Mike Farrell in September 2007 (Photo by David Shankbone)
We’ve all had plenty to be troubled and annoyed by of late, but a small thing has been eating at me for a while now: misleading or overly descriptive book jackets and introductions. A sample of books with bad outerwear. . .
Martin Sheen, in his introduction to the newly released paperback edition of Mike Farrell’s Just Call Me Mike: A Journey to Actor and Activist (Akashic Books, $16.95), sets a high standard for his fellow actor.
“No matter how great his passion is for any cause or issue, he rarely exhibits any personal anger toward the opposition,” Sheen writes. “On the contrary, he always makes an effort to include every point of view in a debate, and he does so with courtesy and compassion, somehow managing to personalize issues while never making it personal.”
Given that, readers, particularly those of a certain political stripe, might justifiably be surprised to find Farrell—best known for portraying B.J. Hunicutt on “M*A*S*H”—calling Ronald Reagan a Neanderthal and approvingly quoting Paul Robeson, Jr.: “If you scratch the surface of a right-winger you often find a racist.”
Nevertheless, regardless of one’s political sympathies—and it must be noted that Farrell doesn’t reserve his criticism solely for the right—it is impossible to read Just Call Me Mike without gaining a respect for Farrell’s willingness (indeed, eagerness) to put himself in harm’s way to investigate and attempt to mitigate suffering around the world. When Farrell speaks out about human rights issues, it is with the moral authority of one who has gone to see for himself.
Michael Martone loves words. He loves to play with them and with their meanings. He loves to sort them and shuffle them and use them to reveal the hidden or to reconsider the obvious. He’s quite good at it. After a while, it grows tiresome.
Martone’s Racing In Place: Collages, Fragments, Postcards, Ruins (University of Georgia Press, $18.95) is a collection of associative essays that—despite the cover’s promise of “Martone’s studied disregard of form”—nearly all fit into a single mold. The author takes a topic and writes a set of more or less related sections about the topic. If the connecting thread is a golf course, there will be 18 sections; if it’s tall buildings, there will be 13 sections, but the number 13 will be skipped.
The book’s most effective essay is the title piece in which Martone, a native of Indiana (which plays a central role in most of the essays), plumbs various memories of the Indianapolis 500 (33 sections to align with the race’s starting grid). The grand race roars in the background of his memories and the result is quite impressive.
By book’s end, however, the wordplay and the format (a format Martone also employed for his recent short story “The Death of Derek Jeter” in Esquire) have worn thin. In “On Being,” he writes the unfortunate sentence, “Jigsaw puzzle pieces look like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.” By that point, readers are likely to be pleased that the end is in sight.
The first thing you should do when you pick up a copy of David Wroblewski’s debut novel, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle (Ecco, $25.95), is remove the dust jacket without even glancing at the text printed on the inside front cover flap. In this particularly egregious case, the entire story arc (minus the details of the conclusion) is on display, potentially robbing the novel of its finest qualities—a story that develops unhurriedly and a plot that surprises even as it draws from the most famous of sources.
That source, at the risk of giving away too much myself, is Hamlet, and thus Wroblewski’s novel calls to mind Jane Smiley’s Pulitzer Prize-winning A Thousand Acres, which revisited the plot of King Lear. Like Smiley’s book, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle is set in the rural Midwest. Young Edgar, who can hear but not speak, grows up in Wisconsin in a family devoted to the breeding and training of exceptional dogs. When his reasonably idyllic world is shattered, his relationships—to both humans and dogs—irrevocably change and he undertakes journeys both real and metaphorical.
Wroblewski, like Smiley before him, adheres fairly closely to the key points of Shakespeare’s plot, though he often does so in surprising and original ways. It is far from a sly, winking homage and readers who miss the connection will not necessarily enjoy the book any less. Though the unhurried pace occasionally drags, Wroblewski has a storyteller’s knack for varying the tempo, building in the reader both a feeling of suspense and an empathy for his characters.