2 out of 4 stars
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Extraordinary Stories From Everyday People (and me): Rants, Raves and Reflections, by Les Clark, is a difficult book to describe. The title led me to believe this would be a collection of short stories and personal essays. While there are a few entires that fall under these categories, there are also many entries that don’t. There are snippets of conversations and short descriptions of people and places. There are notes from interviews with ordinary people and witty anecdotes about the author’s everyday life. There are bits of humorous observations and poignant reflections. There is no single theme to tie it all together, but Clark’s grandson, Anthony, shows up in many conversations. Clark also makes many references to his service in the Air Force and introduces readers to a few fellow veterans.
I was taught that whenever you give constructive criticism you should always start with the good. With that in mind, I’d have to say the best thing about this book is the author’s wit. Clark describes himself as a failed stand-up comic, but I think he would have eventually enjoyed at least a moderate amount of success if he kept at it long enough. Some of the anecdotes and snippets of conversation in this book read as if they were originally delivered as part of a stand-up routine. The causal tone and comedic timing are just as evident in writing as they would be in an oral presentation. Clark also seems to have a knack for accepting the humor in both ordinary and unusual situations, which is often the hallmark of a good comedian.
As the title of the book suggests, Clark also has a knack for recognizing the unique stories in the lives of ordinary people. This shows up in the sections titled “Interviews” and “Veteran Vignettes.” A couple of the entries in “Interviews” are based on conversations with people he has met only once, such as Christina and Scott, a couple who sat at the table next to him at a doughnut shop one day. Others involve people he seems to have known for a while, such as Doris, a 99-year-old woman to whom he delivers meals. The “Veteran Vignettes” introduce readers to several U.S. veterans. If I had to choose, I would say these sections were the best parts of the book. I was drawn to them because I believe that everyone has an extraordinary story to tell. You just have to be willing to ask and listen to learn their secrets.
Unfortunately, the entries in the “Veteran Vignettes” are also examples of what I consider to be the greatest shortfall of the book—a lack of development. Some of the vignettes are only two or three paragraphs long and contain only the type of information you could probably find with an advanced Internet search. The shortest entries seem like notes that the author jotted down as an outline. Then he forgot to go back and fill in the blanks with a full essay. I had the same feeling while reading some of the other entries in the book. Some of them seemed to lack focus or intent and were underdeveloped, as if the author lost interest in the topic. Or maybe he thought he was running out of time and had to wrap up his thought and step away from the microphone.
My frustration increased as I read through the book. Then I got to “The Backword.” In this penultimate chapter, Clark reveals his purpose for the book by stating, “I wrote this because I had scraps of notes and stories I banged out on my old Royal portable, things I concocted, found interesting or foolishly entered chase-my-tail conversations with others.”
I think my hunch was right. This book is—more or less—a random series of scraps of notes and stories that the author decided to publish as a finished work. His admission made me feel even more disappointed, because there are good ideas in this writer’s notebook that could be turned into a good book with a little more work. For instance, a collection of biographical essays about veterans of all ages and branches of the military could be a wonderful read with wide-reaching appeal. But each entry would have to include more than just a list of vital statistics. Each one needs something personal, something that helps readers connect to each veteran on a deeper level.
Likewise, while random anecdotes and snippets of conversation are nice for a comedy routine or a joke book, they don’t work well in a collection of stories and reflections unless you provide additional development. For example, the snippets of conversations with his grandson, Anthony, are cute. But they would be much more meaningful if they were incorporated into a larger story about how and why Clark and his wife were raising him and how challenging and rewarding it can be to parent your grandchild.
Now, I know that some readers will think I’m being overly harsh in this review by commenting on what the book could have been instead of simply focusing on what it is. But I expected a book of stories to have more complete stories, not bits and pieces. Publishing a book of random notes and stories without sufficient development is like giving the reader a bag of chocolate chips and saying, “If you want cookies, you’ll have to make them yourself.” Those chips might be nice by themselves, but the cookies would have been better.
Additionally, I suspect this book was not professionally edited. There were well over 10 punctuation and style errors. Most of these involved missing commas and hyphens and an uncertain and inconsistent use of various styles. For instance, the titles of newspapers should be italicized, but the names of pets should be in normal text.
Overall, I give this book a rank of 2 out of 4 stars. I went directly back to the guidelines to make this decision. According to the explanation of rankings, “If you give it a 3 or a 4 you are recommending others read it . . . if you give it a 2 . . . obviously you didn't like it that much but maybe others will.” There are some entires in this book that I thought were very good, but the collection as a whole is not one I can wholeheartedly recommend.
Extraordinary Stories From Everyday People (and me)
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