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The Help Desk: Reading as snakebite cure

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,

What’s your go-to work of fiction for reliable snakebite cures? Hoping for a speedy reply.

Rebecca, Black Canyon

Hi Rebecca!

Sorry that my response came out slower than a tick turd – I've had a busy summer sweating and drinking a firehose of Irish wine (white wine with a shot of whiskey in it, potato chip garnish).

If you want to read your snakebite a book, I recommend Their Eyes Were Watching God, which features rabies, snakebite's natural rival. But if you're looking for a cure, try the Foxfire series – if it doesn't have a reliable cure for snakebite at the very least it'll give you step by step instructions on how to marry the snake what bit you. Then you can check the box marked "honest woman" on Trump's 2020 Whites Only Census.

Kisses,
Cienna



BONUS QUESTION

Dear Cienna,

A while back, someone sent you a question about gender-swapping classic literary characters. As her example, she said she wondered what would happen if you gender-swapped Columbo.

I don’t blame you for not knowing this, but there was a TV show in the late 70s called Mrs. Columbo starring Kate Mulgrew of Star Trek Voyager and Orange is the New Black fame. It didn’t do very well. (Here’s the opening credit sequence.)

Just thought your readers might want to know!

RC, Westwood Village

Dear RC,

Thank you for the note – it was especially timely given the armpit of a summer we're having. My favorite episode so far is "Feelings Can Be Murder," followed closely by "Ladies of the Afternoon," in which Kate Columbo discovers that extortionists are forcing housewives to become prostitutes. BYOIrishwine.

Kisses,
Cienna

The Help Desk: Stop my wife before she bathes with a book again

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 wife and I have a great relationship but she likes baths. She loves to take books into the bath, and they always get wet and waterlogged, she’ll scratch her leg and then instead of drying her wet fingers sensibly on a towel, she’ll just turn the page.

I like buying first editions in hardback. Not like a snooty collector, but to support authors and I can afford them so why not? I just can't stand what she does to my books. It's driving me mad. She ruins them!

I’ve tried getting her a Kindle (she thinks it will electrocute her), buying TWO copies of books she wants to read (she has a crazy good memory and doesn't use bookmarks so it's not uncommon that both books get a soaking), and plain old pleading, but she keeps saying “honey, relax, it’s just a book.”

Yeah. But then see what happens if I leave one of her screwdrivers out of place. Ugh.

Anyway, she agreed that I can write to you and get advice, and she will abide by it. Please, Cienna, for the love of all that is good. Please help me.

Daphne, Belltown

Dear Daphne,

Even your wife must admit that sometimes wonderful things are incompatible. Drinking and texting. Feminists and weddings. Raccoons and dinner parties. (Stop me if I'm repeating myself.) Such is the way with books and bathtubs.

That said, it's nearly impossible to change a person and foolish to try, much like attempting to switch the theme of your aunt's funeral from "farmer's banquet" to "Harry Potter" because the only black thing you own is a cloak with matching hat.

So what do you do? Tell your wife that from now on, whenever she ruins one of your hardcover books, she owes you $100. With that $100, buy yourself a new hardcopy and save the rest until you have enough in ruined book restitution to purchase a lawyer's bookcase – one with a lock in which you can store your prized collection. And if she fails to pay up within a week of each offense, start sponge-bathing her screwdrivers.

Kisses,

Cienna

The Help Desk: Abridged, too far?

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 good news is, I landed a good-paying freelance writing gig. The bad news is, it’s writing book recaps for a “study guide.” So, basically, Cliff’s Notes.

I happily agreed to take the job, but I’m wondering now if I should take it. Am I just making money off the backs of kids who don’t want to read The Crucible for school assignments? Will I be encouraging students to not read the classics?

Charlotte, Crown Hill

Dear Charlotte,

As I told the woman who agreed to nurse my latest clutch of spiderlings: relax, you're doing a public service. There's no consensus on what makes a book "classic," just as there's no guarantee that any book will resonate its readers. And frankly, some books are begging for abridgement. I dare you to find one person who has read Moby Dick cover to cover – every other chapter is straight whaling advice. And no healthy, well-adjusted individual picks up The Picture of Dorian Gray for funsies.

While I believe that most books hold value, uncovering that value is a delicate dance that some people don't have the time or patience for, just as I don't have the time or patience to explain to Gloria why she shouldn't be paid per 'ling – that's insane, there are thousands of them – she should charge me for the dry weight in spiderlings equal to the weight of one human child. (What I'm asking for is not unreasonable; the human nipple has many openings, enabling her to feed more than one 'ling at a time.) Who's right? I am, mostly. But how do we ensure that we both leave this arrangement satisfied? THAT REMAINS TO BE SEEN, GLORIA.

Your situation is much more cut and dry. You're making good money and for your potential readers, cutting through the tedium to have books succinctly explained is a treasure. Who knows, perhaps your recaps will pique someone's interest and they'll pick the book up themselves, eventually.

And if the whole recapping thing doesn't work out and you have a pair of working breasts, I may have a job for you.

Kisses,

Cienna

The Help Desk: Breaking the code

Cienna Madrid is on summer break. The following Help Desk was originally published on November 20th, 2015.

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 son hates to read. The rest of the family? That's all we do. We don't have a TV, even. The other five of us could pass every moment of every day with our noses in a book, but our son wouldn't read chocolate if it were a book. We bought him a computer, and he's getting pretty good at programming and really likes it, but I think he needs to let his eyes rest from all of the vibrating pixels every now-and-again. He thinks we're all (the wrong kind of) nerds, and wants us to learn more about the internet. What kind of compromise do you think we can find?

Georgia in Georgetown Heights

Dear Georgia,

You can't force your loved ones to enjoy your hobbies – if that were possible, all of my friends would be wild about American Girl cosplay and farm-to-table spider farming. That said, if your son is programming, he is reading – you just don't get his language.

So buy him a few books that suit his interests and make a parental decree: Read for an hour, then your child can use the computer (and yes, you should definitely be letting him show off his internet skills). The method works: It's how I eventually weaned my cat off porn.

It's difficult to recommend specific books without knowing your son's age and abilities but Python for Kids: A Playful Introduction to Programming and 3D Game Programming for Kids: Create Interactive Worlds with JavaScript both come highly rated for kids 10+. If he's a little bit older, I'd throw in William Gibson's cyberpunk classic, Neuromancer. In fact, that might be a fun book to read and discuss as a family book club project, you nerds.

Kisses,

Cienna

The Help Desk: Tucker to the Max

Cienna Madrid is on summer break. The following Help Desk was originally published on November 13th, 2015.

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 friends with a man who claims to ironically love the writings of Tucker Max. He seems like a sweet guy, but is he secretly nursing an inner bro? Should I throw an intervention, and if so, how should I do it?

Nathalie, Crown Hill

Dear Nathalie,

If your friend "ironically" loves the misogynistic writings of Tucker Max, the man known for "jokes" like: "I know this really sexy move you can do with your mouth. It’s called ‘shutting the fuck up,'" he sounds like the kind of guy who'd "ironically" joke that Bill Cosby was being a gentleman by handing out free drinks to women.

Fortunately, there is hope for people who view women as breasty garbage bags to be alternately fucked and despised, and Max himself is proof of that. Perhaps you weren't aware but he's now happily contributing to what your friend might "jokingly" call the pussification of America. His latest book, Mate, Become the Man Women Want was co-written with evolutionary psychologist Dr. Geoffrey Miller. Parts of it are still problematic (for example, in interviews Max compares dating to knowing your enemy before entering into battle). But it's also got some sound advice and when you consider the enthusiastic audience Max has built up with his previous books, his words become especially important:

Objectifying women isn’t just a moral failure. At the purely practical level of attracting women, it’s stupid. It might temporarily reduce your anxiety about approaching them (about making your pitch), because if you think of them as targets, you can try to trick yourself into thinking that they won’t be judging you when you walk up to them. But they are judging you—and that’s OK, as long as you understand how and why.

Here's the intervention I suggest: Buy Max's latest book, read it, and then give it to your friend. Tell him that you're really eager to discuss it with him and get his thoughts on Max's evolving views on women and relationships. (Also make note of the parts of Max's book that you disagree with and be ready to explain these parts to your friend.)

If your friend is resistant, join our nation's great underground army of literate feminists and their decades-long campaign to sissify our great nation: pull a Cosby and start dosing his drinks with birth control pills. I'm not a doctor – although I'm considering legally changing my first name to "doctor" for the free respect and travel upgrades – but the extra estrogen will probably help. I spent years throwing birth control pills in the open reservoir at Volunteer Park and I'm pretty sure it turned at least a few gay men I know even gayer.

Kisses,

Cienna

PS. Happy World Vasectomy Day, everyone!

The Help Desk: How do book-minded Seattleites push back against Amazon?

Cienna Madrid is on vacation. This Help Desk was originally published on November 6th, 2015. But you can still send in your questions! 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 can't remember if my anger and frustration with Amazon began when I heard about the "gazelle" project, or when I heard about their total lack of philanthropic investment in our city, or what, but by the time the Hachette e-book price wars started up, my rage had reached a boiling point, and with the opening of their stupid bookstore, I am just seething. I hate what they've done to books and book publishing and everything I hold dear as a writer, editor, and reader. So my question is: how best to channel my rage? I already stopped shopping there, and I think my friends and family are honestly pretty sick of my virtual and in-person ranting on the subject. I need some new ideas for creative or constructive outlets for my Amazon hatred. Help!

Marybeth, Ravenna

P.S. I am a pacifist so violent direct action is not an option.

Dear Marybeth,

I understand your feelings of impotence and frustration. It would be melodramatic to say that Amazon ruined the publishing industry, the book selling industry, or Seattle. However, it's fair to say that Amazon waited until publishers, booksellers, and the city of Seattle as a whole was sleeping, took a big smelly dump on their chests and said, "you look like shit but that's not my problem."

A better advice columnist might tell you to take the high road and ignore their crappy business dealings but I'm afraid of heights so the high road is never an option for me. So what do you do? I suggest working to change the only item on your above list that you have a kitten's chance in hell of influencing: Amazon's philanthropic giving, which is laughable. It amazes me that with 24,000 employees in Washington state alone, and many of them Seattleites, those employees aren't demanding better from their employer. Instead of instigating poster wars that attempt to shame Amazon tech bros for moving to Seattle and "ruining" neighborhoods, why aren't Seattleites banding together to demand Amazon be a better philanthropic presence in the city that has contributed greatly to its success?

There are enough readers, writers, booksellers, sympathetic Amazon employees, and liberals in Seattle to put pressure on that company to change its corporate structure in one small way. How to accomplish that exactly, I can't say. Someone who's well versed in organizing, rather than telling alcoholic librarians what to do every Friday, should come up with a plan. (The only protest I can claim participation in took place last Christmas when, after a bathtub's worth of hot buttered rums and gin! Gin! Gin! my liver went on strike.)

Affecting change in that way, I believe, would make a satisfying difference.

(If it doesn't, you could always try taking a dump in front of their store. That also makes a satisfying difference.)

Kisses,

Cienna

The Help Desk: Tips for the masculine romance reader

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 this week; this column was originally published in November of 2015.

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: 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