Graphic Reaction: A Fire Story by Brian Fies

Early morning on Monday, October 9, 2017, wildfires burned through Northern California, resulting in 44 fatalities. In addition, 6,200 homes and 8,900 structures were destroyed. Author Brian Fies’s firsthand account of this tragic event is an honest, unflinching depiction of his personal experiences, including losing his house and every possession he and his wife had that didn’t fit into the back of their car. In the days that followed, as the fires continued to burn through the area, Brian hastily pulled together A Fire Story and posted it online—it immediately went viral. He is now expanding his original webcomic to include environmental insight and the fire stories of his neighbors and others in his community. A Fire Story is an honest account of the wildfires that left homes destroyed, families broken, and a community determined to rebuild.

Wow. If you’re looking for a powerful graphic novel to read, this is the one.

The 2017 fires in Northern California were absolutely devastating. I live in San Francisco, and while the fires themselves never came close to our city, the air was full of smoke for weeks — schools ending up closing, people were warned to stay inside and to wear masks while outside, and everyone had headaches and coughs from the lousy air quality. But of course, this is nothing compared to the suffering of those who perished as well as the thousands of people who lost their homes.

Author Brian Fies lived through it. A Fire Story is his memoir of the fire, starting with him and his wife waking up to red skies and the smell of smoke, grabbing a few items on their way out the door, and evacuating along with all of their neighbors — then returning the next morning to find that the entire neighborhood was just gone.

The author initially drew/wrote some of these pages in the moment, using sharpies and a pad of paper, to capture and process the experience as it unfolded. From the book’s notes, I understand that these images were initially shared online and went viral. He’s now expanded from the initial drawings to convey a more encompassing picture of what he and others went through. Sprinkled throughout are the “fire stories” of others who lost their homes, how they dealt with their losses, and how they’re still dealing with rebuilding and recovering. This is incredible stuff, truly.

Brian Fies shares his own experiences with candor and grace, and even some humor, as well as conveying the bigger picture of the reasons for the calamity and the scope of the loss — and manages to keep a focus on the human impact that can be lost when dealing with a disaster of this magnitude. We may hear about thousands of people losing their homes, but as the author points out in this excellent book, each of those thousands has a unique, individual story to tell.

For a taste of the book, check out:

From: A Santa Rosa Cartoonist’s ‘Fire Story’ Comes to Life
Kelly Whalen and Farrin Abbott, Producers for KQED Arts
Video courtesy KQED Arts

 

The author’s original postings: http://brianfies.blogspot.com/2017/10/a-fire-story-complete.html

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The details:

Title: A Fire Story
Author: Brian Fies
Publisher: Harry N. Abrams
Publication date: March 5, 2019
Length: 160 pages
Genre: Graphic novel
Source: Library

Take A Peek Book Review: Golden State by Ben H. Winters

“Take a Peek” book reviews are short and (possibly) sweet, keeping the commentary brief and providing a little peek at what the book’s about and what I thought. My newest “take a peek” book:

Synopsis:

(via Goodreads)

A shocking vision of our future that is one part Minority Report and one part Chinatown.

Lazlo Ratesic is 54, a 19-year veteran of the Speculative Service, from a family of law enforcement and in a strange alternate society that values law and truth above all else. This is how Laz must, by law, introduce himself, lest he fail to disclose his true purpose or nature, and by doing so, be guilty of a lie.

Laz is a resident of The Golden State, a nation resembling California, where like-minded Americans retreated after the erosion of truth and the spread of lies made public life, and governance, increasingly impossible. There, surrounded by the high walls of compulsory truth-telling, knowingly contradicting the truth–the Objectively So–is the greatest possible crime. Stopping those crimes, punishing them, is Laz’s job. In its service, he is one of the few individuals permitted to harbor untruths–to “speculate” on what might have happened in the commission of a crime.

But the Golden State is far less a paradise than its name might suggest. To monitor, verify, and enforce the Objectively So requires a veritable panopticon of surveillance, recording, and record-keeping. And when those in control of the truth twist it for nefarious means, the Speculators may be the only ones with the power to fight back.

My Thoughts:

Golden State is a weird mind-f*ck of a novel, and that’s what makes it so wonderful. In a society where adherence to the Objectively So is the primary goal, the crime of telling a lie can lead to lengthy imprisonment or even exile, a fate assumed to be equivalent to death. Law enforcement agents like Lazlo can feel when a lie has been told, and their ability to sense anomalies leads them in pursuit of those who attempt to subvert the State with their untruths. People greet each other on the street by stating absolute facts (“A cow has four stomachs.” “A person has one.”), and the ringing of clock bells leads to streams of statements about the time, hour after hour.

I loved the explanations for the rules and moral certainties of the Golden State, which we’re led to believe has been in existence for several generations already as of the start of this story:

You go back far enough in history, ancient history, and you find a time when people were never taught to grow out of it, when every adult lied all the time, when people lied for no reason or for the most selfish possible reasons, for political effect or personal gain. They lied and they didn’t just lie; they built around themselves whole carapaces of lies. They built realities and sheltered inside them. This is how it was, this is how it is known to have been, and all the details of that old dead world are known to us in our bones but hidden from view, true and permanent but not accessible, not part of our vernacular.

It was this world but it was another world and it’s gone. We are what’s left. The calamity of the past is not true, because it is unknown. There could only be hypotheses, and hypotheses are not the truth. So we leave it blank. Nothing happened. Something happened. It is gone.

Golden State is a book that I’ll need to revisit, probably a few times. The writing is spot-on, conveying the strange realities of its world from an insider’s perspective, immersing the reader in the weird double-speak of Speculators and Small Infelicities and Acknowledged Experts — it’s strange and alien, yet we inhabit it through the characters for whom it’s all just part of the normal lives they lead.

Reading Golden State is a treat. I wanted to stop to highlight passages practically everywhere — there’s so much clever wordplay and inversion of our understanding of what things mean. It’s a great read, highly recommended. Now I need to get back to the other books on my shelves by this author, because I’m pretty sure I’m going to love them.

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The details:

Title: Golden State
Author: Ben H. Winters
Publisher: Mulholland Books
Publication date: January 22, 2019
Length: 319 pages
Genre: Speculative fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

Book Review: Dry by Neal Shusterman and Jarrod Shusterman

 

When the California drought escalates to catastrophic proportions, one teen is forced to make life and death decisions for her family in this harrowing story of survival from New York Times bestselling author Neal Shusterman and Jarrod Shusterman.

The drought—or the Tap-Out, as everyone calls it—has been going on for a while now. Everyone’s lives have become an endless list of don’ts: don’t water the lawn, don’t fill up your pool, don’t take long showers.

Until the taps run dry.

Suddenly, Alyssa’s quiet suburban street spirals into a warzone of desperation; neighbors and families turned against each other on the hunt for water. And when her parents don’t return and her life—and the life of her brother—is threatened, Alyssa has to make impossible choices if she’s going to survive.

This father/son-written novel starts at a point not so foreign to our world today — a drought in California that’s gone from bad to worse. Water restrictions have been in place for a while. Lawns are brown, swimming pools are empty, and the Central Valley, California’s agricultural hub, has become a new Dust Bowl.

As the story opens in a Southern California suburb, Alyssa’s mother turns on the kitchen faucet, and nothing comes out. Is this the result of yet another plumbing mishap on the part of Alyssa’s father? When the family turns on the news, they discover it’s the Tap-Out — there is no more water. Outside of California, the situation is slow to draw attention, as there’s a major hurricane wreaking havoc on the East Coast. It doesn’t seem so dire at first. Surely, the water will be back soon.

A visit to stock up at Costco that afternoon reveals the panic already setting in. The bottled water shelves are already empty. So are the shelves of Gatorade, juices, and anything else to drink. People are intense and possessive, in competition for the remaining liquids. Alyssa and her brother fill a cart with bagged ice, which they then need to fiercely protect from predatory adults. It’s only been a few hours, and already kindness is evaporating along with the water supply.

Alyssa’s next door neighbor Kelton and his family are “preppers” — survivalists in suburbia, with a well-stocked safe room, an armory, and all sorts of defensive perimeter booby traps, as well as a bug-out location in the mountains. But as the neighborhood becomes more and more tense, even this well-guarded and provisioned home won’t remain safe for long.

As is typical for a YA adventure/survival tale, we eventually end up with the teens cut off from their parents and forced to make life-or-death decisions if they’re to have any chance of survival. Things get violent and scary very quickly. Panic leads to riots and death. Martial law is declared and people are herded into evacuation camps — but even there, there’s only enough water for about a tenth of the people cramming into the centers. As people get more and more desperate, safety becomes even more elusive. Finally, Alyssa and Kelton, joined by two other teens, are on the run with Alyssa’s younger brother, seeking hydration and safety from the masses, just looking for a place to hole up and wait out the Tap-Out. It can’t last forever… can it?

Of course, the danger isn’t only from desperate mob violence and panic. Dehydration sets in quickly. People find all sorts of inventive ways to find sips of water, just trying to stay alive — but reading about the early and then more advanced stages of dehydration is plenty horrifying.

Dry takes place over little more than a week, and it’s fascinating to see how quickly society disintegrates in the face of such a catastrophe. Alyssa’s brother Garrett refers to the people so desperate for water that they’ll do anything as “water-zombies” — and it’s no surprise that some scenes reminded me of The Walking Dead, as normal life and the moral standards of civilization break down in the face of a very basic threat to survival. I was also reminded in many ways of Mike Mullin’s Ashfall series, in which a natural disaster of catastrophic proportions leads to this same type of societal collapse.

Dry is a quick, pulse-pounding read — I finished it over a day and a half of intense reading. I was drawn to this book because I’d just read Scythe and Thunderhead by Neal Shusterman over the summer, and found those books deep and thought-provoking (as well as being outstanding adventures). Dry doesn’t provoke the same sort of queries about life and purpose as those books, and it lacks the character development I found so engaging in Scythe. I was absolutely caught up in the story of Dry, but didn’t find myself caring deeply about any of the specific characters, who all sort of blended together as the POV shifted from chapter to chapter.

An additional minor quibble is that reasons and consequences are glossed over for the sake of moving the action forward. I would have liked to learn more about the events that led to the Tap-Out, and how the water was able to be restored finally. Reading Dry, we just have to accept these developments as fact, but more detail would have helped make it all seem more real.

I do recommend Dry. It’s a scary, intense adventure, as well as a cautionary tale about climate change and the need to pay attention, NOW, before things get so much worse.

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The details:

Title: Dry
Author: Neal Shusterman and Jarrod Shusterman
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books For Young Readers
Publication date: October 2, 2018
Length: 400 pages
Genre: Young adult fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

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Flashback Friday: Golden Days by Carolyn See

It’s time, once again, for Flashback Friday…

Flashback Friday is a chance to dig deep in the darkest nooks of our bookshelves and pull out the good stuff from way back. As a reader, a blogger, and a consumer, I tend to focus on new, new, new… but what about the old favorites, the hidden gems? On Flashback Fridays, I want to hit the pause button for a moment and concentrate on older books that are deserving of attention.

If you’d like to join in, here are the Flashback Friday book selection guidelines:

  1. Has to be something you’ve read yourself
  2. Has to still be available, preferably still in print
  3. Must have been originally published 5 or more years ago

Other than that, the sky’s the limit! Join me, please, and let us all know: what are the books you’ve read that you always rave about? What books from your past do you wish EVERYONE would read? Pick something from five years ago, or go all the way back to the Canterbury Tales if you want. It’s Flashback Friday time!

My pick for this week’s Flashback Friday:

Golden Days by Carolyn See

(published 1986)

I discovered this odd gem only a few years ago, and felt equal parts befuddled and entranced by Golden Days. This novel paints a portrait of a particular time in California, specifically 1980s LA, and then veers off into an apocalyptic final section that is both moving, shocking, and hopeful, in a very odd way.

From Publishers Weekly:

See, who is the author of three previous, rather quiet, sensitive novels, a partner in the authorship of blockbuster pop sagas (Lotus Land, 110 Shanghai Road and an admired Los Angeles Times book reviewer, has found an entirely new voice for her most current novel, a breakout if ever there was one. Her publisher mentions Joan Didion, Anne Tyler and Nora Ephron, but none quite evokes the wry yet deeply felt and devastatingly feminine tone she has caught in Golden Days, rather as if John Cheever had changed gender and moved to California. There is Cheever’s intense sense of place (Los Angeles instead of exurban Connecticut), of the passage of time and of the enormities that gape just below the surface of life in this tale of a breezy middle-aged woman coming to terms with life, men and, ultimately, nuclear war. Some of the material sounds familiar: marriage in the early 1960s to dreadfully wrong men, the depth and power of female friendship over the years, the California self-realization movement (for once, not satirized but quirkily affirmed) and, finally, the darkening into the 1980s and the coping with unimaginable nuclear horrors. But it has all been felt and thought afresh, and with startling sudden insights on nearly every page: on the way childhood memories linger, why men make war, how favorite restaurants somehow attain symbolic stature. A chapter that inhabits the mind of a philandering husband is uncanny in its accuracy and sadness. And the closing pages offer a vision of nuclear apotheosis and human survival utterly unlike anything in contemporary literature. Golden Days offers the excitement of discovering what seems like a brand-new talent, but enriched by a sureness of tragicomic touch that could only be the work of an experienced writer striking into bold new territory.

I struggled early on with this book, as the depiction of Los Angeles life felt so foreign to me, particularly with the main character’s side journey into self-improvement seminars and her odd devotion to the charismatic leader she encounters. At the same time, the author depicts the busy clamor of LA with an overarching sense of impending doom, as characters refer to the threat of war in a way that becomes more and more real, albeit unseen, as the novel progresses. And then, oddly, the final portion of the book deals with the same characters after the bombs drop — and it’s this part that has stuck in my mind ever since. I don’t quite buy the science of how the author depicts survival in a post-nuclear world, but the imagery is startling and, in this context, persuasive.

Golden Days is weird and definitely tried my patience at times, and yet it is a shocking and original depiction of an imagined nuclear holocaust and its aftermath. The powerful ending, with its strangely optimistic tone, would make great fodder for a book group discussion. Overall, I’d say give this book a try and see if it works for you.

So, what’s your favorite blast from the past? Leave a tip for your fellow booklovers, and share the wealth. It’s time to dust off our old favorites and get them back into circulation! 

Note from your friendly Bookshelf Fantasies host: To join in the Flashback Friday bloghop, post about a book you love on your blog, and share your link below. Don’t have a blog post to share? Then share your favorite oldie-but-goodie in the comments section. Jump in!



Flashback Friday: Snow Mountain Passage by James D. Houston

It’s time, once again, for Flashback Friday…

Flashback Friday is a chance to dig deep in the darkest nooks of our bookshelves and pull out the good stuff from way back. As a reader, a blogger, and a consumer, I tend to focus on new, new, new… but what about the old favorites, the hidden gems? On Flashback Fridays, I want to hit the pause button for a moment and concentrate on older books that are deserving of attention.

My rules — since I’m making this up:

  1. Has to be something I’ve (you’ve) read myself (yourself) — oh, you know what I mean!
  2. Has to still be available, preferably still in print
  3. Must have been originally published 5 or more years ago

Other than that, the sky’s the limit! Join me, please, and let us all know: what are the books you’ve read that you always rave about? What books from your past do you wish EVERYONE would read? Pick something from five years ago, or go all the way back to the Canterbury Tales if you want. It’s Flashback Friday time!

My pick for this week’s Flashback Friday:

Snow Mountain Passage by James D. Houston

(published 2002)

This week’s pick for Flashback Friday was published in 2002, but as historical fiction, tells a tale that goes back to 1846. Snow Mountain Passage is a fictional retelling of one of the most infamous chapters in American history, the story of the Donner Party.

When you hear the words “The Donner Party”, if you’re like most people, you immediately think of cannibalism. For many, that’s where their knowledge of the Donner Party starts and ends. But what really happened during that awful winter? Who were these people, stranded in the mountains and struggling to survive? How did they end up in this terrible predicament?

From Goodreads:

Snow Mountain Passage is a powerful retelling of our most dramatic pioneer story–the ordeal of the Donner Party. Through the eyes of James Frazier Reed, one of the group’s leaders, and the imagined “Trail Notes” of his daughter Patty, we journey along with the ill-fated group determined, at all costs, to make it to the California territory.

James Reed is a proud, headstrong, yet devoted husband and father. As he and his family travel in the “Palace Car,” a huge, specially built–and ultimately cumbersome–covered wagon, they thrill to new sights and cope with conflict and constant danger. Yet when a fight between Reed and another driver ends in death, Reed is exiled from the group and heads over the mountains alone. The fate of the other families, including Reed’s wife and four children, is sealed when they set out across a new, untested route through the Sierra–their final mountain pass. Arriving at the foothills just as the snows start to fall, they are left stranded for months–starving, freezing, and battling to survive–while Reed journeys across northern California, trying desperately to find means and men for a rescue party.

An extraordinary tale of pride and redemption, Snow Mountain Passage is a brilliantly imagined and grippingly told story straight from American history.

I was fascinated by the story and the characters, and amazed by how much I didn’t know about the Donner Party. The author invests the historical figures with life and personality, and does a thorough yet never boring job of laying out, step by step, all the choices and mistakes that led inevitably to tragedy.

If you enjoy historical fiction, or if you think you already know all there is to know about the Donner Party, check out Snow Mountain Passage. You may be surprised by how moving the story is. I certainly enjoyed this glimpse into California’s past… and now every time I drive over Donner Pass in the Sierras, I can’t help thinking about this book — and shivering, just a bit.

So, what’s your favorite blast from the past? Leave a tip for your fellow booklovers, and share the wealth. It’s time to dust off our old favorites and get them back into circulation! 

Note from your friendly Bookshelf Fantasies host: To join in the Flashback Friday bloghop, post about a book you love on your blog, and share your link below. Don’t have a blog post to share? Then share your favorite oldie-but-goodie in the comments section. Jump in!