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Book review: Of Mule and Man by Mike Farrell

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Actor Mike Farrell, who played B.J. Hunnicutt in the TV show M*A*S*H, is part of a group that conservatives often deride as "Hollywood liberals." Is he ever. That rare liberal Hollywood celeb who puts his life where his mouth is, Farrell is an incurable activist, having served on human rights and peace delegations to many countries. He's also spent a lot of energy, time and personal resources on advocating for human rights and justice throughout the U.S.

When his autobiography Just Call Me Mike: A Journey to Actor and Activist was published in 2007, he took off on a promotional tour that led him on an 8,800-mile trek across the country. During his 36-day tour, Farrell drove himself everywhere in a rented Prius he named Mule, giving readings, signing books and, more to the point, meeting with other activists in all 25 cities, who had co-sponsored the tour. It became an impromptu crusade of sorts, with Farrell talking to readers and the press, as much about issues important to him as about his book.

Many of his notes during the tour were posted on the Huffington Post Web site, and now he's published an account of the experience. Of Mule and Man is a quick and fascinating read, as Farrell recounts his cross-country trip in tones that bring to mind riding along with a friendly, generous acquaintance who has good stories to tell.

Farrell drives through both the gorgeous and the damaged landscapes of America, through cities and rural areas, from high desert to bayou to Piedmont, and his descriptions of his surroundings are evocative reminders of this nation's geographic, and political, diversity. He listens to rightwing radio, argues aloud with them, and feels fired up by the time he hits the bookstore or library. To his credit, Farrell doesn't just hit the liberal hotspots, but takes on questions and arguments from all points on the political spectrum, learning something at nearly every stop.

Of Mule and Man's design is an integral part of the book's appeal. Chapter headings detail mileage, destination and co-sponsors he's meeting that day. Sidebars tell the story of the various groups he visits, such as the North Carolina Justice Center in Raleigh, which advocates for working families, or the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta, which works on death penalty and prison issues. As Farrell notes, "Heroes abound in this world," most of them working behind the scenes -- or at least, apparently, out of sight of much of the mainstream media.

Farrell's writing style is direct, generally upbeat and at times hilarious as he makes connections among the people he meets across the nation. At one point, someone asks him what he thought were the three most critically important things that needed to be done. He replied, "Elect Barack Obama, elect Barack Obama, elect Barack Obama." With liberal unease with Obama growing, it would be interesting to find out how he feels about that advice now. You can find out Saturday, Oct. 10, when Farrell will be at Park Road Books in the Park Road Shopping Center, at 3 p.m.

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