Book Club newsletter: ‘Breathing Fire’ in September

Trees on the side of a highway in flames
The Caldor fire burns on both sides of Highway 50 about 10 miles east of Kyburz, Calif., on Aug. 26, 2021.
(Sara Nevis /Associated Press)

Good morning, and welcome to the L.A. Times Book Club newsletter.

This month a new series of wildfires ravaged more than a million acres and destroyed entire communities in Northern California. Families there live in dread of evacuation orders — and of what will await them when the flames and smoke clear.

This terrifying siege is all too familiar to Californians in this era of drought, extreme heat and global warming.


What’s less well known is that the legions of firefighters battling these runaway wildfires include the growing ranks of women inmates from California prisons.

In her new book, “Breathing Fire,” journalist Jaime Lowe takes readers to California’s fire lines through the experiences of inmates who volunteer for intense fire training and put their lives on the line to save a state in peril.

Lowe says the book was inspired by a 2016 Times article about Shawna Lynn Jones, a 22-year-old inmate who was struck in the head by a large rock while working the fire lines in Malibu near Mulholland Highway. Jones, serving a three-year sentence for violating probation after a drug offense, died only six weeks before her release date.

For the next five years, Lowe set out to document the lives (and in Jones’ case, the death) of the women of the state’s Conservation Camp program: their stories, their training and the inequities of a system that paid Shawna Jones just $2.56 a day or $1 an hour for working the fire lines.

Lowe joins book club readers Sept. 28 to discuss “Breathing Fire” with Times columnist Erika D. Smith, who also has written about the state’s inmate firefighters and their struggles to earn a paycheck after prison.

This virtual book club event will stream live on Facebook, YouTube and Twitter starting at 6 p.m. Pacific. Sign up on Eventbrite.


As you read the book, tell us: What questions do you have for Jaime Lowe? Share your questions and comments in email to

Book cover for "Breathing Fire: Female Inmate Firefighters on the Front Lines of California's Wildfires" by Jaime Lowe.
(MCD/Farrar, Strauss and Giroux/ Jeff Montgomery)

Our daily news podcast

If you’re a fan of this newsletter, you’ll probably love our new daily podcast, “The Times,” hosted by columnist Gustavo Arellano, along with reporters from across our newsroom. Every weekday, it takes you beyond the headlines. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts and follow on Spotify.

‘All In’

This week Billie Jean King regaled book clubbers with stories of growing up on 36th Street in Long Beach. At 77, she still bristles when she recalls being pulled out of a group photo at the Los Angeles Tennis Club because she was wearing white shorts instead of a white dress. (“My mother was mortified. That night she started sewing a dress for me.”) She talked about a lifetime of refusing to settle for less than she believed she and other female athletes were worth and how she and eight other players fought to create the first women’s professional tennis tour.

“We decided that we would give up our careers for the following three things. That any girl in this world if she’s good enough would have a place to compete. Number two, that we’d be appreciated for our accomplishments. Not only our looks. And number three, to be able to make a living playing what we loved,” she told Times Executive Sports Editor Christian Stone.

“And we all remember the days when we only made our $14 a day and we never wanted to look back and we didn’t care if we were suspended. We didn’t care if we ever played Wimbledon or the U.S Open again. And we did it and it worked.”

ICYMI: Watch King discuss her bestselling memoir, “All In,” here.

A woman holds the Venus Rosewater Dish above her head in front of a group of photographers
Billie Jean King wins her first Wimbledon singles title in 1966. Her prize? She says she received a gift voucher for 45 pounds.
(Keystone Pictures USA / Alamy Stock Photo)


If you like audiobooks, you also might enjoy audio versions of Column One, The Times’ showcase for storytelling. Voice actors record these front page stories, which are produced by Apple News+.

Column One editor Steve Padilla shared five of his favorite recordings. You’ll find audio links embedded in the stories on You can read along, or just listen.

From Maria L. LaGanga: “It wasn’t just anyone who collected the bodies of the hospital’s COVID victims. It was Karl.”

From Thomas Curwen: “A riddle in the California desert, and one man’s fight to solve it and save himself.”

From Stacy Perman: The mystery of a stolen rare cello has a surprise ending.”

From Sandy Banks:In South L.A., turning to Black midwives to give birth.”

From Marisa Gerber:After getting his DNA results, he messaged a stranger: I think you might be my father.”


Keep reading

Fall preview: Check out these 30 highly anticipated books for fall, plus five new nonfiction books and five mysteries flying below the radar. Also, Dorany Pineda explains why hot books autumn feels like a safe bet.

How a novelist cracked the real-life story of her Nazi-fighting ancestor: When author Rebecca Donner learned that an 89-year-old man named Donald Heath Jr. was alive in California, “I got on a plane immediately,” she says. That gave Donner a way forward on “All The Frequent Troubles of Our Days,” a book she’d been hoping to write for decades.

L.A. history: In advance of the Sunday anniversary of the Chicano Moratorium, The Times zine featuring last year’s 50th anniversary coverage is back in stock.

From the L.A. library to the Rose Bowl: The Linda Lindas went viral after their pandemic set at the Cypress Park branch of the L.A. Public Library. Now the L.A. teens are one of the must-see acts at 88rising’s Head in the Clouds festival, Brookside at the Rose Bowl on Nov. 6 and 7.

Don’t miss: This op-ed piece by Dr. Anita Sircar is one of the most-shared stories this past week: “As a doctor in a COVID unit, I’m running out of compassion for the unvaccinated. Get the shot.”

Postscript: As we read “Breathing Fire” this coming month, here are four more new California books on the topic. “Because the fires are not going anywhere,” writes Zan Romanoff.