Friday, May 26, 2006


I own a stupid cat. That's not a slander against the cat, whose name is Amber. It is a medical fact.

A Good Samaritan found Amber when she was just a couple of weeks old, comatose in a field, almost dead, and took her to a veterinarian friend of ours. He saved her, barely, but whatever happened to her in that field took its toll. He started asking around: Anybody want a brain-damaged cat?

He played us like fools.

Amber isn't cool and graceful like our other two cats. When she jumps, she's as likely to overshoot her landing as stick it. Gravity is always a delightful new discovery. She knows her name--about half the time--but never seems able to figure out where it's coming from. She's kind of an oaf and about half a beat slow, a trait often undetectable in a human but hilariously evident in a cat.

She's also not very good at grooming herself, which is unfortunate since she turned out to be a very long-haired tabby who hates being brushed. So once a year, in the spring when the weather turns warm, we take Amber back to our vet friend and he shaves her tangled, matted coat into a "lion cut." For a few weeks afterward she's the most pathetic, trembling, sorry, ridiculous creature ever born. Her bobble head is five sizes too big for her body and she's got a pom-pom stuck at the end of every extremity. The other cats tease her mercilessly--I hear them snicker.

Or perhaps that's me.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

New Reviews: Villalon and Nonanon

That title kinda rhymes....

I just learned of a terrific audio review of Mom's Cancer by San Francisco Chronicle book editor Oscar Villalon. The review was done a week ago for "The California Report" magazine, a weekly radio news program produced by KQED in San Francisco. I appreciate it very much.

Y'know, I put a lot of thought into how I structured my story, its tone and style, how I portrayed the characters, which parts I included and which I left out. The story is all true, but within the boundaries of telling the truth (as I saw it) I still had a lot of choices to make. So I'm happy when someone who really knows books and understands how a story works says I chose well. It means a lot to my insecure inner writer.

Mom's Cancer also got a nice review yesterday on the "Nonfiction (Readers) Anonymous" blog. "Nonanon" is an opinionated, sardonic online critic who, I gather, doesn't shy away from scorching earth when necessary. That makes her "Wows" (I count five of them) that much sweeter. Thank you.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

USA Today Today

I like Miriam Engelberg. Which is good, since we seem to be in an arranged marriage neither of us volunteered for.

Miriam wrote a book titled Cancer Made Me a Shallower Person, released in April, which tells the story of her breast cancer diagnosis and treatment in comic form. Some journalists, including Liz Szabo of USA Today, have noted the coincidence of two cancer-themed graphic novels hitting the market around the same time. That makes it a trend, and journalists love to spot trends.

Miriam and me in USA Today, May 23.
Click on the picture to read the story.

Miriam and I made e-mail contact a while ago when one of the first such articles came out. We exchanged a couple of notes, commiserated over some shared frustrations, and basically said, "I guess we'll be seeing each other's names a lot in the next few months." She couldn't have been more friendly or personable. I liked her a lot.

I sometimes get comments from people expressing sympathy or frustration that I have to share my press with my competition. I don't see it like that. First, it's not "my" press in the first place. More likely, without Miriam's book many of the stories written about both of us wouldn't have been written at all. We get more attention together than either of us would alone.

Second, I don't consider her my competition. Her perspective, approach, writing voice, and drawing style are very different from mine (although it's interesting to see similarities where they occur as well). I suspect we attract different readers. Unfortunately, there's enough misery in the world for a multitude of takes on it. I'm not competing with Miriam; I'm competing with all the other ways people can spend $12.95.

So, while I probably wouldn't have chosen to have Miriam's book come out so soon after mine, I think it's working out fine. On balance, we're probably good for each other. I sincerely wish her and her book the best, and I look forward to treating her to lunch someday. We should have a lot to talk about.

Monday, May 22, 2006

USA Tomorrow

If you ever wanted to start reading USA Today, tomorrow might be a good day to begin.

Friday, May 19, 2006

WSJ Review

If you ever wanted to start reading the Wall Street Journal, today might be a good day to begin. I especially recommend Page W6.

Laura Landro wrote a nice review of Mom's Cancer for one of the world's great newspapers. An excerpt: "...Mom's Cancer works on several levels: The stark black-and-white drawings, with the occasional burst of color, convey the drama of a family battling the fear and uncertainty of cancer treatment, and the illustrations help explain technical matters--such as how chemotherapy and radiation work against a tumor--that might make readers' eyes glaze over in traditional text-only format."

I continue to be amazed by the press attention my book is getting, both reviews and features. The Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, Entertainment Weekly, Publishers Weekly, Daily Telegraph (U.K.), Associated Press, others on the way that I'd rather not say. Hundreds of thousands of books are published every year, and most go unnoticed by big media outlets; most remain unreviewed by anyone at all. I'm grateful.

From my vantage point behind the wizard's curtain, I see three things happening: Some media discover the book on their own or receive review copies from my publisher, Abrams, and simply find Mom's Cancer worth writing about on its merits. Other media notice that my book is the first of a little cluster of cancer-themed graphic novels coming out this year and want to cover what they see as an interesting trend (the "Pow! Bam! Comics Aren't Just For Kids!" stories). And some media notice my book because people at Abrams work very hard and exercise their professional and social connections, sometimes for months, to get their attention. I'd guess that the press Mom's Cancer has gotten to date has derived about equally from those three sources.

I won't know for months whether that exposure translates to sales. Bookselling turns out to be a murky, mysterious business of orders, returns, discounts, forecasts, and unholy voodoo that makes it hard to reckon where you stand. I recently wrote that it feels very strange to put a book out into the world and realize it has a life completely independent of me; it must be like sending kids off to college (which I'll be doing in a few months) and not knowing if they're studying hard, flunking out, or staggering about in drunken debauchery. Almost all I know is that the reviews are good and people I talk to at Abrams seem happy. So I'm happy.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006


Today, Wednesday May 17, was designated LiveSTRONG Day by the Lance Armstrong Foundation. As part of that effort, a representative of the foundation wrote and asked if I would blog today "about (my) experience with cancer or on a specific issue (I) feel most passionately about.... What would have made Mom's cancer experience a better one?" I'm happy to participate but fear I won't be very inspirational. However, I'll be honest.

I once thought the phrase "They're inventing new and better treatments every day" was an empty platitude employed to inject false hope into a hopeless situation. I don't believe that anymore. Ten years ago, my mother wouldn't have gotten the brief remission and approximately two extra years of life she worked so hard to win. Today, medical science has treatment options that weren't available to my mother even a couple of years ago. Cancer treatment is improving incrementally, with revolutionary therapies--gene therapies, nanotechnologies, custom chemotherapy that targets only cancer cells, other stuff I don't understand--on the realistic horizon.

At the same time, cancer patients are more than meat and bones to be repaired and sent on their way. What would have made Mom's cancer experience better? Continuity of care: one physician who understood the entire picture, pointed Mom to the right resources, smoothed the path for her. As it was, Mom faced too many specialists concerned only with their little piece of brain or foot, and no one who seemed aware that cancer can affect the whole body no matter what particular organ it attacks. When Mom had one physician championing her cause, she got good care; when she didn't, she didn't. Family can fill some of that role but not all. I think it's important to build a history with a pro who knows who you are, not just what's wrong with your parts. If you're not satisified with the care you're getting, complain or shop around until you do. No one else will care more about your welfare than you do.

I get e-mails from people going through terrible ordeals, cancer and otherwise. I'm always quick to say I'm not a healthcare professional and can't give medical advice, but most already seem to know that. They're just looking for someone who understands... who's maybe been down the path they're standing at the trailhead of and can draw them a rough map of the hard climbs and switchbacks ahead. That's the main reason I wrote Mom's Cancer, and I think that's part of what the Lance Armstrong Foundation and similar organization are about.

I tell people who write me that Hope is never in vain. It has to be tempered with realism--I never advocate false hope--but I sincerely believe that it's reasonable to be optimistic. Reasonable to anticipate a better treatment or alternative therapy or acceptable quality of life. Sometimes the best you can hope for is a graceful, painless end--which after all is the best any of us mortals can hope for--and medical science can help that happen, too.

I'm no spokesman for any particular organization or cause. But in general, I think the road to surviving cancer has two parallel lanes: scientific progress and advocacy for those afflicted. Any person or group engaged in either or both is doing right.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Back in the Saddle Again

I'm back home after a week working on The Big Island of Hawaii, about which more later. While I was gone, I missed a great review of Mom's Cancer by Laurel Maury in the Los Angeles Times. Fortunately, my sisters caught it. Two excerpts, the first and last passages of the review:

In Mom's Cancer, Eisner-Award winning artist Brian Fies does a simple reality face-off with his mother's illness. Fies' excellent graphic novel, which started as a weekly Web comic, describes his mother's cancer treatment with neither sentiment nor hysterics, and the effect is quietly devastating....

What may earn this book a spot in oncology offices, self-help groups and, probably, medical school curricula, is how carefully Fies tells the truth about what happens to people. Mom's Cancer doesn't soften any blows. It gives us a woman getting through the most horrible episode in her life. She could easily be one of us.

Wow. This is probably the most thoughtful, thorough review my book has received, and I'm tremendously appreciative that it appeared in one of the largest newspapers in the United States. I'm always a little uneasy posting news of good reviews in this blog--it veers toward self-congratulatory hucksterism--but if I don't mention them, who will? One of the reasons I started the blog was to share what it's like to get a first book published; at this stage, a couple of months after release, reviews are a big part of that. The best I can do is promise to report the bad with the good ... and when anything bad comes up I'll try to be honest about it. So far, it's all pretty good.

Aloha? Oy.
My week in Hawaii was less fun that you probably imagine. I'm not complaining, it was still pretty paradisical (look, I invented a word!), but most of my time was spent sitting in convention center meeting rooms that could have been anywhere.

I attended the 2006 IEEE Fourth World Conference on Photovoltaic Energy Conversion, where my task was to gather the latest and greatest information on solar power for a government paper I'm helping write. These were a thousand of the brightest Ph.D. researchers from around the world pushing the boundaries of physics, chemistry and sophisticated manufacturing processes to eke every percentage point of efficiency possible from solar cells. They were some of the brightest people I've ever met, without a dippy hippy in sight (with all due respect to the dippy hippies, who are often the earliest adopters of the stuff these scientists and engineers invent).

It was a pretty heady experience. I met people who have Equations and Effects named after them--not only met them, but met their spouses and sat next to them at lunch and held up my end of intelligent conversations with them. Most seemed pretty low-key. After all, there's not a lot of glamour, prestige or money in solar power. Yet.

I'm an advocate of solar power and renewable energy resources in general. After several years of learning and writing about these technologies, and getting to know the people developing them, I'm firmly convinced that their proliferation is inevitable and probably coming sooner than most expect. At the same time, I'm not a True Believer Fanatic who thinks we'd all be living in harmony with nature already if only the Big Oil Conspiracy would lift its boot from our necks. In fact, most renewable technologies just aren't ready yet (one exception being wind power, which is genuinely affordable in many electricity markets). It's all about economics and priorities: if we all decided tomorrow that we wanted to power the country with pollution-free renewable energy and didn't mind paying five or ten times as much as we do today, it could happen in a decade. Right now, that's an unacceptable trade-off. But the price of renewables is only going down and the price of fossil fuels nowhere but up, and when those two curves cross each other I think we'll see an amazing transformation. So do the oil companies, which are already among the biggest investors in and developers of renewable power. They know.

In any case, I got what I needed for my paper, with only one unsolved scientific mystery lingering: What the heck is this?

A weasel? Ferret? Mongoose? I saw this thing from my hotel balcony and from a distance thought it was a squirrel. It's about that size and kind of moved like one, but as it scurried through the bushes almost directly beneath me I got a better look. I know very little about Hawaiian fauna, except that much of it has been displaced or wiped out by imported invaders, of which this must be one. Any insights are welcome. This creature haunts my dreams.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

The Drinking Horn of Thor

We have two good-sized trees in our small backyard. Under one of those trees, two bird feeders hang from a hooked metal pole. One feeder is stocked with the usual mix of small wild bird seed and the other with sunflower seed. We host finches, nut-hatches, robins, an occasional bullying jay. In branches overhead, a pair of gray squirrels has built a nest and taken up residence.

It's a good suburban life for a squirrel. Oh, there are a few neighborhood cats but they're fat and stupid, and if you've got eyes on both sides of your head and are paying the slightest attention, they're not much of a threat. We awaken to the sounds of squirrels scampering across our roof, making heedless leaps from roof to tree, and spiralling down one trunk and up the other with abandon.

And there ... not quite close enough to tree or fence to chance the leap, not quite low enough to reach from the ground, hanging from a slippery metal pole that takes all your finger and toe strength merely to climb ... juuuuussst within touching distance of one tiny claw if you stretch as far as you can ... is the bottomless buffet. Nirvana.

I'll be traveling on business for a week and doubt I'll have a chance to post. Take care, and don't forget to check back.