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The Help Desk: The most beautiful sound I ever read

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 the best musical ever made from a book. No picking Hamilton.

Tia, On the Boards

Dear Tia,

By far the best book-to-musical adaptation I have ever seen is StruwwelpeterShockheaded Peter – which toured Seattle in 2001. The book is a collection of German victorian children's morality fables that illustrate what happens to children who won't eat their soup (they starve), who whip dogs (they are badly bitten), and who suck their thumbs (their thumbs are cut off by a maniac with large scissors). The stories were narrated by the Tiger Lillies and an accordion.

I would like to see more musicals commissioned to tell vital stories that people avoid because they are too sad or too true to deal with right now: Bastard out of Carolina, When Breath Becomes Air, The New Jim Crow, Fear: Trump in the White House – someone should jazz up those word piles with a few aggressively catchy songs and shove 'em on stage.

Maybe also The Old Man and the Sea because I can't think of an author more antithetical to the genre and I want to watch an old man sing to a large fish for at least two hours.

Kisses,

Cienna

The Help Desk: How do you say "lost in translation" in literally any other language?

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,

Do you speak any other languages? If so, do you read books in other languages?

Either way, do you think that good translations exist? I’m monolingual, but the idea of translating fiction or poetry from one language into another always seemed like doing eye surgery with an old hatchet. I don’t spend much time reading translated stuff because of that, but I always have the nagging sense that I might be missing out on something good.

Pauline, Crown Hill

Dear Pauline,

I've been told my forked tongue is perfect for a particularly dead Latin dialect and I speak French like a child who has no concept of the passage of time. But yes, I do attempt to read books in other languages, mostly crone hexes from the motherland (in my case, Idaho) and the occasional Spanish children's book (I'm trying to use my bad French to teach myself bad Spanish). It took me six months to get through Lucha Libre: The Man in the Silver Mask but I would highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys mask-themed fiction.

I do believe good translations exist – there are multilingual authors who translate their own texts, for example. And as a monolingual reader (or a stumpy trilingual reader, in my case), worrying about what you're missing out on is a bit silly, like refusing to fly Southwest because you'll never grow feathers. Sure the experience is different but it's still a journey. Isn't that the point of a good book and/or economy travel?

If you want to try reading a good translation, the National Book Awards announced just this year a category for translated literature. In fact, Seattle's own Karen Maeda Allman is a judge for that category. Small fuckin' world, right? I'd start there.

Kisses,

Cienna

The Help Desk: The itsy bitsy spider learned how to not be a jerk

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,

You remind me of my Aunt Alice, who once told me that the only difference between men and women was obligation, sensibility, kindness, and everything else. (But then again, she hated women, had "will obey" in her vows, and lived a very orthodox life.)

There was this one thing, though: she was really, really, really into spiders. She used to make all my dresses, and on every label she made a little black spider on a thread. Every birthday card: spiders. She once knit me an afghan that had all radiating spider web patterns.

Given how much you write about spiders I thought maybe you could throw some light on Aunt Alice. Any insights?

Beth, Redmond

Dear Beth,

Thanks. Based on your description, I strongly believe your aunt and I could've had a fine time alone together in a dim room, not speaking. I think we both identify with spiders' solitary, independent nature – they are unconcerned with being either overlooked or hated, as most are too busy with snacking and butt play.

And I suspect that your aunt would have a harder time hating women in today's climate. Even if you ignore for a moment judge Brett Kavanaugh's alleged sexual misconduct and under-oath lies, congressional Republicans' staunch support of getting this man's shithooks planted on the Supreme Court prove they have dropped the charade that women are human beings and should be listened to and respected as such. Why even call us women – why not "man's best friend"? They treat us alternately like bitches and dogs.

The silver lining is that more people are taking notice. It's not just self-ascribed feminists beating the drum about women's basic rights any more (like the right not to be groped and harassed, the right to be listened to and believed). Did you know that some spiders are social? And that their personality can change depending on what other spiders they're socializing with? If spiders can change, I have hope that more people can, too.

Kisses,

Cienna

PS. I want that afghan.

P.P.S. This conversation reminds me of the life and writings of Pearl S. Buck, who was raised in China by missionaries but went against her church and spoke out against Christian missions later on in life. She was also an ardent advocate for women and minority rights. You should read The Good Earth – it won a Pulitzer (and she won a Nobel Prize in Literature) way back before "affirmative action" became a sly talking point to dismiss the accomplishments of women and minorities.

The Help Desk: A list of men to avoid

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,

Now that DFW has been called out in #MeToo by Mary Karr, and the Shitty Media Men list has been made public, I'm wondering if you could make like a Quantico professor and offer us a profile of the kind of asshole we should avoid?

Dizzy and disillusioned, Bellingham

Dear DD,

Wouldn't it be grand if life were that easy? I wish we could assemble one profile and be done with it. I also wish surreptitious gropers willingly wore mittens and would-be rapists wore chastity sandwich boards to curb their destructive, dehumanizing behavior. Sadly, shitty men evolve with each new generation and the only unifying factor seems to be that they view women at best as second-class citizens, or at worst as objects, and few shitty men are going to respond truthfully to the question "do you view women as second class citizens or objects?" when asked – not even Supreme Court justice nominees, and you'd think those sitting on the highest court in the land would place even more weight than the general public on the truth, wouldn't you?

That said, my great grandmother Goldie, who was named after a horse, had a few timeless guidelines for evaluating men to avoid. Over the years, I've added to her list:

  • Men who have a bad relationship with their mother or sisters.
  • Men who name their daughters after farm animals.
  • Men who themselves are named after guns.
  • Men who now think it's clever to over-utilize the phrase "me too" in conversation.
  • Or who opt to play devil's advocate in any discussion about sexual assault or abortion.
  • Or who are eager to point out that sexual assault accusations ruin men's lives.
  • Or argue that sexual assault accusations are a grand conspiracy to silence and subjugate men.
  • Men who wear flip-flops to work.

I hope that helps.

Kisses,

Cienna

The Help Desk: The movie is worse, but the book is longer

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 off this week; the following column was originally published in 2015.

Dear Cienna,

Has there ever been a movie adaptation that's better than the book it's supposed to be based on?

Douglas, West Seattle

Dear Douglas,

That's like comparing apples to Amtrak. While they've got plenty of flash and money, movies can never hope to encapsulate the depth and imagination of books, let alone best them. The two mediums are as vastly different as a fortune cookie is from my favorite psychic-slash-preschool-teacher, Raven Moonwhisper. Sure, the cookie is momentarily satiating and its simple platitudes vaguely pleasing, but is a cookie ever going to charge me $50/hr to tell me which of my spirit guides is too drunk to trust and whether I should quit my job to pursue a career in animal husbandry? (Through trial and error I have discovered farm animals find my presence unnaturally arousing.)

At best, a good movie can enhance a great book experience in much the same way that playing Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon enhances silent screenings of The Wizard of Oz and Schindler’s List.

But to answer your question: Ben Hur is definitely more entertaining than the Bible.

Kisses,

Cienna

The Help Desk: Are we spiraling toward illiteracy?

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. The following is a republication of a column from 2015.

Dear Cienna,

Please settle a bet. My friend says our culture is spiraling toward illiteracy. He thinks we're devaluing language to a point where we'll soon only communicate through pictures, or video. I think we're more literate than ever before. I read more every day than I ever have in my life. Of course I read more websites than books, but I'm of the opinion that reading is reading. So who do you think is right? Are we becoming illiterate, or are we more literate than ever?

Fran, Redmond

Dear Fran,

Sure, more people may be able to fulfill the most basic definition of literacy but I disagree with you that "reading is reading." Like butt implants and Bible interpretations, reading varies wildly depending on the source. Is it great that a higher percentage of Americans can functionally read words, a necessity formed by our texting, emailing culture? Yes, but that doesn't mean they're critically engaging with what they read, or that the writing our culture is currently producing inspires intellectual curiosity (I'm specifically thinking about the sad state of journalism, which would best be encapsulated by a gif of people eating popcorn at the site of a grisly car crash. Also beautifully summed up by this debacle). As for your friend, please tell him or her that their argument is based on a false premise: words are not a cash commodity that can be devalued or replaced. For instance, there will never be a picture that can convey specific words like "lugubrious" and "malady" or even "uranium," which in pictorial form just looks like moldy bread. Since you are both wrong, I win your bet. You owe me a critical 500-word essay responding to an interesting article you've read recently and your friend owes me $20 and a gif of people eating popcorn at the site of a grisly car crash.

Please send both to advice@seattlereviewofbooks.com.

Kisses,

Cienna

The Help Desk: Help me be a better man

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 so fed up and mad about this whole bullshit incel thing and so I've decided to read every great feminist book I can find. I know about Backlash, The Second Sex, The Feminine Mystique, and all the other biggies, so I'm looking for lesser-known works that will inspire me to understand more and give me language to fight back against my broken gender. Any suggestions?

Henry, Georgetown

Dear Henry,

Personal improvement is a noble goal – I have the organizational instincts of a hoarder but so far have lacked the space and discipline to cultivate them. Good for you for trying.

These reads may already be on your radar but they’re some of my favorites: Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist, bell hooks's Feminism is for Everybody, Rebecca Solnit’s Men Explain Things to Me (although I’d recommend just reading the title essay online here and skipping the rest – much of it is overly academic for a general audience. Unless you're ready to dig really deep, pick up Hope in the Dark instead).

And here are a few of my favorite books with strong female leads written by women: Salvage the Bones, Kindred, Americanah, Gilead, Middlemarch.

Because if you really want to better understand women, you don’t need to read the feminist canon, you just need to be a good ally. One way to do this is by choosing to read books written by women and with strong female protagonists – and then recommending those you enjoyed to your male friends. Children are often socialized to regard books with female leads and perspectives as “girl books” and books with male leads as books for everyone, and this sentiment unconsciously carries into adulthood.

Until that changes, or until someone launches angryhorny.com — a dating website exclusively for incels so that women can efficiently detect and avoid them en masse – we are stuck in an imperfect world, one in which I don’t own nearly enough cats to fill up even one garbage bag.

Kisses,

Cienna

The Help Desk: Going postal

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 bunch of friends and I were out drinking one night and we realized that we all had stories about passing dirty novels around in elementary school. Usually ones like Judy Blume's Wifey, since my parents thought all Judy Blume books were for kids. But other friends said Piers Anthony, one friend even claimed The Story of O was the hot property in her school, but when caught they told the ignorant teacher it was about a girl named Olivia who loved a dog that bit people.

Anyway, I was wondering if you have a story like this, first. And second, what books do you think kids today pass around?

Curious since pre-puberty,

Vanessa, Out by Carkeek

Dear Vanessa,

No one but a pervert could describe mine as a normal sexual awakening. Around puberty, I plucked a copy of Love is a Dog from Hell from my mom's bookshelf and from it learned that mailmen fart better than they fuck (to paraphrase). When my grandmother caught me reading about asses that never age and semen free-flowing from hookers' thighs (to paraphrase), she overcorrected by giving me a copy of a 60s romance novel set in a post office, filled with endless "package" euphemisms that further reinforced the horniness of mailmen. (For years, I described budding desire as "mailman feelings.") Then, for my 13th birthday, someone bought me The Joy of Sex, which taught me the mechanics of the female orgasm and how to appreciate the boldness of a well-coiffed bush. None of my friends wanted anything to do with any of these books. All of them had sex before me but none of it was described as joyful or involving the USPS.

As to your second question, I don't have to guess what kids are sharing these days – I have a 14-year-old sister and a 12-year-old brother and neither of them appreciated my attempts to lend out my copy of The Joy of Sex or talk through their complicated mailman feelings. Judging from their social media feeds, sex-ed has evolved from covertly reading soft-core stories to following soft-core social media stars whose nipples have their own #sponcon deals. While I envy the ease with which today's youth can explore their sexuality online – eliminating much of the covertness and for some, fear and shame – reading about sexuality allows readers to develop their own desires rather than embracing the same bushless, overtanned images of what constitutes conventional attractiveness. (For instance, have you ever noticed what great calves postal workers have? Yet my search for #postalworkerporn yields no results on Google.)

Fortunately, the New York Public Library recently announced a campaign to bring literary classics to Instagram... perhaps some day they can be persuaded to add coming-of-age classics like Wifey and Love Is a Dog from Hell to the mix as well?

Kisses,

Cienna

The Help Desk: How do I force my child to enjoy reading?

Cienna Madrid, our literary advice columnist, is on holiday this week; please enjoy this column from 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,

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.

<p class="noindent”>So buy him a few books that suit his interests and make a parental decree: Read for an hour, then your child can 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.

<p class="noindent”>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: Bad dog

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 dog threw up on a first edition my girlfriend loaned me from her dead mother’s library. I of course told her right away and apologized. She accepted my apology, but I still feel awful. I’m not much of a reader so maybe you can help. Is there something sweet and literary I can do to make up for it?

Chris, Chicago

Dear Chris,

My father used to tell me "the world isn't full of problems, it's full of opportunities" and while I didn't often listen to him – he had a severe drinking opportunity until the day he died – in your case, his advice is applicable. Here is what he would've recommended you do:

Take out a few of your most treasured possessions – Yeezy sneaks, CPAP machine, whatever the kids are into these days – and line them up on your coffee table. Then invite your girlfriend over, cook her favorite meal, and lace it with ipecac. Seconds to minutes later when she begins to projectile vomit, point her at the lineup and let her go to town. Immediately afterward – this is important – kiss her firmly on the mouth without flinching and offer to split a handle of Tito's with her.

However, if you've never lightly poisoned a loved one before and don't think you have the stomach for it (HAHAHA), I suggest looking for an upcoming reading or literary event that she might enjoy and buying tickets to it.

Kisses,

Cienna

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