Thursday, August 26, 2010

Tales of Woe (Book Review and Interview with John Reed)

Sometimes being a blogger has its perks. Curiously, I was offered a chance to read a book that grabbed my attention the moment I read the description.

True stories of totally undeserved suffering. Spectacularly depressing. Nobody gets their just desserts.

Crushing defeats.

No happy endings.

Abject misery.

Pointless, endless grief.

Sin, suffering, redemption. That’s the movie, that’s the front page news, that’s the story of popular culture—of American culture. A ray of hope. A comeuppance. An all-for-the-best. Makes it easier to deal with the world’s suffering—to know that there’s a reason behind it, that it’ll always work out in the end, that people get what they deserve.

The fact: sometimes people suffer for no reason. No sin, no redemption—just suffering, suffering, suffering.

Tales of Woe
compiles today’s most awful narratives of human wretchedness. This is not Hollywood catharsis (someone overcomes something and the viewer is uplifted), this is Greek Catharsis: you watch people suffer horribly, and then feel better about your own life. Tales of Woe tells stories of murder, accident, depravity, cruelty, and senseless unhappiness: and all true.

The Jaded Viewer says: What John Reed has compiled is pure punch in your stomach agony yet it's oddly mesmerizing to read. What you have is a mish mash of human suffering with no happy endings. The book emphasizes even in the description that these stories have no redemptions and feel goody outcomes yet as I read, my empathy gene was constantly triggered hoping that somehow, someway after each gut wrenching story this would be the one that goes all Cinderella.

But that only happens in Hollywood.

As a writer myself, I've written things that were in the realm of depressing hoping the reader realizes it's how real life plays out. The fact that all these stories are true makes it a million times harder to think that this ACTUALLY happened to these people.

Similar to documentaries, the book plays out the facts and intertwines them with a narrative that cleverly gets you to turn the pages with anticipation. The art is Dali meets graffiti and it plays out like visual candy. No holds barred gore and nudity to get images stuck in your head for days.

But it's the stories that get stuck in your head and force you to Google this real life horror. Animal death, grotesque death scenes, absurd sexual fetishes, human trafficking and infant death are just a few of the stories that line Tales of Woe.

The ones that got me utterly shocked was the tale of "The Crime Scene Centerfold" which delved into a car accident and the infamous photos that circulated across the interwebs. Another was of "Momma's Little Angel" detailing the plight of 2 year old home alone.

It's lasting sadness and your first instinct is to scream "these are pointless deaths!" Tales of Woe never let's you off the hook, makes you dig further into these stories and does exactly what it set out to do.

Make you feel better about your own life.

And after reading Tales of Woe, I actually do.

I also got a chance to interview John Reed. The Q&A is a look into the inception of the book, how the art came to be and even what was edited out for being too sick. Check out the entire interview below.

1.) How did you come up with the concept for the book?

Well, you know, environmental factors, and probably a genetic disposition. I was sitting around with Jacob Hoye (my editor) at this fancy restaurant, just praying I wouldn't have to pay for any of the food and trying to pitch ideas as quickly as possible, and when I talked about "true stories that just got worse," he perked up and said, "now that's a book."

I like to think it was entirely the idea, but the pitch happened to coincide with the arrival of a giant plate of baked garlic, which Jacob had been eagerly anticipating. Young writers always get this thing told to them: "the fate of your book may be decided based on what that editor had for lunch."

Make sure to let your editor chose the spot.

2.) Which was the most interesting story from the book to you?

Interesting? Not sick or depressing? Hmm. The three most interesting are Cyco, Bee to the Honeyslut, and Crime Scene Centerfold. In the first, a man was placed on a sex-offender list for having sex with his bicycle. In the second, an alleged MILF seduction caught the participants up in a national scandal. In the third, a series of accident scene photos were half-intentionally released by one or more police officials; the incredibly grotesque photos of a mutilated young woman became, and remain, a top internet search.

What's so interesting to me about these stories is the viewer participation. Without the popular curiosity, without us, these stories, and certainly the first two, aren't that bad. And the third story: the death of a young woman in a car wreck is terrible, but her abuse after the fact, which was totally gratuitous, is the part that makes me feel like throwing up.

3.) How long did it take for you to research this? Were there any stories you didn't publish?

It took longer than it should have, because I looked for 50 stories. It turned out that the stories were so awful they were about twice as long as we'd expected. I'd say two to three months just finding the stories—that's not including the research that followed.

Yes, there were three stories that didn't make the cut. One was just not quite there, missing something. The second was a great story, but a long animal story, and we already had a number of animal stories, including one that was quite long. The third—we swore we wouldn't self censor but we did—was just too sick. Gang rape, woman forced to blow her son, and worse from there. We couldn't do it.

4.) How did the art come about?

I looked at over 3000 artists—comic conventions, anthologies and online. I worked with Jacob in the final selections. I usually knew what I wanted, had ideas. I give all the credit in the world to 8Pussy, my hero, but I will gloatingly take credit for Sarah Palin in a Sharon Stone Basic Instinct pose. The Pop Gun illustration, by Kiki Jones, was after my compositional notion to work off Caravaggio's The Entombment of Christ—but Kiki made some major adjustments that made the reference workable. There were other times, and I think of Ralph Niese's Art Attack, that I said do what you want. Of course, he did that one three times before we were happy.

5.) What are you hoping readers come away after reading the book?

Pre-publication, in planning what I would say in my own defense, I kept thinking to cite Greek Catharsis, that you'd read about these horrible things, and then feel better about your own life. That did happen to me, but the assumption that it would happen to anyone else—well, it seemed like a pipe dream. Only a fool would jump and down saying, "I was right! I was right!" but I guess that's what I'm going to do. People are telling me they feel better about their not-so-fucked up lives.

A journalist friend recently emailed me with her take on Tales of Woe. "Do you know what the first Noble Truth of the four Noble Truths of Buddhism is?" she asked.

I looked it up.

"Life is suffering."

The book is available via For more information, check out the official site and John Reed's site.

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