Fiction to Flip-Flop Through

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Riders of the Purple Sage

By Zane Grey (1912)

It's probably the greatest western ever written. At least, so says Joe Wheeler, co-founder and executive director of the Zane Grey's West Society, which is dedicated to the man who nurtured the myth of the West through his clean, rich prose.

"I did a lot of corresponding with people who were more current western writers, like Louis L'Amour," says Wheeler, on the phone from Montana's Glacier National Park, site of the society's annual convention. "They all agreed that one of the things that makes Grey totally unique was that he was the last western writer to write when the West still existed."

"Riders of the Purple Sage" is set in southern Utah in 1871. Its heroine, Jane Withersteen, realizes she must break with her oppressive church with the help (and love) of the gentle, roguish Lassiter, the prototype for all literary gunmen who followed. Setting in Grey's novels was as important as characters, so can you read "Riders of the Purple Sage" on the beaches of the East Coast, miles away from the canyons and deserts of the Old West?

"Oh, sure," Wheeler says. "It's a great escape book. Once you get into that book, Grey has the ability to essentially take you outside of time as you knew it, and you are just carried away into a world you won't escape until you finish it."

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes

By Anita Loos (1925)

While riding a train from New York to Los Angeles, Loos sketched some thoughts on a yellow legal pad as she watched a horde of men fuss over another woman, who was equal to Loos in youth and beauty, inferior in intellect but naturally blond and, therefore, more attractive. It was an "important scientific fact which had never before been pinpointed," Loos wryly wrote in her introduction to "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes," a comic novel composed of the ditzy diary entries of Lorelei Lee, an American flapper who slingshots herself into the ritzy social orbits of Europe.

"The great American novel," Edith Wharton and Merle Miller proclaimed.

The best book of philosophy ever written by an American, George Santayana said.

Other fans included William Faulkner and Benito Mussolini. Talk about wide appeal.

Loos, who made a name for herself writing screenplays for Hollywood, parlayed the novel into a 1949 Broadway show starring Carol Channing and the beloved 1953 movie with Marilyn Monroe as Lorelei.

Loos's original diary entries sing and flow with zippy wit. ("Paris is devine," Lorelei writes, stumbling typographically, "because the French are devine.") It's a fizzy aperitif for those breaks between beach volleyball and a welcome tonic for those whose social fantasies have been heretofore narrated by Carrie Bradshaw.

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