Making Sense of Suffering

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west side author delves into darker side of life

by lauren betesh

it doesn't make for the most innocuous bedtime reading: a freezer full of human body parts, a woman with a devastating cancer that has warped her face and an accidental but fatal ak-47 discharge.

this and 23 other tragic stories comprise the material of tales of woe, john reed's latest collection of non-fiction.

the upper west side writer's book tells true stories of people who have been to hell and back, such as sex slaves, former methamphetamine addicts, mistreated indigenous races and others whose stories are so dark that they cast no light. don't expect happy endings here.

so what would make him tackle such grotesque subject material?

"years ago i had a notion for a novel about a dishwasher whose life got worse," reed said. "i started researching and found true stories of woe that were much worse than anything i could create-stories that had no redeeming value, just undeserved suffering."

he found this interesting because it conflicts with western culture, which always tries to give reasons for why people suffer.

"we like to believe someone is suffering for a sin or a mistake or that one's suffering is somehow for the best," he said. "through my experience, i don't find this to be true."

the soft-spoken new yorker grew up in tribeca, or "old, decaying new york city." his parents were david reed and judy rifka, the well-known artists. reed knew that he wanted to be a writer early on and attended columbia university, where he received a master of fine arts in fiction. his other works include all the world's a grave: a new play by william shakespeare, the whole, snowball's chance and a still small voice.

after delving into such a gruesome variety of topics, reed said that he began to let go of his own petty griping.

"it's very difficult to look at these horrors and then complain about something relatively insignificant," he said.

reed resides on the uws with his wife and two children and teaches advanced fiction at the new school. he loves biking in the park and says that he has a fantasy where new york becomes a more biking friendly city.

the writer is currently working on two new projects-a book about mixed martial arts and a musical about a boxer, set in the old times square.

what is it about new york city that has kept him calling it home over the years?

"because the city will always love you back," he said, then, pausing to reflect on the flipside of life in new york, he adds, "anything you cherish too much, anything you overvalue or over-depend on, the city will also take away-a restaurant, a favorite store or a friend."


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