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Hollywood in the Hills

Jane Smiley takes on Tinesltown

Last year, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jane Smiley slipped into a UC Santa Cruz class. While she might be a bit older than the general stock of students, no one paid attention to her. Week after week, Smiley sat in on Loren Steck’s class about Hollywood, how the showbiz industry works and the movies that it makes. Smiley, a famous author, with her signature light hair, big glasses and wide smile, took notes. If only the students had known who was amongst them—Smiley was attending a class about movies to do research for a book she was writing about Hollywood and the people who make movies.

Recently, that book, “Ten Days in the Hills,” was published. And while Smiley admits that she got her inside scoop from a UCSC class rather than from eavesdropping at The Ivy, the stories, ambiance and Hollywood flavor are quite plausible in “Ten Days.”

But why Santa Cruz for research? Although some of Smiley’s books have been adapted into movies, the author seems much more at home in the hills of Northern California than the hills she writes about in her book.

Smiley lives in the Carmel area and often frequents Santa Cruz, stopping for a bite at local haunts like Gayle’s Bakery. So attending Steck’s class was not only convenient, but it was close to home (literally and figuratively): Smiley’s daughter attended UCSC and worked at Bookshop Santa Cruz for a stint. And, in fact, one of the main characters in “Ten Days” is a young woman who attended UCSC and happens to be the daughter of a famous person (not a novelist in this case, rather the apropos movie star).

So it seems fitting that all these things fold into one dynamic event: A book signing and talk at the Capitola Book Café at 7 p.m. Thursday, March 8. Expect a packed house for this author, whose bestseller, “A Thousand Acres,” won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1992.

Her new novel, “Ten Days,” offers a mixed bag of commentary. Some fans will tear into it and soak up the new literary experience that Smiley is offering, while others will simply go, “huh?” The book is filled with a little bit of a lot of things: It’s part glamorous Hollywood, part romp in the sheets, part cinematic sparring, part chatterfest between a bunch of people who should go to therapy.

It begins like this: Max, a hotshot Hollywood director (whose number may be up in the industry) is frolicking in bed with his girlfriend, Elena. (She writes self-help books.) Max’s luxury pad sits on a hill across from the 405 and looks out onto the Getty Museum. Needless to say, the house befits someone with a lot of money. For much too long, the pair flops around on the bed, and in between fondling one another, Max decides to romanticize about a movie that he might make called My Lovemaking With Elena. Self-indulgent? Just a bit. They go on and on and on about the hypothetical movie. This rambling theme seems common throughout the entire book, which will be appealing to some, annoying to others.

Eventually, they decide to get out of bed, and when Max heads into an adjacent room, in all his naked glory, there he finds some guests that he wasn’t expecting. There’s his daughter, the beautiful and young Isabel, who’s a bit burned from being raised by Hollywood parents; there’s Elena’s son, who is going to UC Davis, just shaved his head, and is co-starring in a pornographic student film; there’s Stoney, Max’s agent, who has been secretly bedding Isabel for years; and there’s Charlie, Max’s longtime friend. To round out the scene, there’s Cassie, the next door neighbor and the best friend of Delphine, who is Isabel’s grandmother. Finally, arriving at this spontaneous party are Zoe (think a 40-something who looks like Halle Berry) and her honey, the New Ager Paul.

Whew. This handful of characters is just that—a handful. Imagine if you were stuck in a house with them for 10 days. Options? Shoot yourself. Become one of them. Become the loner who listens, but doesn’t participate, or maybe think about writing a book about them. For Smiley, “I would have been doing a lot of cooking and a lot of arguing—about the war, and my world view and all that stuff. I would have been annoyed if I couldn’t ride horses,” she says. For the record, Smiley’s own indulgence is in her horses. She has 11 of them right now, with two that are pregnant. “I would have liked them,” Smiley says of the characters in her story. “I love hearing people talk and I love hearing people tell their stories, and I would have enjoyed the stories they had to tell.”

While Smiley would have enjoyed listening to these characters talk, not all of her readers may feel that way. These people yammer on quite a bit in this book, and sometimes we endure pages and pages of reading dialogue. They talk about the war in Iraq, which, according to the timeline of this book, has just begun. (The story begins the day after the Academy Awards.) They talk about movies that Zoe has starred in, and movies that Max has directed. They reminisce about other favorite movies. They bicker, they make love and occasionally they have tender moments.

If you’re able to indulge in the book and the life of these obnoxious Hollywood sorts, then you can see that the book is truly a replication of what it might be like getting stuck with these bozos in the hills for 10 days.

Even with its ups and downs, the language in “Ten Days” is flawless. This is, after all, a Jane Smiley book, and she is a master of prose. However, the plot seems to lag at times, and I can’t really say that it would make a good movie. Smiley agrees.

“I dare them,” she says. “It’s not a filmable book. That’s par to the book: a book about Hollywood that couldn’t be filmed. I love to juxtapose.”

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