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The Help Desk: If Cienna Madrid could force all Seattle to read one 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,

This year, the Seattle Public Library chose Angela Flournoy’s The Turner House as the Seattle Reads selection — as in, the one book they wanted everyone in Seattle to read this year.

I’m dying to know: if you had the power to make everyone in Seattle read one book, what would that book be?

Dinah, Central District

P.S. If you ever wanted to start your own misanthropic version of Oprah’s Book Club, I’d be a charter member.

Dear Dinah,

I have been sitting on your question for months now and each week, my answer has changed. My favorite recommendations are spontaneous and personal – for instance, a conversation about my dead aunt's newly-discovered secret 70's love child sparked a recommendation to read Katha Pollitt's Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights (not because my cousin should've been aborted, but because my aunt had no safe, legal recourse other than adoption at the time).

So you can understand how encouraging an entire city of people to read just one book is daunting. The kind of people who could answer that question unblinkingly are the kind of people who have only read three books in their lifetime – for them, choosing a favorite is easy.

In past weeks, I would've recommended Amy Bloom's Lucky Us because it is so funny and beautifully written that I have actually confused lines in the book for memories of my own, or Kindred, by Octavia Butler, because Butler lived and died in Seattle and despite her powerful stories, not enough people in the region know her name or worship her writing.

But if I had to choose a book this week, it would be Marc Reisner's Cadillac Desert, which is a nonfiction book about the diversion of rivers and damming of the American west. Reading about our untenable water policies is not as fun as reading Bloom or Butler would be, but it is a fascinating and necessary book for westerners. Seattle may not suffer from a water shortage, but it is the de facto democratic capital of the west and should be a leader when it comes to progressive water policy, and this book pretty clearly spells out the ecologic and economic disaster we're going to face if we don't re-evaluate how we use and think about water. Also: the only people I've found who've actually read this book are homeless-looking white men with REI budgets.

Along with a ton of other useful shit, like comprehensive sex ed and how to responsibly handle a credit card, Cadillac Desert is the kind of history lesson that should be taught in schools – or at least discussed among a wider audience than redwood-humpers with briar-patch beards and gear that costs more than my mortgage.

Kisses,

Cienna

The Help Desk: What goes on in Christian Science Reading Rooms?

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 gone into a Christian Science Reading Room? They really creep me out for some unknown reason, and I want to know what happens in them, but I’m too much of a coward to investigate on my own. I take my kids to church on Easter and Christmas but I’m not a super-religious person. I’m worried they’ll be able to smell the lack of dogma on me when I walk in the door.

So what happens in them? Do people read about Christ and science? Is it like Scientology, or more like one of those youth church groups that meets in the church basement and talks about our pal Jesus over plastic cups of orange soda? Am I wrong to be creeped out?

Alan, Laurelhurst

Dear Alan,

You're free to be creeped out by whatever you want, even bookstores. For instance, I'm creeped out by Toast Masters and cats who think they're smarter than me. Because you asked so nicely, I visited a Christian Science Reading Room and can report that, like nondenominational reading rooms, they are overly quiet and smell like books, not dogma. A kind woman asked if she could help me, I said "NO" overly loudly, she flinched, I smiled... it was a pretty standard exchange between me and a stranger.

In one corner of the store marked "CHILDREN," there was a table with a sign that read "Reserve Yours for a Party Today!" So I said to the nice flinching woman, "Ah, so this is where I rent children who know how to party," and she replied, "No, no, we do not rent children here."

And that is the flavor of fun you're missing at the Christian Science Reading Room.

Kisses,

Cienna

Bonus Question!

Dear Cienna,

Can we admit that adult coloring books were a dumb fad? Now that the craze has died down we can be honest about this, can’t we?

Smitty, Rainier Beach

Dear Smitty,

Yes. And since we're now in the market for a new dumb fad, I propose genetically engineering 194-lb house spiders so I get to be little spoon for once.

Kisses,

Cienna

The Help Desk: Always be (talking about) closing

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,

It’s obvious that my local bookstore is going out of business. I don’t know how long they have left on this planet, but the shelves are thinning and the staff is shrinking and everything feels a little more desperate.

I’ve been shopping there for years, and everybody knows me by name. My question is this: should I say something? Is it impolite for me to ask how they’re doing? Or is it more impolite to not ask? At this point, I think it might be too late to help them, but I also wonder if they know how obvious it is that they’re in trouble.

Is it better to just see the store out to the end of its days in silence, or should I be the nosy neighbor?

James, [Neighborhood Withheld By Request]

Dear James,

If the staff knows you by name, you've earned the right to voice your concern. You've built relationships in this bookstore and with its employees, and they're in jeopardy. However, if it makes you feel uncomfortable or nosy, consider this: nosiness is asking something for nothing – in other words, fishing for personal or sensitive information while simultaneously withholding gossip about yourself. So when I'm being nosy, I like to throw out a few embarrassing facts about myself first – like, "I don't believe in dinosaurs," or "I do believe in chemtrails," or "Sometimes I get drunk at hiphop shows and lecture black men who are hitting on me about the history of their own oppression."

I have found that people quickly let their guard down when they can't envision respecting me, and then they tell me everything.

Here's another thing: I don't live in your neighborhood or have the relationships with your booksellers that you do, but I can't help mourning the loss of yet another local bookstore and the great people and books it houses. I'm sure you feel the same and coming from you, that sentiment would probably mean a lot to its employees.

Kisses,

Cienna

The Help Desk: No one is free when others are alphabetized

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 turn 50 next year. Will I ever be able to alphabetize my bookshelves without singing the A-B-Cs to myself?

Barbara, Queen Anne

Dear Barbara,

Normally, I save lectures on the patriarchy – my albatross, my muse – for more appropriate arenas, like weddings, first dates, or when any fool I call friend ignores their parental instincts and asks me to watch their children for an evening.

But you do not need an alphabetized library in order to be happy, no matter what Melvil Dewey – A MAN – or the thousands of librarians chained to his decimal system will tell you. The perception that we need the "alphabet" in order to tame our collections is socially structured and enforced by the patriarchy. RESIST. The alphabet contributes to our oppression – just think of "woMAN" and all the English words like spinster, nag, and nymphomaniac that are gendered slurs with no male equivalent.

There are better ways to organize books you love – for instance, the internet suggests by color, height, or how "woke" the author is. I have bookshelves in half the rooms in my house and this is how they're arranged: My bedroom books are books I do not lend out; my living room and bathroom books are fine for anyone to read; and my guest bedroom books are either duplicates of beloved books (the lendable copies) or books I enjoyed but am happy to pass on if a special guest wants to take one. As a fun twist, I've begun further arranging my guest bedroom books by the first word in their titles, so each shelf secretly spells out a fun message:

FEMALE EJACULATION IS REAL

DO NOT OVER STAY YOUR WELCOME

I AM WATCHING YOU

SLEEP TIGHT

You are nearly 50 years old, which means you have lived through many waves of feminism without drowning. Congratulations! Now go burn a bra (or put on two, whatever) and experiment with ordering your books in a way that has never occurred to you before. If, in the end, you find that you are most comfortable in the chains of your oppression, that's fine, too. Just chant, "I'm a strong, independent womyn, and I adopt these chains as my jewelry because this is how I like my books arranged. A, B, C, D..."

Kisses,

Cienna

The Help Desk: I ruined a friend's treasured book. Why don't I feel bad about it?

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,

A friend loaned me a book. I wasn’t really into reading it — it was kind of a self-help-y thing. I only took it from her because it was easier than refusing. Figured I’d give it back after a good amount of time passed.

Long story short, the book wound up under a potted plant, and I overwatered the plant and I ruined the book. And because, like an idiot, I didn’t open the book until after I ruined it, I didn’t realize the author—now dead—had inscribed the copy to my friend.

So she’s mad at me now for ruining her irreplaceable book, and I feel bad that I don’t feel especially bad about this. I wish I hadn’t hurt her feelings, of course, but maybe don’t loan your most treasured book to people? Am I failing at basic human decency, here?

Viola, Fauntleroy

Dear Viola,

For someone who cherishes books, lending out a personal favorite is the purest act of friendship, on par with giving your best friend your child's kidney. Yes, this even includes self-help books, which as we all know are like cultivating an ultra-sentient crystal collection to tell your aura how to behave at dinner parties.

It's okay that you don't understand the emotional weight your friend places on books. (My best human friend's hobbies are French kissing her own reflection and buying pants in the wrong size. I don't get it but I'm smart enough to never hog her mirror.) Perhaps if you'd read that self-help book you would know better than to leave someone else's possession under a potted plant, which is unacceptable under any circumstances. That is what you should feel bad about.

The question here isn't whether or not she should have lent you the book – the fact was, she did and it was your responsibility as a decent human being with manners to return the book in good shape. You failed. Worse, you seem to feel no guilt over hurting your friend, which according to my crystal whisperers makes you a bit of a psychopath.

My advice: Go hug a rose quartz until you can drum up enough contrition to apologize for being an ass. Then buy a nice card, apologize, and ask her how you can make it up to her.

Kisses,

Cienna

The Help Desk: I used to read terrible books. Are the books I read now just as terrible?

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,

Flipping through my high school yearbook, I was confronted with the uncomfortable reminder that my favorite book in senior year — the book I told everyone they had to read — was Fight Club.

My reading actually got worse after that. In college, I fell hard for Ayn Rand for a semester. And I’m still embarrassed about the way I got suckered into thinking House of Leaves was deep.

So how do I know that the books I like now are any better? Will I one day be as embarrassed by my love of Jonathan Lethem and Mary Gaitskill as I’m already embarrassed by my teenage admiration for Charles Bukowski? Why is everything I liked ten years ago so awful, and is there a way to shame-proof my next ten years of reading?

Dawson, Bitter Lake

Dear Dawson,

Thank you for bringing up many cringeful memories for me – I still have a few Bukowski poems memorized; I became a nihilist when I first learned the word "nihilist" and put a copy of Nietzsche's The Antichrist in my bathroom; it was eventually replaced with a copy of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and then the Tom Robbins opus, Word Porridge Nostalgia. I should be embarrassed about at least half of those things but I'm not.

The only time I am genuinely embarrassed is when I'm wrong and no one has the right to tell either of us our taste in books is wrong, just as my medical school friends don't have the right to tell me a witch doctor is not a real doctor and the pompous OshKoshBGosh-wearing motherfuckers on the message boards at Farmers-Only-Dot-Com don't have the right to tell me a spider farm is not a real farm when SPIDER FARMS EAT ANT FARMS FOR BREAKFAST.

Just because YOU'VE never milked a spider doesn't mean it can't be done.

I've already devoted many words in this column to how much I love judging other people's taste in books. You can turn a timeline of someone's favorite books into a topographical map of how they've evolved as a person.

If anyone views their own taste in books (or anything else) as perpetually on point, it's a good indication of their personal stagnation – they've crawled so far up their own ass that they've gotten lost in the small intestine's labyrinth of bullshit, pitched a tent and are listlessly calling for help with only a well-worn copy of On the Road for company – a book they still refer to as The Great American Novel.

So to answer your question: No, there is no way to shame-proof your reading list other than to stop feeling shame about the things you're interested in reading. So stop it.

Kisses,

Cienna (To like-minded farmers, RudeNag69)

The Help Desk: In a divorce, who gets custody of the bookshelves?

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 husband and I are divorcing. It’s not a bad divorce, so far as these things go. Relatively amicable.

But how should we determine who gets custody of the books without having a lawyer itemize the entirety of our bookshelves? When my husband and I got married, we got rid of our duplicate copies. We almost always kept my husband’s copy and got rid of mine because he’s really good about keeping books spotless and not breaking the spines and things like that.

But just because we kept his copies, that doesn’t mean he’s entitled to keep all the books, is he? Is there a fair way to figure this out?

Delores, Maple Leaf

Dear Delores,

Congratulations on your amicable divorce! I hope to have several of those myself some day. To your question: no, your ex is not entitled to all of the books, even though they were at one point his. As every coupled person knows, you forfeit certain treasured possessions when you hitch your life to another's — books, leisurely bathroom private time, sexual mystique.

The fairest way to divide your collection is to go through, book by book, and take turns picking your favorites, like I imagine wealthier divorcees do with their pet au pairs. If your ex balks at this, follow the wisdom of King Solomon and offer to cleave each book into perfect halves. If he agrees to this plan, I decree your ex an idiot and all the books yours with the power bestowed on me by the internet. (Even more useless than half a baby is half a book; at least you can still claim half a baby on your tax returns.)

And if your ex really wants to die on this pile of books and you wish to let him for the sake of keeping things amicable, here is what I suggest: Take a few of his favorite books — books he's likely to lend out to friends or future love interests — and add some personal inscriptions that will make him deeply uncomfortable. Nothing mean, no comments on penis size or his stunted emotional capacity, just brutally honest revelations along the lines of "XXX grunts like a piglet at feeding time when he is going down on a woman," or "XXX uses the words 'irregardless' and 'travesty' wrongly and often when drunk," or "XXX got his balls waxed once and now thinks he understands the hardships of being a contemporary woman."

Kisses,

Cienna

The Help Desk: The online retailer that shall not be named

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 work at a large independent bookstore. I love my job, but my manager is getting on my nerves — specifically, his tendency to smack-talk Amazon to customers. He’s always launching into lectures about why shopping at Amazon is a bad idea, how they don’t support the community, and stuff like that.

I agree with him! Amazon is bad. But he brings up Amazon a lot. Like, a lot. I know he thinks he’s educating customers, but he sounds like a scold, and kind of a bore.

I’m pretty new at bookselling, but it seems to me that people aren’t going to shop at indies out of guilt. They’re going to do it because they like indies better. And if we lecture them all the time about the “Evil Empire” or whatever, that’s just going to scare them away.

But I’m not really comfortable with lecturing my manager about lecturing customers. Can you think of a way to help me realize that he’s being counterproductive?

Lily, Alki

Dear Lily,

You're right – people don't shop at indie bookstores for bitter lectures from staff on what their competitors are doing. You know this, your customers know this, your boss apparently does not.

But I empathize with your boss's Ahab-esque obsession. One of my favorite northwest pastimes used to be lecturing conservative hunters about how safe access to abortion is a fundamental human right. I firmly believed that everyone would agree with me if they just first gave me three hours of their undivided attention, preferably somewhere festively claustrophobic, like the bathroom hallway at a house party.

It's easy to fall into the habit of such selfish soapbox lectures. Everyone loves agreeing with themselves and in these instances your audience is held resentfully captive because they want to buy a book from you or still hold out a vague hope that eventually you'll grow tired of talking and fuck them, and then spend endless mornings making them elk-steak breakfasts until the race wars begin, at which point they might have to hunt you for sport because your name sounds suspiciously ethnic.

I was lecturing one such hunter about abortion and he interrupted me with, "You want to kill babies, get out there and sterilize all those wild horses ruining our public lands. That's the kind of killing I can get behind." And I thought to myself, "This man is an unfuckable genius."

What do northwest rural conservatives dislike more than abortion? Wild horses and wolves. Which is why, just this week I trademarked the names "PlannedParenthoof" and "PlannedParentwoof" and began the process of marketing myself as the northwest's first wild horse and wolf abortionist.

But back to your issue: obviously, your situation is complicated by the power dynamic between yourself and your manager. If your manager is a mostly reasonable person, try approaching him the next time you hear him mention Amazon to a customer and either start screaming something simple like, "ABORT! ABORT! ABORT!" or "I think we'd make more headway with our customers if we thanked them and praised them for shopping with us and left our competitors out of the conversation." If you're uncomfortable with this upfront tactic, you can talk to your manager's boss or write an letter from a "customer" that delicately highlights your manager's Amazon obsession.

To be clear: your boss is not likely to get over his obsession. The key is to find a way to redirect his dour lectures into positive, productive interactions with customers, much like PlannedParenthoof/woof will undoubtedly do for anti-abortionists living in rural communities.

Kisses,

Cienna

The Help Desk: Name one good thing and one bad thing about Seattle

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’ve never been to Seattle, but I’m a fan of this site and, especially, your column. One day I’d like to visit your beautiful library and find some of the places I’ve read about in Seattle-set novels that I’ve read. So I’m curious about your opinion: Can you tell me what you think is the best thing about literary Seattle? How about the worst?

Diane, Providence

Dear Diane,

I believe Seattle is the best city in the world for readers and writers. The city suffers from an embarrassment of literary riches – nearly every neighborhood has an independent bookstore and the climate is perfect for reading: the right mix of moist and cool that encourages you to curl up next to a window with a book and a row of vitamin-deficient houseplants and soak in the sun's meager rays together. Literary events – from fancy billboard authors to open mics – are hosted almost every night of the week (and advertised on this site). Some of my best friendships were made at those events. One such friend, a burly poet, used to invite me drinking about town once a month. We'd bar hop and talk about books and writing, and drink until my body lost its posture, and then he'd smile and slur, "This used to be Raymond Carver's favorite place to drink in Seattle." And I'd feel special for learning an important secret about a writer I admired. That is until one night, while I was puking off a curb on First Avenue and Virginia Street, my poet friend mumbled, "Did you know this used to be Raymond Carver's favorite spot to drink in all of Seattle..." and it finally occurred to me that Raymond Carver was a drunk. Any spot in Seattle would've been his favorite spot to drink, including my puke curb.

But that poet no longer lives in Seattle and neither do I. Nor do a good number of my other writer and artist friends, all of whom have left a great city they loved and an artistic culture they helped build because it became increasingly unaffordable. That is the worst thing about Seattle – that in its new flush of wealth, not enough work is being done to ensure that people who want lives and careers outside of tech, and who work hard to make it a great arts city worth visiting, can still afford to call Seattle home.

I live in Idaho now – the cheap red state of my youth that frowns on my reproductive rights but fosters my dreams of building a multi-story underground bunker, where I can politely argue with my white nationalist neighbors about how all albinos are technically superior to them. Sure, it's bare in comparison to Seattle – we have only one independent bookstore and one local reading series. But we also have Harvard-grade potatoes and when spring hits and the spiders are in full bloom, I like to think that it could be a spot where Raymond Carver would also enjoy drinking.

Kisses,

Cienna

The Help Desk: When it comes to autographs, this author is all thumbs

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’ve published a couple of sci-fi novels — probably nothing you’ve heard of. But every once in a while I’ll do a reading, and then comes the time to sign the books. This always stresses me the fuck out.

Cienna, my handwriting is awful, and my signature is ugly. Every time I sign a copy of my book, I feel like I’m defacing it. I’d probably feel more comfortable if someone handed me my book and asked me to burn it.

I’ve tried to practice my autograph, but that makes me feel like a pretentious jerk and my handwriting just goes back to unreadable anyway. Is there anything I can do about this?

Bob, South Park

Dear Bob,

Perhaps a corpse hand would boost your confidence? Unlike its cruder cousins – the lobster hand and hook for hand – a repurposed corpse hand would complement the mystique of your chosen genre. A writer friend of mine has corpse heels in place of his original ones – they are the consolation prize he won for jumping out of an apartment window onto a school bus because someone dared him to. As far as I can tell, they don't work any better or worse than his original heels but they are now his most popular feature (the parts of him that are alive are swell, too).

I doubt you or your fans would care much about your penmanship if they were given the opportunity to gladhand your corpse hand while earnestly telling you about the subtle inconsistencies they've detected in the worlds you've created. Even just replacing your thumbs for big toes would be a real treat.

So here you go: I dare you to get handsy with a live blender.

If light body modification is beyond the limits of what you're willing to do for your craft, I pity you, but I understand not everyone has what it takes to be successful. If it helps, authors like Kurt Vonnegut and David Sedaris often signed their works with doodles and compliments to their readers instead of signatures, and they seem successful enough.

You could also just bring a pad of ink with you and stamp fans' books with a thumbprint, nullifying the need to write anything at all. That would be novel. It would be more novel if that thumb were also your big toe, but I won't be pushy about it. Your body, your choice.

Kisses,

Cienna

The Help Desk: The inedible journey

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 local bookstore is great, except for one thing: the attached café is terrible. I fantasize about buying a new book and demolishing a few chapters over a nice sandwich and a cup of coffee. I’ve tried it there a few times, but their food is unexceptional and their coffee tastes like it was filtered through someone’s underwear. The service is pretty bad, too. And don’t even get me started on the soup!

Yelp is for assholes, but I really think this would be the perfect bookstore if the meals it served were halfway edible. How can I improve the quality of food?

Jay, [Neighborhood Redacted by Request]

Dear Jay,

You live in a city that has developed a taste for the ridiculous – how am I supposed to know yours is any good? If you've ever compared the rich flavor of a roasted beet to eating out Mother Earth, if your table salt costs more per gram than viable eggs harvested from a healthy young white woman, if you've ever uttered the phrase, "I long to participate in a California grunion run," I cannot and will not help you.

But let us assume you are a reasonable person – the kind of person who can't quit Fritos Honey BBQ Flavor Twists because of their ass-pounding umami flavor. Assuming this, and knowing that independent booksellers are some of the most intelligent, reasonable, and open-minded people currently eating out Mother Earth, here is what I suggest you do: start small, with coffee.

Get coffee at your local bookstore on a regular basis, be friendly and tip well. Tipping well is the key – I'm talking very well, like 100 percent for each cup of coffee. Solicit friends and fellow book lovers to also do this. After a few visits, when you have established that you are friendly and generous, leave an extra big tip – like $20 – and write on the receipt something along the lines of "I love this bookstore and cafe, but the coffee tastes like TKTKTK. Maybe it's time for a change?" And don't just say "it tastes like shit," be polite but specific in your critique – it is weak, it is cold, it has strong notes of underwear. Encourage your friends to do the same.

The next time you go in, make small talk with the barista. Ask if the manager is open to changing things up in the cafe – like the coffee, for instance. Perhaps even nicely ask to talk to the manager face to face (I know technology has made the act of expressing a desire while maintaining sustained eye contact with another human being feel like an old-timey hobby instead of a healthy communication tactic, but it's worth a try).

You are incredibly lucky to have a local bookstore in your area. As I'm sure you know, they are not the stuff of get-rich-quick schemes, they are laborious acts of love. Once the managers/owners understand that you're a loyal customer and ally – as are the other people they're hearing from – I'd expect them to be open to change.

Kisses,

Cienna

The Help Desk: What should we call serious comic books and non-fictional graphic novels?

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,

Everyone calls comics “graphic novels,” but a lot of great comics, like Persepolis and Fun Home, are non-fiction. So “novel” isn’t right. But some comics aren’t funny at all, and so “comic” books doesn’t make sense, either.

A couple of bookstores in town call their comics sections “graphica,” which seems really pretentious. Is there a better name for these books? Am I worrying about nothing?

Mark, Wedgwood

P.S. Sorry for the inanity of the question. I’m aware that the world is sitting on the precipice of Armageddon and a madman is in the White House, but I’d like to think we can walk and chew gum at the same time, metaphorically speaking.

Dear Mark,

Life is full of irritating incongruities like the one you describe – tinfoil is really aluminum, jellyfish are angrily neither, and pro-life politicians who would defund Planned Parenthood are really smarmy fuck-weasels who despise half their constituency.

Sometimes I wish I was poisonous, you know?

But personally, I like the word "graphica," which, as you point out, is more inclusive than "graphic novel" or "comic book." It reminds me of "novella," an approachable word that means, "I know you're a very busy person but I am a creature of few words and I would love to entertain you while you are taking a shit." Metaphorically speaking.

Kisses,

Cienna

P.S. Have you read The Impostor's Daughter? I highly recommend it. I also highly recommend hissing as a form of communication and using Dentine Ice as a martini garnish.

The Help Desk: For the millionth time, are TV shows the new novels?

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 one more douchey techbro tells me that TV shows are the new novels, I’m going to lose my mind. It’s become the stock response when I tell my coworkers that I enjoy reading. I liked Mad Men as much as the next person, but watching a TV show is just never going to be the same thing as reading a book. Can you give me a pithy comeback for the next time this happens?

Virginia, South Lake Union

Dear Virginia,

You say this: "Teevee shows ARE the new novels, in the same way that reality stars are the new Leaders of the Free World."

Personally, my favorite new show is Real Housemarms of Orphan Liver Donors, in which orphanage housemarms sell off tender young organs to the worldly battle-scarred businessmen who actually need them. I was really rooting for one of the marms to be chosen as our next Secretary of Education – they're all excellent at maximizing the potential of orphaned children's livers, just think of what they could do with the nation's young minds.

Kisses,

Cienna

The Help Desk: Is there publishing after death?

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 do you think about posthumously releasing books that authors didn’t want us to see? On the one hand, you get unnecessary books like Nabokov’s The Original of Laura, and on the other, there’s Kafka’s entire oeuvre. I’m torn.

Shelton, Winslow

Dear Shelton,

Speaking as a living human being (I DARE YOU TO PROVE OTHERWISE), I enjoy writing because of its control – my mouth often doesn't convey meaning nearly as well as my human fingers do. I believe many writers feel this way about their work; at it's best, it's the truest expression of their ideas and intentions. Anything less than its best is a work in progress.

So yes, I find it problematic that someone else would take that control away and publish a writer's work without consent – or worse, against their express wishes, as was the case with much of Kafka's work and Harper Lee's Go Set a Watchman, which I refuse to read because in addition to resentful uterus syndrome and arachnofealty, I've been diagnosed with a deferential corpse complex.

That said, I don't believe in any afterlife, so the part of me that's dead inside doesn't really give a fuck whether they're published or not, and I don't believe Lee or Kafka care at this point either.

Kisses,

Cienna

The Help Desk: Sometimes, humiliation is a team sport

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,

Not so long ago, I went to a reading. It was an author who, back in his prime, used to be a bestseller. I still think of him as a big name. Unfortunately, only three people showed up for the reading. Including me.

He was visibly crestfallen when he went onstage to the loudest applause we could muster, and the Q&A session was brutal. It was so awkward that I haven’t been back to a reading since. Was there any way to defuse the situation, do you think? I just felt so bad for the guy.

Jasmine, Fremont

Dear Jasmine,

You experienced someone else's public humiliation. Author readings are often death by a thousand public humiliations, followed by short Q&A. This isn't a bad thing. I would argue that you shouldn't have done anything to defuse the situation and really, there's nothing you could have done.

Several years ago, a man I was pretty smitten with dedicated a song to me on his local radio show. I don't remember the song – it didn't matter – what mattered was he knew I was listening and he did something that no man had ever done for me before: he gave me a public declaration of affection.

When our odd relationship was on its deathbed and I was locked in a losing battle with myself to prove he had cared about me once, I brought it up to him, this moment that I had cherished for over a year. His response was this: "I never dedicated a song to you, I would never dedicate a song to you, that's psychotic."

Before that moment I did not know you could be physically petrified by humiliation. A friend of mine witnessed that moment – when someone broke off a piece of my heart and chucked it into the trash, and then took a shit on top and lit the whole mess on fire – and her response was this: "Damn, that's raw. Nothing will fix this, in fact alcohol might make it worse, but that's about all I can offer, aside from an alibi if his house gets torched for some reason."

My point is this: the popularity of social media and memoir-writing has left us with a pretty stark dichotomy: people who overshare the highlights of their lives and people who overshare their own bottoming out. Either way, the scenes and emotions are curated for an audience. Much less common is what you witnessed – that raw moment when our carefully curated realities are dickslapped by actual reality and we wish to Jesus Prom King Christ that whatever vengeful god had led us here would just finish the job and swallow us whole.

We need those moments to flex our emotions and remind us that life always what we make it, it isn't good or fair or controllable. The best thing you can be in these instances is an empathetic witness and offer alcohol if the situation calls for it.

Kisses,

Cienna

The Help Desk: Secret romances and sexy pirates

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,

In your opinion, what movie adaptation is better than the book it’s based on and why?

Caroline, Matthews Beach

Dear Caroline,

I'm currently loving Black Sails, which is not a movie but a pirate-themed series based on historical figures and characters from the children's book Treasure Island. It inspired me to re-read Treasure Island, however, I abandoned it after a few chapters because there was not enough fucking.

Kisses,

Cienna

P.S. I just asked a woman on the bus your question and she said "50 Shades of Grey." Just in case you wanted two terrible opinions.

Bonus Question!

Dear Cienna,

I read romance novels on my Kindle on the bus. Nobody needs to know what I'm into, right? But then, every now and again on my commute I’ll run into a coworker who wants to make small talk about what I’m reading. I'm terrible at lying. Can you give me some good snappy comebacks?

Dahlia, Lower Queen Anne

Dear Dahlia,

Tell your coworkers that you are reading "erotic C-SPAN fanfic," "Bible limericks" or "fresh pet obituaries." Those are three collections of words that no one wants to hear slide out of a coworker's mouth. But if you're not as comfortable making people uncomfortable as I am, you can also say, "I don't know. I'm not really reading it, this Kindle is just a prop to discourage bus folk from making small talk with me." And then smile real nice.

Kisses,

Cienna

The Help Desk: A trip down mammary lane

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,

Help me to not be a boob! I'm a dude and a writer and every time I go to describe a woman I write something about her rack. I know this drives women readers crazy, and for good reason.

But! I'm queer. Boobs to me have about as much sex appeal as cow udders. This isn't about male gaze (I don't think?), and sometimes a woman's breasts tell a story — like an old Russian lady with really big ones who is very modest and keeps that shit locked down tight. There's obviously some kind of management there that helps define who she is, right?

Or my sister talking about how big her “tits” (her words) got when she was pregnant — that's not a character trait per se, but it is something honest worth mentioning, right?

I'm a guy, but I don't want to be THAT guy. Is there a rule of thumb to help me here?

Bottle fed, Burien

Dear Bottle fed,

Being gay doesn't inoculate you against sexism, just as being a cultural latina (olé!) doesn't make me incapable of racism. As you noted, there are times when writing about breasts helps inform the reader about a character or the narrator. There are also many times when writing about boobs is lazy shorthand for a woman's sexual appeal, which in turn is lazy shorthand for her worth in the world.

So here are a few questions to consider the next time you begin fixating on a character's breasts:

  1. Are these boobs central to the scene taking place right now?
  2. What am I trying to convey by focusing on these boobs?
  3. Is this the best way to impart that message to readers?
  4. Are these boobs that I'm describing the boobs of a female character?
  5. If so, why the fuck don't I ever write about male boobs? Men have chests, too, and many men even have boobs and sensitive areolas.

Here's another exercise you might try: Take a few descriptions of your characters, swap their pronouns (or remove pronouns altogether) and re-read the descriptions aloud. It will help you identify the crutches you rely on and gender biases you may have.

Kisses!

Cienna

The Help Desk: Even in an age of Trump, writers should be paid for their work

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 a poet. I’ve been published here and there, in a magazine you’ve maybe read. Like most creative people, I’m pissed about Donald Trump and so I’ve written a few poems about current events. I read one at a group reading last week and I was approached after the reading by someone who’s putting together an anti-Trump anthology. The good news: he wants to include my poem!

The bad news? It doesn’t pay. Now, a portion of the proceeds are going to the ACLU and other charities, which is fine by me, of course. But it’s only a portion, which to me indicates that he’s taking some of the money for himself. I’m sick to death of people publishing my work without any compensation, and it seems like he’s exploiting the moment and the outrage to make a few bucks. It’s not really about the money, it’s the principle. Should I just politely decline, or should I raise a stink?

Nora, Auburn

Dear Nora,

Throwing oneself in front of a Arc bus seems like a slightly more effective "get rich quick" scheme than conning poets out of poetry, but I'm with you: artists should be compensated for their work. When my biological father died, I passed out candy necklaces and to-go bags of his cremains to all the eulogists. Their response to my thoughtfulness was visceral.

It's perfectly reasonable and not turdish at all to email this person and ask for a breakdown of which charities will benefit and how the proceeds will be split. Ask outright: Are you keeping any of the proceeds for yourself? From there, follow your heart – or the potato you call a heart, if you're like me. Remember: We're barely into month two of this administration. I suspect there will be plenty of time to participate in anti-Trump anthologies in the coming years.

Kisses,

Cienna

The Help Desk: My bookstore wants to carry books by a racist monster!

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 a bookseller, I was jealous of the San Francisco bookstore that refused to carry or order Milo Yiannopoulos’s book for customers. My bookstore won’t do the same, no matter how hard my coworkers and I plead to the owners. In fact, it’s not even that they won’t ban the book; they want to have a couple copies on the shelf for people to browse!

A bookstore is a platform, and we make decisions every day about the books we do or do not carry. This is no different. We don’t want to provide a platform for that kind of racist, hateful BS, but our owner thinks it’s more important to “support free speech” — and maybe make a few bucks off a racist shithead.

Who’s right?

Sheena, Tukwila

Dear Sheena,

You and your coworkers are right. Before the internet ruined the economic value of words and chains of bookstores sprawled across our great nation, people like your boss could maybe argue that they had room on their shelves to reserve for hateful ideas written by bigots. But now more than ever, the allure of bookstores is their curation of great authors and ideas promoted by passionate staff.

Moreover, your boss's fallacious "free speech" argument is offensive to people with working brains. I could staple my Groupon for "single gal's anus bleaching and chin hair removal" to a turd and call it feminist poetry but that doesn't mean you're obliged to stock it on your shelves. You know this, I know this, your boss knows this – even if he'd rather act against the best interests of his customers and business like a milk-fed buttboy of the alt-right movement.

But being right won't get those books off your shelves. So here's what I suggest you do: write up a few bookmarks explaining what a racist shithead Milo Yiannopoulos is, recommend that no one ever support his hateful ideas by reading or buying his books, and then stick them in his books.

If the owner ever discovers them, tell him this: "A woman with pocketfuls of spiders came in the other day hawking feminist poetry turds – actual turds with poetry stapled to them – that she wanted us to stock. When I refused, she cursed us for stifling her free speech and then spent a long time flipping through Milo's books. I think her name was Cienna Madrid."

Kisses,

Cienna

The Help Desk: Your one-stop shop for advice on plagiarism, pince-nez, and spider blood

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 other day at the eye doctor’s office, I found myself considering a pince nez. Would this make me look like a total ass, or is it time for FDR’s preferred eyewear to make a comeback?

Stu, Bellevue

Dear Stu,

There are two instances in which I could see this look working on a contemporary face: if you were to pair your prince nez with a reptile contact lens, so that you had one large, freaky snake eye, or if you were to poke your non-prince nez eye out with a fork. All other alternatives are unacceptable.

Kisses,

Cienna

P.S. Speaking of lenses and history and such, go read Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher.

Dear Cienna,

Settle a bet: is there ever a time when plagiarism is morally justified?

Evie, Port Townsend

Dear Evie,

Considering that I have used stories of my alcoholic father's suicide to score free drinks in bars, take my views on morality with as much salt as you wish: No, plagiarism is never morally justified.

Kisses,

Cienna

P.S. Speaking of immorality, go read Insane Clown President.

Dear Cienna,

I just want to know more about the spiders, please. The way you talk about them makes my stomach feel funny, and I’m not sure yet if it’s good or bad.

Shelob, Pioneer Square

Dear Shelob,

Did you know that female black widows can store sperm in their abdomens for up to two years? Or that spider blood is blue? Or that their silk is five times stronger than steel – in fact, it's so strong and elastic that scientists cannot replicate it?

Or that the two things you never, ever want to do on a Friday night with your spider friends is draw a bubble bath or play "light as a feather, stiff as a board" because both will end in horror?

Kisses!

Cienna

P.S. Go read The Private Life of Spiders.