On NYE, not a person in the extended party had a drink until each was in their own base for the rest of the night. (That is *not* charactaristic for this gang.) The changes were the talk of the day, apparently!

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