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Ten Days in the Hills

By Cynthia Harrison

Jane Smiley has skills. I've always derived great pleasure from her books: the words, the plots, the characters. For example, in her new book, Ten Days in the Hills, one of the characters, Elena, writes how-to books. She's borderline OCD, although Smiley never says this. Instead she shows the reader Elena flossing her teeth, washing the floss, feeling it, and deciding she can save the string for another floss. So she dries it off and curls it into the top of the box of floss. Elena flosses twice a day, and she's very conscious of not polluting the world with any more dental floss than necessary.

That comes near the end of the book. Smiley reveals her characters shadow by shadow, light by light. But that tiny bathroom ritual encapsulates everything readers have come to know about 50-something Elena. Which is one of the reasons I was drawn to the book in the first place. I'm 50-something. I like reading about other 50-somethings, especially if an author as talented as Jane Smiley is writing them. So why did it take me so long to buy this book, which is has been out for a few months now. Why didn't I scoop it up immediately in one of my twice-weekly visits to the bookstore?

Well, for one thing, it was about the first ten days of the Iraq war, and I wasn't sure I could live through those days again. For another, it was set in Hollywood, and even though I'm pretty shallow and self-absorbed, I'm not there. But I love movies, and I love Jane. Moo is my favorite, but Liddie Newton is right up there, and A Thousand Acres was creepy but compelling. And I have a couple of really good friends obsessed with politics, so maybe, somehow, I can stop hating when the topic turns to Iraq or Bush if I let myself think about and feel these things with other than a guilty, all too quickly smothered, sadness.

So I picked it up in the bookstore and turned to the first page. And the word cock was in the first paragraph. Elena and her big shot boyfriend, 56 year old Hollywood director, Max, were in bed, alarmed at the state of his flaccid member, which was quickly equated with the war that had just broken out. I put the book down and walked out of the store without buying anything that day, a rarity. I was just not sure I could stomach Hollywood excess, shame about the war, and in-your-face sex all at once.

But Elena was a writer, somewhat successful but not as an artist, not on the scale of Oscar-winning Max, who liked to write his own scripts before he directed them, and I cannot resist novels about writers, especially struggling writers. So I bought it. And I loved every inch of it, once I got over the abundance of skin and sex in the starting chapters. Skin and sex are not metaphors, they cover us, they drive us, they connect us. I almost stopped reading, but decided to get over my prude self (me! a former fond fornicator! a middle-aged woman determined not to let her sex parts atrophy! why am I so squicky about sex scenes? yet another mystery...) and I'm glad I did.

As the book opens, Max and Elena are contemplating the awards show they attended last night, the war that just erupted, and the advent of a colorful cast of friends and relatives, all come to stay for one good reason or another. Elena's son, Max's daughter. Max's ex, a hot Hollywood beauty with seemingly no there there and her new guy, a vegan Buddhist and yoga enthusist. The ex-mother-in-law who lives in the guest house and her best friend, an ancient Tinseltown insider with a million stories. Also Max's agent Stoney (who is in love with Max's daughter) and his old school friend Charlie, recently divorced, on vacation from the East, and the only person in favor of the war and Bush in the bunch. Although the Buddhist, along with Elena's son, thinks the war is neither "good" or "bad" but "interesting." Elena is the most depressed about the war, the others just want to probe deeply into the pros and cons of the situation, which is still supposed to be a quick, surgical strike. In and out. Ha.

Smiley picks the perfect point of view for each lushly set scene. The contrast to what's happening in Iraq is vivid, artful, and uncomfortable. The conversations go deep, things we've all thought but at least in my case rarely expressed, barely even mentally articulated. Reader, she made me think. And at the end, well, I'm not going to spoil it, but let's just say, it's staggeringly understated and beautiful. Go forth and enjoy a ripping good read all while getting your consciousness raised.

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