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The Help Desk: Do only terrible men write books about terrible men?

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

Dear Cienna,

With all the harassing men in the media lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about this: where does the line between art and real life fall? Woody Allen keeps making movies about older men fucking younger women. Louis CK told hours of jokes about being a shit to women. Bill Cosby joked about giving roofies to women decades ago.

At some point, we have to realize that a writer who writes about treating women horribly is probably pretty likely to treat women horribly, right? I mean, I’m not saying that they should be locked up or anything, but women would be smart to avoid authors who write approvingly about being monstrous harassers, wouldn’t they?

The easy response would be to say that by that logic we should peremptorily jail mystery writers for murder, but that’s not right. Most mystery novels come down on the side of murder being a bad thing. I’ve read books by male authors that straight-up glorify misogyny. I know I would discourage my daughter from taking a class with those authors if the opportunity arose. Am I being alarmist? Do I even have a question or am I just blowing off steam at the horror show that is the news? You decide!

Kristen, Judkins

Dear Kristen,

I'd like to agree with you. It would make life simple if we could pass sweeping moral assumptions about artists based solely on their work. But that's not – or shouldn't be – the role of art.

To me, good art pushes its audience to think about aspects of humanity in ways they have never previously considered, or points out beautiful or horrible trends in our culture that deserve scrutiny or celebration.

Have you read Rabbit, Run? That's a pretty great example of a total shitbag character who peaked in high school and has no respect for women. However, through Rabbit, John Updike explores themes of alienation and the idea that American men aren't socialized with the vocabulary to express their emotions and basic desires (among other things).

It would be a shame if artists shied away from exploring and commenting on the world because they feared retribution. So how do we navigate art that makes us uncomfortable — and how should we approach the people who create that art? Here are two thoughts:

The men you all mentioned had autobiographical or confessional aspects to their work, but those weren't the dog whistles telling the world that they were alleged shitbag predators and perverts. The dog whistles were the scores of women who reported them as predators and perverts and were ignored for years. We seem to be on a path to listening to victims and taking their accusations seriously – investigating and when warranted, prosecuting them. I hope this trend continues, and it should affect their standing as artists.

Here is my second thought: I try not to read books that employ lazy misogyny or treat women as one-dimensional plot devices for men. How? I read book reviews and I take book recommendations from friends. (With movies, I try and consult the Bechdel test. And I avoid most stand up comedy.) Criticism is underappreciated but vital. Good critics evaluate what an artist was trying to do with their work and whether or not they succeeded in it. Great critics will follow an artist's oeuvre and point out weaknesses or troubling trends in their work, such as portraying women as tools rather than human beings. (That still doesn't mean that an artist views all women as tools. It could just mean that the artform they have devoted their lives to, and the mentors they have studied under, are steeped in misogyny that they may have to consciously remove themselves from. Unfortunately, women have been used as little more than narrative tools in most artforms – the archetypal victim who must be saved/avenged, the pure virgin who's a prize to be won, the heartless slut/seductress – for-basically-ever. It will take awhile to dismantle those constricting lady-shaped boxes.)

This is a bummer of a topic that I, along with many people, have struggled with. But it's a good struggle, like the struggle to remove the sweat from your third eye after a particularly intense bout of astral projecting yourself to Bill Cosby's house to take ghost shits on his pillow and chant "soon you will die and the world will be better for it" in his ear all night as he sleeps.



The Help Desk: Wiccans need love, too

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 The following is an encore presentation of a Help Desk column from 2015.

Dear Cienna,

My mother just came out as Wiccan at 62. Dead serious. What the fuck am I supposed to do about this? Is there any book in the world that can help me unfuck this pile of candles and Stevie Nicks lace?

Verlaine, Wallingford

Dear Verlaine,

I understand your horror. Just last weekend my own dear mother let it slip that she’s interested in butt play. While I’m fully supportive of her curiosity in the abstract, there are some things daughters are better off not knowing. Those things include butt play and the belief that mortals can control the wind.

I have a few suggestions for you, all of them outstanding. First, buy this book: When Someone You Love is Wiccan. Reading it is optional. Crack the spine in a few places and put it next to your toilet where your mother is sure to see it, just as I nailed a butt plug to an old swing in my mother’s front yard to express my support of her alternative lifestyle.

Then, when your mother next brings up witchcraft, gently steer the conversation towards Satanism. It could be that your mother is lonely. Maybe she’s frustrated by the current state of American politics, repulsed by organized religion, and therefore susceptible to the conviction that chanting beneath the light of a waning gibbous will ward away chin hairs and parking tickets.

But is she aware of the fantastic work the Satanic Temple has spearheaded lately? They’ve countered anti-abortion Planned Parenthoods demonstrations in cities like Detroit, drafted a “religious exemption” letter to combat anti-abortion laws in states that attempt to dissuade women from ending a pregnancy, and lobbied to erect statues of the goat-headed deity Baphomet in states like Arkansas that allow for monuments of the Ten Commandments to be placed on Capitol grounds.

As you can see, the Satanic Temple is an incredibly active organization – perfect for a perhaps lonely older woman looking to join a new community. Plus, Satanists love candles!

Ask your mother to mull it over, while also acknowledging that religion and butt play are two very personal choices that mothers must make for themselves. If, in the end, she decides that she would rather believe that a clutch of candles and a prayer can influence the tides, bless her heart and buy her a fire extinguisher.



The Help Desk: that terrible feeling when you've finally reached your goals

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

Dear Cienna,

The good news is I published a book last year — something I’d always wanted to do. The bad news is, it came and went with virtually no attention at all. This feels to me like what postpartum depression probably feels like. All that work I put into my book, all that time, and it seems like nobody cares. For years, publishing a book was all I wanted to do with my life. But now I almost wish I’d never published a book at all. It makes me want to never write again. Do you have any inspiration for someone who wrote a book to thundering silence?

Alison, Fauntleroy

Dear Alison,

Congratulations! Publishing a book is a huge accomplishment that many writers will never experience. Earlier this week, I found an old pair of 2-carat gold Joe Camel earrings and a matching Joe Camel shower curtain bought for me by my father with his carefully hoarded Camel Cash to celebrate the arrival of my first menses. I believe my pride at becoming a woman is as close as I will ever come to experiencing the pride you must have felt holding that first book in your hands.

But you have a right to feel depressed. Unfortunately, like my first menses, only relatives seem to care if you're a published author — selling 3,000 copies of your first book is considered a success, according to this article. Even well established, award-nominated writers are not selling books, and now more than ever, authors are expected to shoulder the burden of marketing and promoting their work themselves. It seems that the system is set up to see most writers fail at their dream job.

What do you do? First, continue to congratulate yourself on meeting a very ambitious goal. Then find a new goal. You say you feel like you may never want to write again, so don't for awhile. (Not even your family wants to read work that you didn't enjoy writing.) Take time off to refocus your energy on a new hobby and come back to writing when you feel compelled to. When that happens, think about who you write for and the best ways to reach that audience — perhaps a book isn't it. But whatever your platform, stop judging your success by the size of your audience, as that is the quickest way to set yourself up for failure (unless you want to start including spiders in that number, as I do, in which case move to a basement and your literary life will be so fucking successful).



The Help Desk: Does Buzzfeed count as reading?

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 The following column was originally presented on December 4th, 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 today 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



The Help Desk: The authors of our disappointment

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 The following column was originally presented on January 22nd, 2016.

Dear Cienna,

Once, I met an author I loved and it was a total letdown. She was narcissistic and bored by all the people who came out to hear her read, and I disliked her so much it made my skin crawl. Now I can't enjoy her books because it reminds me of how unpleasant she was. Should I bother going to readings anymore? I don't want to lose any more favorite authors, and the risk of them being jerks is scaring me away.

Mary, Bainbridge Island

Dear Mary,

Once, I was invited to a fancy literary party full of very impressive people – best-selling authors, sitcom writers, actors, comedians. I couldn't throw a fork without hitting someone whose work I admired. As parties go, it was normal: People sipped champagne, talked child rearing, traded jokes and were surprisingly tolerant of me sweating on them. I should say, it was normal except for me. Intimidation, my natural dearth of social graces and a near-painful desire to make a good impression rendered me mute – that is, until the hosts' daughter, a sweet-looking girl of about 12, emerged from the kitchen with a plate of fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies and began offering them to guests.

“Mmmm, is there anything better than a cute little girl handing out warm cookies?” One actor asked rhetorically.

That is the moment I found my voice. “Only if she's stripping,” I said.

The actor stared. The child proferred her plate to me with pity in her sweet brown eyes. There was a moment of silence as everyone in the room wished my place were filled by someone who could pass the very low bar of not sexualizing children in casual conversation. That was the day Paul Constant learned that bringing me as his date to parties is like reading Proust to a pig.

I bring up this story, Mary, to illustrate how awful some writers are at interacting with other people. Others are just awful in general (Norman Mailer was a notorious misogynist who once told a crowd of fans that “a little bit of rape is good for the man's soul.”). Either way, you have to separate the person from his or her work and be generous enough to pity them when they act like dicks in public, as all those people pitied me years ago.

Because by their nature, books are a private obsession, both for writers and readers. So attending an author's reading is, to me, an unparalleled act of public intimacy that can go horribly wrong or beautifully right. Personally, I think it's worth wading through a few assholes to experience the beauty.



The Help Desk: Rumors of bad men

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

Dear Cienna,

Have you seen the Shitty Media Men list? It started as a spreadsheet of sexually abusive men in journalism and literature that was crowdsourced by women in the New York media scene, but in the last couple of months, it’s gradually been read by more and more people. It’s anonymous, and it’s not sourced, so there are no guarantees that any of the information is real.

A friend of mine is reading at an event, and one of the readers is (allegedly) a Shitty Media Man. I want to mention this to her, but the reading is also a big deal for her and I don’t want to unnecessarily ruin a moment of success in her career. I also don’t want her to be in a room alone with this guy. Should I let her know, or should I show up to the reading and guide her to safety without telling her, or should I do something else that I’m not smart enough to think of just yet?

Bella, Hillman City

Dear Bella,

Yes, I've seen the list and yes, you should tell your friend that her fellow reader is on it. Don't think of it as shitting on her big night – if she's a writer, she's there for the audience and the chance to share her work more than the other readers. Chances are she'll have a great night filled with small talk and book talk and some inevitable empty laughter but she should have the luxury of being prepared to respond to a man who asks her to test out dildos with him, or to be forcibly kissed, or even to see a penis she never asked to see.

So do your friend the courtesy of a warning her but don't belabor the point. Remind her that the court of public opinion is non-binding and she's free to draw her own conclusions. Then help her celebrate her big night by showing up and supporting her.



The Help Desk: A very Help Desk Christmas

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

Dear Cienna,

Do you have a favorite Christmas book?

Timothy, Licton Springs

Dear Timothy,

Yes, I do: David Sedaris's Holidays on Ice. But if you haven't read it, don't bother – listen to Sedaris read Santaland Diaries instead. Back before the internet consumed 90 percent of our collective attention, this was a highly anticipated Christmas tradition in my household. Sedaris is a powerful reader of his own work and my family had to tune in to NPR at just the right time to catch his dry retelling of what it's like to be a Macy's Christmas elf named Crumpet. His story will make you love elves, hate children and pity those who give birth to them.



Dear Cienna,

With all the GoFundMes and the Giving Tuesdays, I don’t know what to do with my charitable giving anymore. Do you have any ideas for which literary nonprofits are especially worth my time?

Don, Roosevelt

Dear Don,

I'm thinking of starting a nonprofit that would pay women to run around and give men titty twisters while screaming "REPARATIONS!" But until that gets off the ground, Hugo House is one of my personal favorites; The Greater Seattle Bureau of Fearless Ideas (formerly 826Seattle) is fantastic; and Seattle7Writers is stacked with great people doing great work.



The Help Desk: I did not sign up for a spoiler-free book club

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

Dear Cienna,

My friends and I started a book club and we gave everyone a month to read our first pick. It was a short science fiction book, so this seemed like ample time. When we met, only two of us had read the whole book. Everyone else came because we had good snacks, and I guess they wanted to hang out or something. This led to a lot of shushing and talking around any topic that might spoil the ending.

I'm not a teacher. How do you get people to show up having done their homework?

Lily, Fairbanks, AK

Dear Lily,

It's unrealistic to expect everyone to read each book – I drop books that don't grip me because I believe that reading is a pleasure not a chore. I think more people would be readers if they didn't feel an educational obligation drilled in from youth to finish every book and be ready to take a quiz on it.

However, someone must set the tone for the book club and seeing as you have strong feelings about it, that someone should be you. if you want this to be a book-geared book club and not another social gathering, you need to make it clear that everyone is encouraged to participate but that conversation will be about the book of the month – endings and important plot points will be discussed in detail.

Have you ever met a brown recluse? They are the Cadillac of spiders: quiet, impeccable manners, and a low tolerance for bullshit punctuated by a venomous bite (which is oddly erotic when placed on the lips). I encourage you to lead your book club like a brown recluse – be polite but take no bullshit. If someone asks you to not spoil the ending, invite them to leave the room. And if someone shushes you, bite them on the lips until you taste blood.



The Help Desk: I want to write a historical novel, but history is really, really racist

Do you need a book recommendation to send your worst cousin on her birthday? Is it okay to read erotica on public transit? Cienna Madrid can help. Send your Help Desk Questions to

Dear Cienna,

I’m a white writer, and I’m writing a historical novel. One of the characters — a villain, I guess you’d say — is racist as fuck. This is important to the plot.

But every time I write his dialogue, I cringe. He says the n-word a lot. A lot. It’s historically appropriate for him to do this, and I try to incorporate other racist synonyms when I can, but the truth is that if this guy was alive then, he’d be saying the n-word a lot. A lot.

Cienna, I’m half-inclined to use asterisks for the word in the body of the novel whenever he says the n-word because I’m so uncomfortable using it, but I think that would be silly and pull the reader out of the story and I don’t think my publisher would allow it. On the other hand, I’ve noticed that Quentin Tarantino’s movies are aging about as well as The Jazz Singer in part because of his rampant use of the n-word. So what should I do?

Sondra, Northgate

Dear Sondra,

If you publish your manuscript, I can guarantee that no critic or reader will think, "not enough 'N' words for my taste." Part of writing well is understanding the power of language – when powerful words underscore your point and when they disrupt your narrative.

The N word is the most hate-filled word in the American English language. Period. An asterisk does not make it okay to use – if anything, it is an acknowledgement that you shouldn't be using it.

Yes, the word has been used historically in texts and no, I do not believe it should be censored from works like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, but there is a difference between writing in a period and writing about a period. Your writing is informed by almost 150 years of brutal history after the works of Mark Twain.

As a writer, you know good writing involves showing over telling. There are plenty of ways to show racism and racist thought that are more powerful than going Nuclear – if you're stumped, look to our current president and his administration for examples. Or grab one of the synonyms you've been using and stick to it – repetition builds meaning, and by layering the racist actions of your character with his repetition of a less hateful word, your readers will have no problem understanding his nature.


The Help Desk: Men keep interrupting my reading time and I hate it

Cienna Madrid is observing Veteran's Day; please enjoy this classic from the Help Desk archives. 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

Dear Cienna,

I'm a young woman, I love to read, and I ride public transit. You can probably guess what happens next: do you have any short responses for me to say to men who insist on interrupting my precious reading time? I don't want to be confrontational, but my reading a book should not be seen as an open invitation to flirt.

Liz, #7

Dear Liz,

In the words of Mother Theresa (not that one, another one), “If you didn’t want men accosting you in public you should have never grown dirty pillows.” My advice is slightly more helpful: Either cut them off or get comfortable with the idea of being confrontational. It’s easy! Fun, even!

Try memorizing these simple phrases so you have them ready when someone asks, “what are you reading?”:

“The scratch-and-sniff book of vaginal diseases.”

“Hitler and Pol-Pot: The BFF pop-up book.”

“Sex games you can play with your cat.”

The trick is to make men — many of whom have lived their lives without being made to feel true discomfort at the hands of a woman — feel as uncomfortable as they are making you at that precise moment.



The Help Desk: Erotica tips from a bag of hair

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Dear Cienna,

I know you're not that other Seattle advice columnist, but here's the thing: I used to read those Nancy Friday books about sexual fantasies all the time. They're, like, the hottest things ever to be published. Now, mostly, I read dirty stories online, but those confessional fantasies remain a kind of bedrock of my sexual imagination.

I'm kind of hooked on this idea of confessional fantasies, and my appetite for them is never ending. I've tried writing dirty notes on Reddit (okay, seriously, Dirty Pen Pals can get pretty steamy, but you have to fend off all the "A girl? A girl? A real girl!?" bull crap.) And, frankly, I have a relationship and I'm not looking for another, I just want to hear other women's dirty inner thoughts. Any suggestions on where I can go to find material?

Nancy, Friday Harbor

Dear Nancy,

Fortunately for you, I still have sandwich bag full of that other advice columnist's hair – a charming remnant of my career as a journalist. Mostly I wave it around at strange homosexuals in bars to prove that I am an ally or use it as bedding for spider nests, however, your question has left me at a loss for weeks now, so I decided to ask the hair.

(Some people will scoff at asking a sandwich bag of old hair for advice but put a microphone in front of it, get it talking about chemtrails and I dare you to tell it apart from popular radio commentator Alex Jones.)

While that Seattle advice columnist is best known as a gay man, only his close friends and family are aware that his hair was proudly lesbian in the late 90s, when these clippings were harvested and bagged. The bag of hair says the problem with female confessional fantasies on the internet is that they're often poorly written and, as you've discovered, are either geared towards the male gaze or interrupted by men. The bag of hair says you should give lesbian romance novels a try – they're written by women, for women, and feature female protagonists focused solely on female pleasure.

Here are a few popular suggestions: Silver Wings by HP Munro, Fated Love by Radclyffe, and Keepers of the Cave by Gerri Hill. And if you want a titillating nonfiction book centered on sexuality and the porn industry, a la Nancy Friday, the bag of hair suggests you try Talk Dirty to Me by Sallie Tisdale.


The Help Desk: Does Stephen King have "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 Cienna is off this week; please enjoy this Help Desk column from August of 2015.

Dear Cienna,

Can you just tell me, once and for all, if Stephen King is a good writer or not?

Dan, Belltown

Dear Dan,

My grandmother, a lovely woman named Roberta, used to ask me a question very similar to the one you pose. “Judy,” she’d say, because she loved to call both me and my mother, Evil Katy, by another woman’s name, “Judy, is that the phone?”

Roberta would ask this question at the doctor’s office, when a dog barked, during a moment of silence at a dear friend’s funeral — there was no inopportune time, in her opinion, to ask if there was a phone ringing somewhere.

Usually I could not hear a phone ringing but despite the silence I would often answer “Yes!” because I’m generally a positive person who prefers to speak in declarative affirmations (“The moon absolutely looks like a smug lesbian tonight,” or “Yes! I have forgotten your name again”).

On those occasions, Roberta heaved her 83-year-old frame out of her brocade recliner, pendulous breasts swinging like the excited wag of a dog’s tail as she shuffled into the kitchen to fondle the phone.

“God bless it, Judy, that wasn’t the phone,” she'd then shout because she was deaf, not stupid. Nevertheless, she would return with a treat for me, like a string cheese or warm soda, because I was her favorite living granddaughter (sorry Good Katy, RIP Suzanne).

To answer your question: Stephen King is a good writer about as often as the phone is ringing.

Hearts and butterflies,


The Help Desk: It's thick book season!

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Dear Cienna,

When I was a kid my parents always had one of those big thick 70s novels going. The Godfather. Roots. Shogun. I was too young to read them then, but I'm thinking that this might be a good time to dig into all those thick, engrossing historical stories. Hell, I might even drum up a few friends and do a themed book club. Any other novel to throw on the pile?

Darrel, White Center

Dear Darrel,

Fall is the best of all seasons – spiders are growing their winter coats, making them perfect for cuddles; drinking whiskey for breakfast can be excused as medicinal; and forests look like living rainbow flags in which every tree's an ally. It is also the best time to get your lineup of epic novels ready before winter blots out the sun and takes a shit on your precious stores of optimism.

You've got a healthy start to your reading list. I'd recommend adding Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, which reads like a melodramatic soap; nevertheless, its eloquence in portraying the constricted roles of "proper" women in society is still pretty topical.

I've also got Roberto Belaño's 2666 and L'Engle's Wrinkle in Time series on my list for this winter. I'dd add them to your list if, like me, you have any stuffy friends or judgy children you're looking to impress.


The Help Desk: Don't forget what your good book said

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Dear Cienna,

My neighborhood bookstore plays too much classic rock. I find it physically impossible to browse the stacks when Neil Young is playing on the speakers overhead. I had to run out of the building the last time “Southern Man” came on. What can I do to staunch the endless flow of Credence Clearwater Revival while also not being branded a problem customer?

Whitney, [Neighborhood Withheld by Request]

Dear Whitney,

A quick biology lesson: booksellers, like aspen trees and all women, share a single root system through which they plot and gossip. Booksellers prefer classic rock because studies show it helps their roots grow and unlike tongues, roots have no sense of taste.

There is nothing you can do to change your local bookstore's playlist without weakening or offending your local copse of booksellers – and we all agree this should be avoided at all costs, given their already fragile state on this planet. Fortunately, you have at your fingertips a stopgap solution for book browsing: earbuds, which you can insert shallowly into the ear canal to mute the sounds of classic rock with music of your own choosing or other pleasing sounds. Personally, I like to shop to a looped recording of spiders purring.


The Help Desk: My book club is going soft!

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Dear Cienna,

I’ve been a part of a book club for five years. It’s a good group of people—all friends—and we started the group so we could keep reading the kind of challenging literary fiction we used to read in college as English majors. We’ve all been very happy with our selections.

Until recently.

Lately, I noticed that the group has been gravitating to more fluffy selections. The kind of stereotypical women-having-epiphanies kind of stuff that Oprah used to pick for her book club. At our last meeting, I asked if we were going to get back to the more complex books we used to read, and I kind of got shut down. I’m clearly the only one who feels this way.

I don’t know what’s going on here, exactly. Maybe they’re too upset by President T*p to be serious? Maybe they’re gravitating away from edgy material as they get older? Anyway, I want to quit, but I don’t want to be primadonnaish about it, or indicate that I don’t value their friendship at all. Do you have advice on how to approach this?**

Skyler, Seward Park

Dear Skyler,

Book clubs are social clubs. I empathize with not enjoying every book chosen for book club – I haunt several book clubs and am unapologetic about quitting books that don't appeal to me. Like most people, I attend them because occasionally, mama likes to shake off her spiders, put on pants that button and listen to other women discuss their blood-sucking dependents in a wine-infused setting. Plus, understanding how different readers approach and interpret a story, even a fluffy one, illuminates the text and your fellow human being.

I get the sense that the books you read in your club are based on consensus. Where I you and wanted to continue enjoying the company of my friends, I'd ask my book club to begin letting a new person choose the book each meeting. That way, everyone's tastes are represented (it doesn't hurt to grapple with less "complex" books from time to time).

But it seems that you want out, so breaking up with your book club is simple. You say, "Hey gang, my doctor recently told me that I'm allergic to fluffy, women-having-epiphanies, Oprah-book-club style books. Apparently, exposure to these kinds of books is aggravating my immune system's snob response – you may not have noticed because I've done a really great job at hiding it thus far. But now I'm on a strict diet of complex literature, which means I'm going to have to take a break from book club and your valued human company until you grow better taste in books."

Or just tell them work is busy and you have to take a break.



The Help Desk: Putting the "no" in "novelty books"

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Dear Cienna,

My husband's family knows I love books, so the problem is that they buy me books. Why is it a problem? Because every book they buy me is some cheap-ass novelty front-of-store yuk-yuk book, with titles like "Sports Facts for the Throne Room" or "Matza Ball Mama's Life Tips for the Soul" or something gross that. I have a collection of these monstrosities, all printed on yellowing pulp rag, all with horrible line illustrations, and all with grade-B humor or schlocky advice.

So what do I like to read? Everything! If they just asked a bookseller "what's a good book for my daughter-in-law?" They'd do fine. Seriously.

But they're nice people, and confessing now that I'm ungrateful and overly polite would be an insult. What should I do?

Missy, Monroe

Dear Missy,

Normally I'm not an advocate for punting problems to someone else, but this problem is not yours, it is your husband's. Having lived through the dawn and death of my mother's three marriages and the marriages of several close friends, I have observed what it takes to build a successful partnership: don't keep secret families in neighboring towns – or at least don't add them to your primary family's Costco membership; don't marry my mother; and be prepared to actually step up and be a partner.

Your husband's family means well – they want to give you thoughtful gifts. But they don't live with you; your husband does. They don't know your taste in books; your husband should. They're not your family, they are your husband's.

If your husband knows his family sucks at gift giving, it's his job to step in and handle the situation so you don't look like a picky ingrate. Give your husband a list of books or authors that you would like to read and tell him to casually pass it along to his family, as in "I overheard Missy talking about really wanting to read these author/books if you need gift ideas," not "Missy hates the books you buy her, so here – buy her one of these."

If the next birthday or holiday rolls around and you're still stuck with pulp, your husband should tell his family you're going giftless for future holidays and to donate to a selected charity instead. And if he simply can't be bothered to act as intermediary between you and his family, check your Costco account and think hard about what "partnership" means to you.



The Help Desk: At the Little Free Library, freedom isn't free

Do you need a book recommendation to send your worst cousin on her birthday? Is it okay to read erotica on public transit? Cienna Madrid can help. Send your Help Desk Questions to

Dear Cienna,

I’m addicted to Little Free Libraries. Every time I pass one, I have to take a book. Sometimes I take three or four. Okay, sometimes I take them all.

I always mean to return the books, or to add something new. But I never seem to get around to it. I just hoard them. Am I a terrible person? Doesn’t circulation mean some people take out, other people put in? Or is that communism?

Please help. I can’t sleep and my neighbors are starting to catch on.

Mary, [Neighborhood withheld by request]

Dear Mary,

Much like my fondness for using stranger's business cards as toothpicks, yours is a peculiar but harmless addiction. Sure, you might be abusing the unwritten social agreement of Little Free Libraries (LFLs) but people break more serious social contracts all the time – for example, by tipping waiters with car wash coupons, or bringing flavored lube to their gyno exams, or paying women far less than their male colleagues, as if the human penis alone executes 17 percent of a person's daily tasks — as if it had that kind of stamina.

Personally, I think you're doing a public service by raiding LFLs – they're predominantly used as a precious way for people to dump their junk – but if you're feeling self conscious about it, you have a few options:

• Build a LFL in your front yard so that its contents are technically your property, and you're reminded to contribute a book every time you leave the house.

• If you can't stop hoarding books but you could see yourself contributing other stuff, try replacing books with themed items other LFL patrons might find useful. For instance, take a copy of Anna Sewell's classic Black Beauty and leave tickets to the National Museum of African American History and Culture, or replace a copy of Margaret Atwood's Handmaid's Tale with a pair of scissors and old shoelaces so that another patron may tie her own tubes. (These are optimistic examples – in all likelihood you'll be replacing stacks of 50 Shades of Grey with anus-relaxing poppers. Still, I consider that a LFL upgrade and your neighbors will, too.)



The Help Desk: This floor, boys. Next floor, mens.

Cienna Madrid's Summer cold has decided to stick around past the dog days. She's sick so we're rerunning this column from October of 2015. Our intrepid advice columnist will be back next week. And please remember to keep sending 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. Ask her at

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).



The Help Desk: Not your porn? Not your problem.

Do you need a book recommendation to send your worst cousin on her birthday? Is it okay to read erotica on public transit? Cienna Madrid can help. Send your Help Desk Questions to

Dear Cienna,

A few weeks ago at the library, I was passing by a bank of the library’s computers when I couldn’t help but notice one of the patrons was watching pornography. I mean, it was a hardcore, full-penetration video, and he had his back to the whole library! (No, he wasn’t touching himself.)

I don’t like to think of myself as a prude, but I was concerned for others passing by. It’s summer vacation, and kids hang out at the library! So I complained to a librarian.

The librarian told me that the computers had special privacy screens installed so that people could only see what was on them if they stood directly behind the user. She also said that they couldn’t interfere with the patron’s freedom of speech. So, basically, her hands were tied.

What do you think of this policy, Cienna? Should I have done something as a citizen? There were available computers facing the wall that he could have used.

Lorna, [Neighborhood withheld by request]

Dear Lorna,

You don't like to think of yourself as a prude, I don't like to think of myself as a mid-30s spinster whose idea of "intercourse" means demanding dessert for an appetizer on first dates at chain restaurants. But here we are.

Sure, he could have used a more discrete location. Then again, you could've refrained from standing directly behind him and staring at his privacy-screened computer long enough to catch the proverbial cumshot, curtsy and final curtain.

If you are with a young child in the library and they are in a position to stare at someone else's shielded computer screen long enough to catch an eyeful of hard-core porn, well, you should be watching your child better. If it's an older kid, they're spying because they're curious. These kids are begging for two lectures: one on sex and another on how rude it is to invade other people's privacy (even if it's in public).

But this issue isn't really about the lost innocence of children. Often, the people shamed for watching porn in Seattle libraries are homeless. So this debate becomes a coded discussion for restricting how homeless people are allowed to use a public space.

Here are my pre-diabetic spinster thoughts on that: Libraries are sacred because they contain more knowledge than any one person could ever consume and they share it for free. And in gold-plated cities like Seattle, where living on the streets ensures that you will face routine government-licensed harassment from police on top of the normal fears, stresses and dehumanizing interactions you endure during a routine day, libraries are rare sanctuaries. Libraries are knowledge, reprieve, warmth, free public toilets, and free internet, which can be used for job searches or anal fisting searches. Neither are your business, as it is not your job to censor other people's interests, hobbies, genre preferences, sexual preferences, or any other type of content housed in a library. Nor is this the job of librarians. So keep your eyes to yourself.



The Help Desk: How to get an English degree from Cienna Madrid University

Do you need a book recommendation to send your worst cousin on her birthday? Is it okay to read erotica on public transit? Cienna Madrid can help. Send your Help Desk Questions to

Dear Cienna,

Oh my goodness I'm in a pickle. I met a guy on this website where you talk about books. I'm super insecure about how well read I am so I kind of lied to him and told him I had a degree in English Lit. We really hit it off and he asks me for book recommendations that I spend hours researching online, and that my friend who actually HAS a degree in English Lit helps me to suggest to him. Thing is, in every other way we get along really great and after a really long time flirting we're going to meet up. He's been pressing to meet and I'm so worried about it! Besides wearing a headphone and having my friend Cyrano my way through dinner, what can I do so that he does't find out I'm a fraud and hate me!?

Corinne, Capitol Hill

Dear Corinne,

No, a pickle is listing a spider as your emergency contact at work and then having a medical emergency. What you're doing is snow-angeling in a shitpile of your own creation.

A lesser advice columnist – the unimaginative type who emotes at weddings and lists human beings as their emergency contacts – would probably advise you to come clean about your lies. But seeing as how you've gustily embraced this lie, and chances are this relationship will end before death takes one or both of you, why kill it prematurely with something as dull as the truth? Here is some food for thought:

  1. Your love interest is never going to ask to see your English lit. degree. But if he does, I have one that you are welcome to. It qualifies you to make coffee for people with computer science degrees and comes with a t-shirt that says "Sheeple Read Google, I Read Gogol," and $90,000 in debt.

  2. Researching books is in some cases a better use of time than reading the things themselves. I've researched many Hemingway books that I have never read, or only partially read, because blah blah blah icebergs and also how many questions can you read that end in statements without losing your goddamn mind.

Meet up with this guy and if the conversation turns to books, take command by asking lots of questions. Everyone loves to talk about their opinions and they are often so flattered to be asked that they forget to return the favor. If he does ask for your opinion, either respond with "samesies," or "I found the work derivative."

One final note: You could actually read the goddamn books. They don't have expiration dates and I'm assuming your eyeballs aren't painted on. Just read the books.