I came across The Mirage Factory while looking for nonfiction books to include in my May 2018 Book Releases post. It was interest at first sight. I’ve lived in Los Angeles for over 10 years now and yet I felt that there was a lot I didn’t know about the city’s history. The idea of being able to learn more about such a crucial period in the metropolis’ development was immediately intriguing.
I ended up discovering a new favorite nonfiction writer. Krist was able to interview four different stories (LA’s, Mulholland’s, Griffith’s and Semple McPherson’s) into a single convincing narrative, and that’s darned impressive. It might help to love LA when reading this book, but I think it’s a good fit for anyone who likes historical nonfiction.
The Mirage Factory by Gary Krist
Publication Date: May 15th 2018
Publisher: Crown Publishing Group
Length In Hardcover: 416 pages
Goodreads Rating: 4.25
A vivid account of the creation of modern Los Angeles, a city born from the fantasies of strong-willed visionaries, from bestselling author and masterful storyteller Gary Krist.
Little more than a century ago, the southern coast of California was sleepy semi-desert farmland. Then, as if overnight, one of the world’s largest and most iconic cities emerged. At the heart of the seemingly impossible, meteoric rise of Los Angeles were the visions of three ingenious but deeply flawed people. William Mulholland, an immigrant ditch-digger turned self-taught engineer, D.W. Griffith, who virtually invented the basic grammar of moviemaking, and Aimee Semple McPherson, a young evangelist, faith healer, and radio preacher, would provide the city with its identity as a worldwide center for spiritual realization and reinvention.
Mulholland’s story. Out of the three historical figures included in the book, Mulholland was definitely the most captivating and the one with the most surprising story for me. Living in LA, I’m of course familiar with the water-shortage issues that the city experiences. It was so interesting to learn about the city’s history with water, however, through the life of the man who really enabled LA to grow to what it is now. Mulholland made himself the expert on bringing enough water to what was previously no more than a bustling town, enabling Los Angeles to flourish into a real metropolis – but at what cost. I had no idea about the St. Francis Dam disaster and it was equal parts incredible and horrifying to read about it.
Three biographies expertly interwoven. Doing justice to one fascinating historical figure is tough enough, but Krist set out to interweave the stories of three of these people at once. It could have easily ended in a confusing disaster, but instead the result was a resounding success. Each chapter of Krist’s book is dedicated to a difference one of the three characters, which helps to keep the stories clear between each other. However, these sections segue seamlessly into each other, coalescing into a whole that feels homogeneous and complete. I think the semi-chronological order of the narrative helps, and also Krist’s expert way to tying each narrative back in to the overall story of the city itself.
The writing. I tend to prefer to read nonfiction out loud rather than fiction, probably because I get annoyed at reading too much dialogue. There’s a certain kind of nonfiction that really hits the mark when it comes to being a pleasure to read out loud, and The Mirage Factory fits the bill. Krist’s writing is beautiful and elaborate, allowing the historical events and personages he’s describing to come to life. Through his words, the lives of Mulholland, Griffith and Semple McPherson feel personal, clear and relevant, though they’ve long passed. I’m definitely going to check out Krist’s other titles – Empire Of Sin about New Orleans and City Of Scoundrels about Chicago.
May be too specific for some. I was obviously drawn to this book because I live in LA and I wanted to learn more about ‘my’ city’s history (let’s hope Milan doesn’t hear and get jealous). The very reason for which I picked up this book may actually turn other readers away from it, precisely because it’s such a specific topic. There were many references within the book to streets, neighborhoods and other elements that might have gone over the head of a reader less familiar with the city. Krist does connect LA’s story to the larger narrative of the shifts America was going through at the time as well, but still I can see how the topic of the book might not be the right fit for everyone. I also felt that Mulholland’s story was somewhat richer and more engaging than that of Griffith and Semple McPherson, and that’s saying a lot because I work in entertainment so Griffith would have been the natural draw.
This book does a lot of things successfully and at once. The story of LA’s rapid growth from town to city, an intimate portrait of the lives of three very interesting Americans, and a beautifully written work of nonfiction.
Gary Krist has written for the New York Times, Esquire, the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post Book World, and elsewhere. He is the author of the bestselling Empire of Sin and City of Scoundrels, as well as the acclaimed The White Cascade. He has also written five works of fiction. Krist has been the recipient of the Stephen Crane Award, the Sue Kaufman Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a Lowell Thomas Gold Medal for Travel Journalism, and other awards.
Have you read The Mirage Factory by Gary Krist? What did you think? Let me know in the comments.
You can also read my other recent Just Read reviews, including for memoirs Educated by Tara Westover and I Should Have Honor by Khalida Brohi, contemporary fiction novel The Book Of Essie by Meghan Maclean Weir, dystopian thriller The Seclusion by Jacqui Castle, biography of Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson, and historical mystery Call Of The Curlew by Elizabeth Brooks.
Please note this post contains affiliate links from Book Depository. Thank you to Net Galley and to the publisher for the ARC copy of this book I received in exchange for an honest review.