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Book Club: Fall reading with Jaime Lowe, Ron and Clint Howard, Nikole Hannah-Jones and Ann Patchett

A female firefighting prison inmate works on burning trees in 2013.
An inmate from the Puerta La Cruz conservation camp in Warner Springs works on burning trees in 2013.
(Hayne Palmour IV / San Diego Union-Tribune)

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

This fall, our book club is on fire.

On Tuesday we go to the front lines of California’s deadly wildfires with author Jaime Lowe, whose “Breathing Fire” chronicles the lives of women inmate firefighters who risk their lives for a few dollars a day. Please join our livestreaming event at 6 p.m.

Next month we’re reading “The Boys,” and welcoming director Ron Howard and actor Clint Howard on Oct. 15 to discuss their childhoods growing up on some of the most popular TV shows of the 1960s and ’70s. The Howard brothers will join our first in-person book club since February 2020. You can attend the discussion at L.A. Live’s Rooftop Terrace — or connect virtually to watch from home. Get tickets.

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Ron Howard and Clint Howard pictured on either side of their book "The Boys: A Memoir of Hollywood and Family."
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times; ‎William Morrow; JeanPaul San Pedro)

Our fall reading list also includes Pulitzer Prize winner Nikole Hannah-Jones and The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story.” This collection of essays, fiction, poetry and photography builds on her New York Times Magazine project and will be released in November.

Then in December we’re reading “These Precious Days” by bestselling author and indie bookstore owner Ann Patchett, whose previous books include “The Dutch House” and “The Patron Saint of Liars.” Stay tuned for details.

Getting the story

In advance of Tuesday’s book club, journalist Jaime Lowe shared insights into her research and reading list while working on “Breathing Fire” for the past five years.

Biggest challenge writing this book: The process includes living intimately with a subject for years, and forever being linked to it. The biggest challenge with this book was probably reading about and hearing about conditions inside prisons and jails — like torture, sexual assault, criminal behavior on the part of corrections officers, medical negligence perpetrated on those who were and are incarcerated. It was difficult to acknowledge that this was and is reality for so many people separated from society.

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

Number of people interviewed: Wow, I have no idea! Basically I talked with at least 50 to 75 female incarcerated firefighters, a dozen or more correctional officers, a dozen or so firefighters in CalFire, L.A. County Fire Department and USFS, experts in climatology, fire analysis, criminal justice, history of California, California legislation, law professors, family members of those incarcerated. If I were guessing maybe 300 people, but it feels like I’m looking at a jar of jellybeans and estimating.

Miles driven: I don’t fully know. I drive up and down California regularly and try to fold in as much reporting as I can, in every direction. I’d say at least 5,000 miles, which makes me feel irresponsible regarding climate change, but also California is huge and I went as far north as Camptonville and Paradise, and made many, many trips to Lancaster and Palmdale and the San Diego area and drove around the fire roads in Malibu and Topanga regularly.

Most memorable character: I’m going to dodge this question because each woman that I wrote about is memorable and amazing for a variety of reasons. But one of the women I profiled in the book — Selena — told me about how she would catch lizards in Malibu and trade them with other incarcerated women for 25-cent noodles. They’d keep the lizards as pets for a couple hours and then release them back into the mountains. So, I’d say the lizards because I loved the idea of both Selena’s hustle and also this innate need to care for a pet, to have comfort, to relate to the natural world they were immersed in. So, the lizards!

Most poignant moment: This book started with a tragic death and after becoming close with Shawna Lynn Jones’ mom, Diana Baez, I’ve watched her live and evolve with grief. I’ve seen her navigate waves of absolute unadulterated sorrow and I’ve seen how loss and death has shifted Diana’s life entirely.

Most helpful books or resources during your research: There are at least 30 to 50 books I could list here for a variety of reasons. A random selection of those books would be Kelly Lytle Hernandez’s “City of Inmates” and Angela Davis’ “Are Prisons Obsolete?”

California writers that inspire you: Montserrat Fontes

Last book that kept you up at night: Brontez Purnell’s “100 Boyfriends,” which is a very nighttime book.

TV shows that got you through the pandemic: I so desperately want this answer to be different than what I’m about to say but ... watching and rewatching “New Girl” was extremely soothing and I turned to those characters as friends in extremely bizarre and unhealthy ways. But also sometimes I would giggle myself to sleep because of Winston’s bird shirts, or Nick’s self-styled plumbing. ... Also rewatching “The Wire” and “Succession.”

Something you discovered about yourself this past year: I discovered that I need a 12-step group for my “New Girl” addiction.

Craziest thing you’ve done to get a story: I hung out with hundreds of thousands of bees in the Central Valley with no bee suit on because ... I’m not very smart and I was deeply unprepared. But I sat there, keeping my body and breath very still, and I did not get stung while I was interviewing industrial beekeepers! And I got to taste fresh honey, which felt simultaneously rude to the bees and absolutely indescribable for the purity of sweetness.

Your next project: Still working on figuring that out. But if anyone has any good ideas, I am open to them.

On Tuesday Lowe will be in conversation with Times columnist Erika D. Smith and the virtual event will livestream on Twitter, YouTube and Facebook. Please share your questions and comments in advance by email to bookclub@latimes.com.

Keep reading

On Mississippi Street: The San Francisco house where sci-fi master Frank Herbert wrote “Dune” is now for sale, via SFGate.

Social unrest, crackerjack scene-setting, a perfectly timed laugh: Reviewer Steph Cha savors Colson Whitehead’s new crime fiction page-turner, “Harlem Shuffle.”

Longmire returns: Craig Johnson says a missing-person poster at a library on the Crow Reservation inspired “Daughter of the Morning Star,” his latest Sheriff Longmire novel. “It was a simple computer copy with the face of a young woman, bright-eyed and smiling and now ... gone,” Johnson says. “The words were desperate and pleading and a reward was posted.”

Refugee stories: Rabih Alameddine isn’t afraid to add humor while addressing Syria’s humanitarian crisis in his new novel, “The Wrong End of the Telescope.”

Book prizes: The longlist for the 2021 National Book Award for Fiction includes Lauren Groff for “Matrix,” Richard Powers for “Bewilderment,” Anthony Doerr for “Cloud Cuckoo Land,” Honorée Fanonne Jeffers for “The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois” and Robert Jones Jr. for “The Prophets.” Browse the complete list of nominees in all categories. Also: Nancy Pearl, the Seattle librarian who launched the Common Read movement, will receive the 2021 Literarian Award for outstanding service.

Golden ticket: Netflix has acquired the works of Roald Dahl, the author of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and other celebrated children’s books. The deal paves the way for Netflix to bring all of the author’s back catalog to screens.

Maul cops: In an excerpt from “Fuzz,” science writer Mary Roach writes about “Crime Scene Forensics When the Killer Isn’t Human” at the New York Times. On Sept. 30 Roach will be in conversation with columnist Patt Morrison at The Times’ Ideas Exchange. Get tickets on Eventbrite.

Heroines unite: Celebrating Wonder Woman’s 80th birthday, DC Comics showcases 23 women who embody her spirit in a new graphic anthology, “Wonderful Women of the World.” Among the subjects profiled in the anthology, edited by Laurie Halse Anderson with a cover by Wonder Woman artist Nicola Scott, are Beyoncé, Serena Williams, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Greta Thunberg and Malala Yousafzai. Jevon Phillips talks with Anderson about the project.

Last word: Sandra Cisneros tells young writers: “Don’t write about what you wish you could remember, but write about what you can’t forget.” From Texas Monthly.


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