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The Help Desk: Seattle is a toxic pit of hate and failure right now. Can books help?

Every Friday, Cienna Madrid offers solutions to life’s most vexing literary problems. Do you need a book recommendation to send your worst cousin on her birthday? Is it okay to read erotica on public transit? Cienna can help. Send your questions to advice@seattlereviewofbooks.com.

Dear Cienna,

Between the soaring real estate prices, the changing character of the city, and the NIMBYs trying to criminalize homelessness, I’m feeling very disappointed in Seattle, and I’m wondering what I can do.

Is there a way to use bookishness as a weapon for good in the battle to make Seattle an affordable, livable place again?

Deborah, Ravenna

Dear Deborah,

Did you know it is tick season? And boy, what a season we're having! Unfortunately, books can't make Seattle affordable any more than sprinkling a sack of thirsty ticks in Jeff Bezos's bed can improve my credit score. Building equitable cities is not job of books; it is the job of people. What books can do is improve the quality of our society by introducing people to experiences and perspectives that are far outside their own, essentially turning reading into an exercise in empathy and patience. It's embarrassing that the richest man in the world – a man who built a near-trillion-dollar empire on selling books – has neither of those qualities himself, and even more embarrassing that Seattle's civic leaders lack the sack of ticks to hold him and his miserly company accountable to the community in which they both thrive.

Some day, when I am elected to human office on an eight-legged platform, misers like Jeff Bezos who prosper from society without contributing meaningfully in return will be banished to the sewers (or forests!) where they will be used sparingly by their spider (or tick!) captors as a food source – not drained completely, certainly not killed, simply juiced for an appropriate amount of time so they can fully appreciate how it feels to be helpless and without resources.

But that will probably take a few years – at least until the Great Spider-Tick Peace Talks of 2018 resolve themselves. In the meantime, what you can do is this: Support Seattle's public libraries, which make reading accessible for everyone and are an especially vital resource for the poor and homeless. You can also contact the homeless shelter or tent city closest to your neighborhood and ask if you can bring by some supplies, including books (for instance, Mary's Place is in need of current children's books). This lets your homeless neighbors – because they are still your neighbors, whether they have homes or not – know that there is support for them in their community.

Kisses,

Cienna

The Help Desk: The man I'm crushing on has a big-book problem

Every Friday, Cienna Madrid offers solutions to life’s most vexing literary problems. Do you need a book recommendation to send your worst cousin on her birthday? Is it okay to read erotica on public transit? Cienna can help. Send your questions to advice@seattlereviewofbooks.com.

Cienna Madrid is off today; the following is a reprinted Help Desk column from 2015.

Dear Cienna,

There's this guy who rides the elevator with me at work pretty often. He always has a big, complex book in his hands — Bolaño, or DFW, or Knausgaard. He's pretty good looking, but I've held off smiling at him because I'm worried his choice of books means he's going to be pretty intellectually limited. Is there a safe way to test him in public before asking him out on a date?

Pat in the Columbia Tower

Dear Pat,

Here’s what I suggest: Start carrying around a copy of your favorite book in your bag. The next time you’re stuck in an elevator with this handsome stranger, break the ice by saying something like, “I notice you read a lot of very serious books written by unsmiling men, so I thought you might enjoy this change of pace. It’s my favorite.” The beauty is, it doesn’t really matter what your book is – it could be something truly great, like Octavia Butler’s Bloodchild, it could be last week’s TV Guide, or it could something he might actually enjoy, like the latest bullshit pumped out by Jonathan Franzen (if you go the TV Guide route, it helps to tape an unused condom to the inside cover). The point is, you’re being both flattering and assertive. If he’s smart and interested, he’ll read your book or at least continue the conversation. If he’s an intellectually stunted dummy, say “fuck it” and ask to see his abs. They can’t be any less interesting to talk to (and if by some miracle they are, you can always start taking the stairs).

Kisses,

Cienna

The Help Desk: Does whatever a spider can

Every Friday, Cienna Madrid offers solutions to life’s most vexing literary problems. Do you need a book recommendation to send your worst cousin on her birthday? Is it okay to read erotica on public transit? Cienna can help. Send your questions to advice@seattlereviewofbooks.com.

Dear Cienna,

Have you read Iris Murdoch’s book Bruno’s Dream? It’s about a man who’s obsessed with spiders. Here’s a sample quote: “O spiders, spiders, spiders, the aristocrats of the creepy crawly world. I never ceased to love you, but I somehow betrayed you from the start.” I read it and thought of you and your spider friends the whole time. Just thought you might like to know.

Angela, Allentown

Dear Angela,

No I have not read it, thank you for the recommendation! Have you read this interesting article on scientists teaching a spider named Kim to jump on command? While I applaud their efforts, I’ve been training up a team of spiders for the amateur circus circuit this summer (coming to a truck stop near you!), so I’m not that impressed that they taught one to jump. It’s true spiders only eat about once a week but those thirsty motherfuckers will do backflips for a strong lime rickey just about every night. And just try fitting them in spandex singlets – Jesus Christ. If that isn’t a science I don’t know what is.

Kisses,

Cienna

The Help Desk: My child has a spanking problem

Every Friday, Cienna Madrid offers solutions to life’s most vexing literary problems. Do you need a book recommendation to send your worst cousin on her birthday? Is it okay to read erotica on public transit? Cienna can help. Send your questions to advice@seattlereviewofbooks.com. Cienna is on vacation; the following is a reprinted column from 2015.

Dear Cienna,

I’m a single dad and my ten-year-old daughter apparently found my copy of Story of O. She confessed after I found her posing Barbie over Ken’s lap for a spanking. How the heck am I supposed to explain something as complex as power fantasies to her, or at the very least help her from seeing her dad as a big creep?

Ermine, University District

Dear Ermine,

Awhile ago I met a nice Christian woman who believes sex before marriage is amoral but regularly masturbates her male dog before competitions because she says it relaxes him. I asked, but no: she is not married to her dog.

My point is people compartmentalize sex in individually weird ways. Reading Story of O doesn’t make your daughter damaged or you a creep – in my book, nothing short of competitively masturbating your pet in public while praying for the salvation of sluts does.

It’s not your job to explain power fantasies to your daughter. It’s your job to buy her ice cream and tell her that what she read was fiction and a bit above her reading level. Then, it’s your parental duty to purchase a copy of The Joy of Sex and give it to a cool female friend to give to your daughter (trust me, no young woman wants to get a sex manual from her dad). My grandmother bought me the Joy of Sex when I was about 10 and once I got over the horror of being handed a sex thing by a near dead thing, I treasured it (sex ed in Idaho in the 90s doubled as our “Faces of Meth” campaign). Hopefully your daughter will stop snooping through your erotica as she practices hundreds of new positions to put Barbie and Ken in, all while developing an appreciation for diverse body types and prize-winning bushes.

Just keep her away from your dog.

Kisses,

Cienna

The Help Desk: Cienna, I mustache you a question

Every Friday, Cienna Madrid offers solutions to life’s most vexing literary problems. Do you need a book recommendation to send your worst cousin on her birthday? Is it okay to read erotica on public transit? Cienna can help. Send your questions to advice@seattlereviewofbooks.com.

Dear Cienna

If you had to choose one style of facial hair to wear for the rest of your life, which would it be: Isaac Asimov’s muttonchops or Mark Twain’s soup-strainer?

Earl, Cherry Hill

Dear Earl,

Between the two, I would opt for Asimov’s muttonchops, which resemble a spider jungle gym and thus better fit my “basement chic” aesthetic. Plus, soup is for chumps with soft teeth.

But given my druthers, I would grow Salman Rushdie’s elegant chindalier. My native chin has the work ethic of a Trump – it is weak. In fact, if you stacked my chin on top of Don Jr.’s you’d still only have half an adult-sized chin per one goblin body. A chindalier would make my face more credibly human. Alas, there is no hope for Don Jr.

Kisses,

Cienna

The Help Desk: Are you e-xperienced?

Every Friday, Cienna Madrid offers solutions to life’s most vexing literary problems. Do you need a book recommendation to send your worst cousin on her birthday? Is it okay to read erotica on public transit? Cienna can help. Send your questions to advice@seattlereviewofbooks.com.

Dear Cienna,

Have you ever used an e-reader? Why or why not? And if so, what did you think?

Jasmine, Fremont

Dear Jasmine,

Yes, I was gifted a Kindle years ago. I used it for a bit. It was fine for reading romance novels on the beach during vacations and for loading up all of the books I needed for graduate school (I have dual master's degrees in Barbie Architecture and American Cheese History from Devry), but overall I found it underwhelming.

Forgive the esoteric academic reference but e-readers are the EZ Cheese of books. They do nothing to enhance the reading experience, they just repackage it in a silly way under the guise of "progress." What you lose are books lining bookshelves, conversation pieces, petite packages of knowledge and creativity ready to lend to friends and people you'd like to impress.

Part of the pleasure of reading is the smell and the tactile feel of turning pages. Without those sensations, when using an e-reader, I experienced the impatience that non-readers must feel when trying to get through a book. I skimmed more and retained less.

I forgot to update the software on my Kindle way back in 2016, when Amazon insisted, so now it's worthless as an e-reader. It functions as a $300 bookmark for an antique dictionary. And although most iterations of Barbie would not be caught dead reading, it also exemplifies Brutalist Barbie architecture: inside the Kindle's pragmatic design and bleak interface lies the weak beat of human ambition, the unfilled promise of unlimited knowledge, the hope for something better. Another failed utopia.

Kisses,

Cienna

The Help Desk: Rub-a-dub-dub, should I read in the tub?

Every Friday, Cienna Madrid offers solutions to life’s most vexing literary problems. Do you need a book recommendation to send your worst cousin on her birthday? Is it okay to read erotica on public transit? Cienna can help. Send your questions to advice@seattlereviewofbooks.com.

Dear Cienna,

Reading in the tub: thumbs up or thumbs down?

Sarah, Greenwood

P.S. Please say thumbs down. I hate finding used books with wrinkly spots where wet fingertips once touched the page.

Dear Sarah,

Bathtubs are where I am most productive – where else can you efficiently shed a sandwich bag's worth of skin while also eating spaghetti? And 10 minutes later, it's ready to ferment 30 lbs of cabbage! Bathtubs truly are the altar of the modern American household.

But like you, I draw the line at reading in the tub, mostly because I practice paleo bathing (our CAVEMAN ANCESTORS didn't use HAND TOWELS) and because I once dropped an iPad in the water while leisurely combing sex offender registries and state prison repository sites for people I graduated high school with.

Which isn't to say I don't enjoy a good book while soaking – it's why I signed up as a reading tutor for a girls' at-risk youth program called Miss Demeanors. Now girls are hand-delivered to my home each week to practice their reading skills outside my bathroom door while I eat spaghetti and "shed derm" in peace. For every 10 minutes of reading, they earn one cigarette.

Kisses,

Cienna

The Help Desk: I ain't afraid of no ghost writers

Every Friday, Cienna Madrid offers solutions to life’s most vexing literary problems. Do you need a book recommendation to send your worst cousin on her birthday? Is it okay to read erotica on public transit? Cienna can help. Send your questions to advice@seattlereviewofbooks.com.

Dear Cienna,

I know this is an advice column, not a gossip column, so I’ll keep this very vague. I’ve recently heard some (very credentialed) rumors that a prominent writer — you’d know their name — no longer writes their own work anymore. Instead, they secretly employ a ghost writer.

What’s surprising to me is how shocked and betrayed I felt when I found out, though in retrospect it makes total sense: their writing has gotten more and more formulaic over the years.

Do I have any ethical responsibility to other readers of this person’s work? Many of them, after all, would likely share the same feelings of disappointment and betrayal that I felt. Should I alert the writer somehow that I’ve heard this gossip? Or should I just wait for the rumor mills to eventually do their work? If I’ve heard it, the news is probably everywhere already.

Anonymous

Dear Anonymous,

Would it shock and disappoint you to know that I occasionally cede control of this very column to a literate prepper named White Kevin so I can spend more time concentrating on my latest passion: becoming a Scott Pruitt impersonator?

I've had to beef up my sense of unearned entitlement and get some scalp work done – and convert my home from electricity to energy-efficient oil lamps and trash fires – but he and I both are naturally gifted with weak goblin chins and beady eyes that sink into our faces like twin pissholes in the sand, and the market for Scott Pruitt impersonators is pretty niche, so I feel like I have a real shot at fame. At the very least, I'll be popular at auto conventions, polar bear funerals, and whatever the opposite of Earth Day is.

I hope my confession won't alter your enjoyment of this column, which has always strived to offer sound advice from an untrustworthy source. Similarly, in this case I think you should take a deep breath and as Scott Pruitt would say, "don't let your opinions get derailed by the facts."

Regardless of who's actually behind the pen (or keyboard), you enjoyed this author's work, correct? There is nothing stopping you from continuing to enjoy it. Purists like yourself could argue that signing your name to someone else's work is unethical, but where do you draw that line? Put another way, where would Raymond Carver be without a brutally sparse editor?

And as much as I hate using the "F" word, the fact is the author is not plagiarizing – if they hire a ghostwriter, that individual is an employee who is being compensated for their work.

To employ another Pruittism, "it shouldn't matter how the oil is fracked, it's how you use it to cook the earth that counts."

Kisses,

Cienna

The Help Desk: Librarian.exe is not responding

Every Friday, Cienna Madrid offers solutions to life’s most vexing literary problems. Do you need a book recommendation to send your worst cousin on her birthday? Is it okay to read erotica on public transit? Cienna can help. Send your questions to advice@seattlereviewofbooks.com.

Dear Cienna,

I’m lucky enough to have a library branch within five blocks of my apartment. I use it all the time.

The other week, I was visiting the library. It was very slow in there; maybe one guy at a computer and a teen reading a comic in the kid’s section. When I went up to the person behind the counter to check out a DVD and a book, she wordlessly pointed to a self-checkout kiosk.

I was a little annoyed by this. Cienna, I know libraries aren’t bookstores and I don’t expect stellar “customer service” from them. But is it too much to expect a little bit of a human interaction from my library visits?

It seems like everyone is automating their customer experience, and it drives me nuts. I’d prefer to have my libraries staffed by human beings, not by reshelving robots. Am I expecting too much?

Todd, [neighborhood withheld to avoid incriminating a library staffer]

Dear Todd,

In situations like this, I like to use my imagination to be as generous as possible to human irritants. Perhaps said librarian was having a particularly nasty battle with her hemorrhoids that day, or perhaps her spiders had just served her with an eviction notice because she still won't shut up about Jill Stein. People, especially those working in customer service, should be given leeway to have bad days – perhaps she was trying to spare you hers.

That said, if the pattern continues, I suggest next time telling the librarian you are allergic to laser beams and politely making her do her damn job. Having a laser allergy should be completely credible hypochondria in Seattle at this point, but if she questions you on this – which she shouldn't because unlike Jill Stein, she is no doctor – offer to give her a urine sample. I have found that most people stop asking me stupid questions the moment I rebut them with urine.

Kisses,

Cienna

BONUS QUESTION:

Dear Cienna,

I have a friend who is always trying to do something weird with books. Like, he was really into internet experiments with choose your own adventures, and hypertext. Then, he obsessed over House of Leaves, and wanted to make something similar: Book formatted so that you have to turn it around and upside down and leaf back and forth. He longs for multiple text colors, complex fonts, and gold leaf foil-stamps on his blind embossed cover.

He also can't tell a story. If he wrote this email it would be twenty-thousand words, most of them too boring to read. I don't have a question. I'm just sick of his shit and wanted to tell somebody.

Sheryl, Shoreline

Dear Sheryl,

I have a friend who is always trying to fuck her sister's husband, like this weekend for example. I envy your taste in human friends. Do you perhaps want to trade?

Kisses,

Cienna

The Help Desk: Putting the "man" in "romance"

Cienna Madrid is taking the week off. Please enjoy this encore Help Desk from September, 2015. Do you need a book recommendation to send your worst cousin on her birthday? Is it okay to read erotica on public transit? Cienna can help. Send your questions to advice@seattlereviewofbooks.com.

Dear Cienna,

In the military I was taught to keep it high and tight—that's my hair, of course, but also a good attitude towards life. Efficient, controlled, prepared, and to the point. But, it turns out, I have a certain softness for rich Victorian fiction that curls in on itself and never leaves any aside unsaid. Middlemarch has stolen my heart. Jane Austen makes me giggle. Cienna, I'm a man's man. I should be reading spy novels and hard stuff. What is it about those books? What the hell is wrong with me?

Burt in Burien

Dear Burt,

No one is asking you to make your own beef jerky out of old cow parts, ejaculate on a pile of fawning virgins, or any other questionable chores ascribed to the elusive “man’s man.” There’s no conflict with loving military precision and efficiency, and enjoying romance novels. In fact, the two are very complementary.

A good romance novel allows you to suspend logic and control for a few hours and be swept up in an emotional story that manages to be dramatic through its inevitable happy ending. We all want happy endings; that’s the allure of the genre. And massage.

In fact, last month, after a particularly bad date that took place at a supermarket cheese counter – where I ingested an hour’s worth of free cubes while chanting, “My God, Cienna, which vindictive crone did you offend to deserve this romantic hellscape?” – I curled up with a Tillamook baby loaf and a feminist romance novel and read until I believed in the concept of romance again (the lurid sex scenes that somehow never include the word “penis” helped).

There is nothing wrong with you. I suspect your military buddies could say that you have shitty taste in books but it would be a pity to deny them that – one of life’s sweetest pleasures is judging other people’s reading lists. Plus, it’s not like you’re carrying around a signed copy of Left Behind.

I suggest you join a book club filled with people (most likely women) who will be thrilled to discuss Victorian bodice-rippers with you and very impressed by how poetically you can describe a penis and breasts without ever using the word “penis” and “breasts.” Or, if you’re not quite ready to be out-and-proud about your taste in books, at least consider these feminist historical romance writers: Courtney Milan, Cecelia Grant and Sarah MacLean. I bet you’ll enjoy them.

Kisses,

Cienna

The Help Desk: On gender-swapping the classics

Every Friday, Cienna Madrid offers solutions to life’s most vexing literary problems. Do you need a book recommendation to send your worst cousin on her birthday? Is it okay to read erotica on public transit? Cienna can help. Send your questions to advice@seattlereviewofbooks.com.

Dear Cienna,

I had some friends recently talking about how great Columbo was, and that led to wondering if that character could be played by anybody but Peter Falk. Notably, if we rebooted Columbo, what woman could play the detective?

It led me to wonder what other books would be amazing with girls or women as the protagonist. Haden Caulfield, say. Call me Isabel. Phyllis Marlow. See where I'm going? What book would be just as impactful and great if we gender flipped the lead? I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Diane, Brentwood

Dear Diane,

Your question was a great exercise in considering my personal favorite novels and why they stuck with me. Many of my favorite male protagonists could easily swap gender without significantly compromising the story – Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit, Pip in Great Expectations, Ignatius Reilly in Confederacy of Dunces, Tom Sawyer in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, all of the flies in Lord of the Flies. The same cannot be said of my favorite female-driven novels: Anna Karenina, Pride and Prejudice, Kindred, The Scarlet Letter — even short stories like "The Yellow Wallpaper" or "The Waltz."

The signifiant difference is that, at least with regards to the stories on my list, novels with male protagonists are concerned with finding themselves, coming of age, or embarking on grand adventures that pit themselves against Society or Mother Nature Herself, while books with female protagonists (or people of color) are fundamentally about navigating society in very mundane ways: by making an advantageous marriage, being taunted by home decor, or simply by surviving. These are books that could not be written if the protagonist were a white male, because white males aren't burdened with the same societal constraints that women and people of color are.

I don't often get into arguments about white privilege – or even more specifically, white male privilege – for the same reason I refuse to speculate on the shape of the earth: it is an exercise in stupidity for the very stupid. The earth is round and white privilege/white male privilege exists, period. Great works of literature, much like photos of our orb-shaped earth, have illustrated this over and over and over again.

Fortunately, some authors are already rewriting classic tales to reflect more points of view than just the dominant. For instance, Fifty Shades of Grey is really just Of Mice and Men with a smarter hot chick and spankings. Take comfort in this.

Kisses,

Cienna

The Help Desk: I wish I hadn't agreed to edit my friend's memoir

Every Friday, Cienna Madrid offers solutions to life’s most vexing literary problems. Do you need a book recommendation to send your worst cousin on her birthday? Is it okay to read erotica on public transit? Cienna can help. Send your questions to advice@seattlereviewofbooks.com.

Dear Cienna,

There’s this couple I’ve been friends with for years. One of them is writing a memoir, which I agreed to edit.

When I got the manuscript, I realized it documents a bunch of stuff I wish I didn’t know — without getting too specific, there are stories in this thing that call their entire relationship into question.

What’s my obligation to both of my friends here? I don’t think I can spend months working through the text and keeping those deep dark secrets to myself. On the other hand, “do I tell the girlfriend” is such a sad, tired story. It’s not really my business, maybe she already knows, and I did say I’d help bring this baby book into the world.

Help!

Carol, International District

Dear Carol,

You sound like the type of well-meaning person who lets crafty Mormon missionaries in your house to use your bathroom, ignorant of the fact that the anus is the gateway to the soul and its sanctuary should be protected at all costs. Or who is annually tricked into donating to the Humane Society by those personalized address labels they send out, ignorant of the fact that the Humane Society is a subsidiary of the Lisa Frank empire and saving furry lives is a front to push tacky office items.

Sweet, trusting Carol. In most instances, memoir has become a pretentious word for "journal." No friend should be forced to read, let alone edit, another friend's journal. (An aside to memoir-writing folks: Do not ask friends to read your manuscript – it is only appropriate to ask friends to read your memoir if/when it is published. In the interim, find a writing group full of aspirational memoirists and you can all take turn making each other's eyes bleed through the editing process. It is only fair.)

But the deed is done and now the mundane horrors contained within are forever stamped on your brain. At this point, your obligation is to yourself and your sanity. Approach your journaling friend and say something like, "Hey, I wish you would've given me a head's up about some of this content, as it's pretty personal and puts me in an awkward position with your partner. Have they read it yet?"

If they have not, tell your friend that you don't feel comfortable editing their journal any further, and point out that if they were truly serious about getting it published, their partner will read it eventually and they should have that talk now. If their partner is aware, suck it up and tell the journaler they owe you a keg for your mental anguish. Then finish editing the damn thing and immediately hang a "No Soliciting" sign on your front door.

Kisses,

Cienna

The Help Desk: A poem for the lonely

Every Friday, Cienna Madrid offers solutions to life’s most vexing literary problems. Do you need a book recommendation to send your worst cousin on her birthday? Is it okay to read erotica on public transit? Cienna can help. Send your questions to advice@seattlereviewofbooks.com.

Dear Cienna,

Will you please write me a poem?

Signed,

Lonely in Longview

Dear Lonely,

Have you considered investing in a companion? You could test the waters with a worm farm or jump whole hog into something more leggy, like a dachshund. I do not recommend spiders for beginners. They demand a taxing amount of eye contact.

Unfortunately, I don't write poetry unless it's in threat form. (I read on a bathroom stall that law enforcement have a difficult time distinguishing credible threats from art if they rhyme.) But my mother once wrote a lovely poem about friendship that may speak to your heart:

I have my puppy sitting here
Very close, I love him dear
Too bad that he's been dead a year.
He's kind of cold and stiff to touch
He's cheap to feed – he don't eat much.
I have to go, no time to talk
It's time to drag him for his walk.

Kisses,

Cienna

The Help Desk: Bringing a book to a gun fight

Every Friday, Cienna Madrid offers solutions to life’s most vexing literary problems. Do you need a book recommendation to send your worst cousin on her birthday? Is it okay to read erotica on public transit? Cienna can help. Send your questions to advice@seattlereviewofbooks.com.

Dear Cienna,

I'm vibrating with anger and upset over school shootings. I'm totally optimistic about the response of teenagers who have more moral character than any politician I know.

I want to help my NRA-loving family see another side to this issue, without challenging their gun lust directly. Can you recommend some books that might make them feel good about their manly choices while also subtly undermining them for the goal of socialist liberalist pacifism?

Namaste,

Ginger, Greenlake

Dear Ginger,

I understand your motivation but what you are proposing has a slim chance of working, and here's why: it is an overbearing – and yet delightfully passive aggressive! – attempt to trick someone into self help. True gifts are given with the receiver's wants and tastes in mind, not the giver's.

How would you react if one of your relatives bought you More Guns, Less Crime: Understanding Crime and Gun Control Laws as a gift? My bet is you would be more resentful than appreciative. It would probably not make the top of your bedside reading stack.

If you want to make an honest attempt at helping your NRA-loving family see another side of this issue, you have to be open to seeing their side. You could suggest a short-lived family book club, where they choose a book that represents their perspective, followed by a book you feel represents yours. Or you could simply ask for a book recommendation from them and in turn recommend a book. Gun Guys: A Road Trip, might be a good read for all of you – it's a memoir about a Democrat and former New York Times writer who loves guns, driving around America (with his gun) and cataloguing his own and other people's thoughts on guns. If you're looking to recommend fiction that drills into the emotional trauma of gun violence, I have heard good things about Before You Know Kindness, which is about an accidental shooting in a family, and Only Child, which is a first-person narrative from the perspective of a child who survives a school shooting.

Both methods would be a more honest avenue at opening a dialogue than giving the gift of a book that is neither asked for nor wanted.

Kisses,

Cienna

The Help Desk: How do I talk to my kids about authors and #MeToo?

Every Friday, Cienna Madrid offers solutions to life’s most vexing literary problems. Do you need a book recommendation to send your worst cousin on her birthday? Is it okay to read erotica on public transit? Cienna can help. Send your questions to advice@seattlereviewofbooks.com.

Dear Cienna,

As more and more #metoo-style accusations are made against authors of children’s and YA books, my partner and I are talking a lot about what we want to introduce our kids to — which of the great books written by awful people are worthwhile anyway.

Now we’re struggling with the corollary: we’re both readers; we know how authors are heroes to kids — and grownups too. When we let our kids read books whose authors are much less than perfect, how and when do we talk to them about who their heroes really are? And how to take (or not) value from the stories and characters they love?

— Asking for my kids (really)

Dear (really) Concerned Parent,

Human beings are experts at compartmentalizing contradictions – it is the only way pro-life conservatives can support funding cuts for programs like WIC while swathed in cheap suits fabricated by children overseas, for example, or how liberals can enthusiastically support bumperstickers like "CoExist" but complain that the homeless are damaging their property values. It also explains why gluten-free donuts are a thing.

Some of my favorite authors growing up were awful. Lewis Carroll (Alice in Wonderland) enjoyed taking nude photos of little girls. William Golding (Lord of the Flies) tried to rape a teenager, according to his private journals. JD Salinger (Catcher in the Rye) also had a fondness for teenagers, and celebrated children's book author Enid Blyton (The Enchanted Wood) was herself a terrible mother, according to her children.

Fortunately, I didn't learn that my heroes were flawed until I was old enough to read their biographies myself. Discovering that some were creeps and perverts didn't diminish my memories of their work, it simply injected reality into the fantasy. And isn't that what growing up is? Slowly dipping your toes into reality until you're navel-deep in shit?

So here's my advice: Read books to your kids that are unpredictable and imaginative and will make them love reading as much as you do, regardless of the part-time creeps or monsters that penned them. But when they ask questions about the world – if they want to know what #metoo is – don't be reticent to add authors to the conversation. They will naturally compartmentalize their fond book memories from reality. And kids have a right to know that their heroes have flaws and some monsters are capable of creating beauty.

Kisses,

Cienna

The Help Desk: How do I put down the phone and pick up the book?

Every Friday, Cienna Madrid offers solutions to life’s most vexing literary problems. Do you need a book recommendation to send your worst cousin on her birthday? Is it okay to read erotica on public transit? Cienna can help. Send your questions to advice@seattlereviewofbooks.com.

Dear Cienna,

My willpower seems to be diminished to the point of nothingness. I can’t stay off my phone long enough to read a damn book. When I’m reading, my phone pings and I check it and then I start reading about politics and then it’s two hours later and my book is sitting there unread. I miss reading! Any idea how to help me stop staring at my phone all the time?

Shanna, South Park

Dear Shanna,

"Willpower" is one of the rare and beautiful words in the English language that embeds the seeds of its success into itself, much like "auto-erotic asphyxiation." But when it comes to the internet, we all have chains that bind us. Mine is routinely checking local and state inmate rosters and corrections databases for people I know, a charming tic inspired by my biological father, who before his death managed to rack up five DUIs without my knowledge.

When I need a break from my own neuroses, I like to pick out a book and invite a human friend to coffee. I buy her a drink of her choosing and then ask about life, love, and her plans for the day. I listen to her talk about her cat issues and work issues, I smile and frown when appropriate. While she is distracted by my human empathy and generosity, I slip my phone into her purse. When she leaves, I am free to enjoy several hours of uninterrupted reading or writing in my favorite coffee shop.

Eventually, I must hunt her down and confront her about the phone. If she insists that no, she does not have my phone, I will gently bring up her 2014 arrest for petty theft. She will be horrified – moreso when she discovers the phone in her purse. I have introduced self-doubt into her mind, another uniquely human emotion. If she is a decent friend, she will offer to buy me dinner to make up for my trouble.

This delicate dance cannot often be repeated – eventually, your friends will catch on and learn to buy purses that zip. However, nearly limitless variations exist – leaving your phone in others people's cars or homes, for example. The key is not to flex your willpower but to separate yourself from the very thing that cripples it, freeing your mind to turn to truly healthy and pleasurable things, like the immersive world of a good book.

Kisses,

Cienna

The Help Desk: $15 Reasons Why

Every Friday, Cienna Madrid offers solutions to life’s most vexing literary problems. Do you need a book recommendation to send your worst cousin on her birthday? Is it okay to read erotica on public transit? Cienna can help. Send your questions to advice@seattlereviewofbooks.com.

Dear Cienna,

The manager at a local bookstore complained to me about Seattle’s $15 minimum wage. He said it was impossible to run a business with a wage that high. He did make one good point: restaurants and most retail stores can raise the prices of goods they sell to pay for a higher wage, but books tend to have the prices printed right on them. On the other hand, I think everyone should have the right to a living wage: especially bookstore employees. I pretty much didn’t say anything. Should I have been more forceful? Should I argue the point again?

Patty, [Neighborhood Withheld by Request]

Dear Patty,

In the age of Trump, I don't believe it's worthwhile or effective to be forceful in disagreements. What is worthwhile is being reasonable, which is a perversion of my nature. Yet sometimes I try.

For instance, if someone pointed out that "books tend to have prices printed right on them," I might respond with, "that's what stickers were invented for." Or if someone complained that it was "impossible to run a business with a wage that high," I might inquire what they thought their own time was worth – less than $15 an hour in the sixth most expensive city in the nation?

And then, before I went back to that bookstore, I would consult my human friend Silly P – who is a big-brained intellect, voracious reader, and somewhat of an expert on Seattle's $15 minimum wage – and ask him what other helpful talking points I could throw at this misguided bookstore manager in lieu of discretely lighting his body hair on fire.

Since you may not have a Silly P in your life, I took the liberty of consulting mine for you. Here is what he added:

The minimum-wage law was designed and instituted in such a way as to give small business an advantage over the corporate chains – the wage increases at a slower rate for independent businesses with less than five hundred employees.

That delay is important for a few reasons. One: it allows businesses a lot of time to plan for the increases. Two: it provides time for the increased spending power of a lot of Seattleites who were previously making 8 or 9 bucks an hour to take hold. Workers in Seattle have more money to spend, now that the wage has increased. I know personally that a few local bookstores had their most profitable Christmases ever last year, and I bet much of that spending can be attributed directly to the waiters and dishwashers and retail workers who had more money to spend.

That said, both Silly P and I agree with you – Seattle has a lot of creative, thriving bookstores, and those bookstores wouldn't exist without booksellers. Those booksellers deserve a living wage; they deserve to be able to afford to live in their city.

Kisses,

Cienna

The Help Desk: Writing residencies at the end of the world

Every Friday, Cienna Madrid offers solutions to life’s most vexing literary problems. Do you need a book recommendation to send your worst cousin on her birthday? Is it okay to read erotica on public transit? Cienna can help. Send your questions to advice@seattlereviewofbooks.com.

Dear Cienna,

All my friends who’ve done writer residencies swear by them. But they also don’t really have any work to show from their time away. As an aspiring writer with very little free time on her hands, should I be wasting writing time on residency applications? Or is it better to put that time toward, you know, actually writing?

Bea, Interbay

Dear Bea,

A question: how are you gauging your friends' productivity – by word count? – and why is it up to you to judge? Residencies have a lot to offer – for instance, Hedgebrook gives women weeks of uninterrupted time to write and revise alone in the woods (with very limited access to internet), while other organizations like Tin House are more workshop- and group-centered, and can be a great way to network with congenial non-spiders.

Even the process of applying to residencies and workshops, which is a subtle but proactive way of affirming your identity as a writer, can be empowering. It can also be a great exercise in pitching your work, which you eventually will have to do with an agent or 50.

If you don't feel that any of that would be useful to you right now, keep your money in your wallet and spend your time honing your work. But it doesn't hurt to keep your mind and your ears open for opportunities that can strengthen your skills or inspire you.

For instance, this summer I am hosting the first writing residency for doomsday preppers. These brave and paranoid individuals spend much of their free time training for the end of the world, but I feel their storytelling skills use massaging, as they will be the keepers of human history until a new hive of superior beings colonizes our planet and enslaves them as benign pets.

The residency will take place July 20, 2018, unless America is reduced to ash before then. Space is limited but I am happy to send you its GPS coordinates for two cans of vegetables and a mule's weight in ammunition.

Kisses,

Cienna

BONUS QUESTION:

Dear Cienna,

My friend and I are big fans of your column. We look forward to reading it every Friday.

I have a problem, and I kind of know the solution. My friend sometimes ruins books I loan her, and it’s really a bummer because we trade books often. I know I should speak up, but it would make things weird and I like to avoid discomfort as a rule. So I’d like to be passive-aggressive and use your column as a semi-anonymous bulletin board, if that’s okay with you:

Dear friend: PLEASE STOP EATING CURRY WHEN YOU’RE READING BOOKS I LOAN YOU.

Thanks again for fighting the good fight, Cienna.

Joan, Wallingford

Dear Joan,

I am happy to help. If this polite note is not enough to curb her bad habits, use a dry sardine as a bookmark in the next few books your friend lends you until she is forced to broach the topic herself.

Kisses,

Cienna

The Help Desk: At your disposal

Every Friday, Cienna Madrid offers solutions to life’s most vexing literary problems. Do you need a book recommendation to send your worst cousin on her birthday? Is it okay to read erotica on public transit? Cienna can help. Send your questions to advice@seattlereviewofbooks.com.

Dear Cienna,

This isn’t book-related, but I like your advice and you seem to have a good head on your shoulders, so I’d hope you’d entertain my question. Is it okay to run food through the garbage disposal even though the city of Seattle runs a composting program? Whenever I flip the switch on some food scraps in my garbage disposal, I always feel like I’m stealing vital nutrients from some plants somewhere. But sometimes the disposal is more convenient! Should I deactivate the disposal completely to remove temptation?

Joe, Portage Bay

Dear Joe,

I'm glad you asked. You can find conflicting reports about whether garbage disposals are more environmentally friendly than other forms of organic waste disposal, so let's not focus on that. Consider this instead: Garbage disposals – or rather, food disposals – are a great example of the economics of laziness that allow capitalist production to flourish in all its illogical glory. Think about their function – using large quantities of potable water to dispose of food scraps that minutes before you were willing to put into your mouth, but that are now unworthy of touching your hands.

No, Seattle isn't suffering from a water shortage but no city is an island and look at the dry and sandy fucking California residents just suffered through – or Cape Town residents are currently bracing for. Do we really want to continue promoting that kind of water use because we can't be bothered to compost?

Buck up and compost, Joe. Or at the very least, deactivate your disposal and install two chickens under your kitchen sink. In my experience, they'll happily eat all your food scrap waste barring onions and garlic casings.

Kisses,

Cienna

The Help Desk: Make room for a woman on that pedestal, buddy

Every Friday, Cienna Madrid offers solutions to life’s most vexing literary problems. Do you need a book recommendation to send your worst cousin on her birthday? Is it okay to read erotica on public transit? Cienna can help. Send your questions to advice@seattlereviewofbooks.com.

Dear Cienna,

I am bestowing upon you the power to remove any one man from the literary canon. At the same time, I’m granting you the power to add any woman to the literary canon. Whom do you choose?

Francine, Whittier Heights

Dear Francine,

I would remove: Tom Hanks. (Please just stop.)

And replace him with: Seattle writer Stacey Levine.

Calling a writer's prose "unexpected" is trite but Levine's prose is exact and strange and provokes thoughts in my head that I would be unable to produce on my own. She is underrated and I think it's a shame.

Tom Hanks will make a great Mr. Rogers but his short stories are a snooze fest – only by the grace of slavering sycophancy did one of them end up in the New Yorker. I'd rather tweeze hairs from strangers' chins for tips than read another Tom Hanks short story. I'd rather watch a rat gnaw the mole off my left breast. I'd rather listen to the late Mr. Rogers read 50 Shades Freed fanfic.

In fact, I think everyone who paid $75 to see him at Seattle's McCaw Hall (or anywhere else in the country) should now be forced to pay their favorite local literary nonprofit $75 to listen to Tom Hanks as Mr. Rogers read 50 Shades Freed fanfic – that would be a worthy crossover event that would tap Hanks's actual talents for a great cause. And it would likely make for a more interesting evening than watching Hanks read about young youths and old typewriters.

Kisses,

Cienna