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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.

The Help Desk: Portrait of the author as a total hottie

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 kind of have a crush on a writer. She’s funny and smart, and her novels are great; they make me think differently about the world. She’s the only writer who’s ever inspired me to want to write a fan letter. But I’m a guy, and I think it would be weird if I wrote a mash note to someone I didn’t know. Is it weird, too, that I can’t seem to separate my infatuation from the quality of her writing? Like, I should be able to appreciate a woman’s writing for her writing, and not because her author photo is cute. (But her author photo is adorable.) Should I write the note? I don’t want to be creepy.

Edgar, Tukwila

Dear Edgar,

Write your fan letter, praise this woman's brain and talents, but don't mention how cute she is. Having a crush on someone is one of the most wonderful, thrilling, and privately selfish acts we engage in. Crushes are fantasies – your highest hopes for an individual you don't really know – superimposed on an unsuspecting person.

Have you ever read Lolita or Great Expectations? If not, I suggest getting acquainted with the long literary tradition of the male gaze.

Theoretically, it's flattering to be an object of someone's affection – we all want to feel wanted. I can be flattered at the idea of a wolf spider admiring the moist caverousness of my belly button but the moment she breaks that fourth wall, winks half her eyes, and suggests dropping her eggsac there so she can winter behind the water heater kid-free, I'm repulsed.

My point is, most women resent being objectified for their appearance.

Kisses!
Cienna

The Help Desk: How about some dystopia to go along with your dystopia?

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,

Everybody is always complaining about post-apocalyptic fiction, but just look at where we are now? Kind of prescient, aren’t they?

Do you have any good recommendations for someone who's gone through the most popular YA versions of the genre? What are the deep cuts, here?

J.T., Seward Park

Dear J.T.,

What a topical question. Given that our doomsday clock just ticked closer to global catastrophe, and our new climate of alternative facts suggest global warming is God's blushing pride in our Dear Leader and rape whistles are dinner bells for hot plates of pussy, we're about one loaded sneeze from the post apocalypse.

What do you read to prepare for that?

I don't have the stomach for post-apocalyptic fiction right now – it seems like an unnecessary bummer, like learning that the imprisoned killer whales at Sea World have developed body dysmorphia from working with dolphins for so long – so I've been reading a lot of old Far Side cartoons.

But I do have recommendations for you. First, if you'd like another reason to thank toga-wearing Christ you're not a woman, try reading José Saramago's Blindness. The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi is pretty damn fascinating and much closer than post-apocalyptic – it covers what happens when the southwest runs out of water. I've never read Megan Abbott's The Fever but I've heard really good things and finally, Dies the Fire by S.M. Stirling is a rustic survival guide set in the northwest and punctuated with tolerable levels of romance and gore that I enjoyed.

But before you read any of those, I would recommend reading The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. This is the era we live in, this is the true horror that many of our citizens live out, and it's everyone's civic duty to understand how our penal system persecutes people of color. Especially now.

Kisses!
Cienna

The Help Desk: Stop me before I troll 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,

There’s a local writer I hate. You’d know his name. He’s awful. Sometimes I have to get into the comments and tell him how much I hate his writing, and sometimes I know I go overboard. I don’t threaten him or anything, but I do make some rather dramatic claims about parts of his anatomy. It’s awful. I’m awful. I don’t troll anyone (or anywhere) else. I even surprise myself sometimes with how much I love to troll him.

I try to ignore his writing, but he’s on a site with other writers who I love. I’ve blocked him on Twitter and Facebook, but I still encounter him on a regular basis, and I hate what my hatred for his self-satisfied prose is doing to me. What do I do?

Bob, Mountlake Terrace

Dear Bob,

You're looking at your hatred of this writer the wrong way. Who we hate says more about us than the object of our attention; these individuals represent qualities we despise, qualities we see in ourselves (that we despise), or qualities we envy. For instance, I tend to despise emotionally dismissive drunks, liars, cowards, hairy spiders with enormous pedipalps, and people who thread toilet paper the wrong way on the wheel.

So stop for a moment and appreciate this man as a foil for all you find good and right in the world – perhaps you dislike him because he uses his platform to singularly write about himself or his few navel-gazy interests, or he never has anything insightful to contribute to public discourse. Pinpoint your specific irritations with this man, and then, when you happen to come across his writing, privately pity him for his shortcomings.

Trolling is not only toxic, it's pretty ineffective. Most people who've worked on the internet and social media for any length of time have learned to dismiss trolls – it's the only way to do your job and stay sane. Harassment barely registers; pity is the arrow that strikes the heart.

Kisses!
Cienna

The Help Desk: What can writers do to fight Trump?

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,

Some of my writer friends have gone off the deep end on Facebook, posting novel-length rants about the state of the country. It’s misplaced energy — they’re just dumping content into a void. I want to ask them to do something else with their time and energy, but a lot of them work multiple jobs already so volunteering is straight out and I know they don’t have any extra money to donate. Is there something that a writer can do to fight Trumpism that nobody else can? Preferably something that doesn’t involve Facebook?

Dan, Crown Hill

Dear Dan,

I understand your friends' need to vent. What was once a diverting sideshow in the freak tent at Barneby's Human Marvels, otherwise known as the Republican primary, has become another credentialed nightmare embodying America's worst impulses: racism, greed, serial narcissism.

The next four years will feel like a punishment for many people. It will be a punishment, and because life isn't fair, it will be shouldered primarily by those who are too demoralized, too poor, too busy feeding their families to fight back.

What would I recommend your writer friends do to combat the era of Trump? First, I would tell them to read this exhaustive Atlantic piece on the psychology of Donald Trump. The Andrew Jackson comparison gave me comfort that our country has weathered this brand of egomaniacal leadership before. Then I would ask them to stop ranting for a bit and take some time to do what writers do best – observe and record. Talk to people. When Trump and our Republican Congress implement new policies, find out how those policies affect their coworkers, family, friends, people in bars and on the bus. Write about that – even write about it on Facebook (sorry, I know that's not what you wanted to hear).

We need those records because this administration won't last anywhere close to forever; midterm elections are two short years away. Having those stories – not rants, but fact-driven anecdotes – will be important in proving the harm this Congress and president-elect have caused in our communities, and the people most vulnerable to harm often need help getting their stories out there.

That's my advice. My other advice is for you to host parties. The weather is taking a continual shit on our heads while the tannest man in the nation takes over the whitest house on the planet, and to top it all off many species of spider are in hibernation so my friend pool, at least, has been cut in half. Take care of your human friends: even the busy ones need to eat and everyone needs company at a time like this.

Kisses,
Cienna

The Help Desk: Reading out of heartbreak

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 just got dumped. I need some inspiration — what’s the greatest love story you’ve ever read? One friend gave me a book of Leonard Cohen poems and I almost killed myself.

Heath, Wallingford

Dear Heath,

I'm honored that you are turning to me for advice – and your timing is impeccable. Over Christmas I was sharply criticized for gifting my teenage sister a copy of the mortician's bible, Corpse Makeup for Beginners, because I thought her face could use some humanizing. This has caused many to question whether I am indeed an empathetic human being qualified to dole out free advice, or whether I am simply a lipsticked Chupacabra who enjoys fucking with strangers and attends family gatherings for the free taquitos.

I am eager to redeem myself.

First off: Why are you torturing yourself with love stories? Your heart and liver are allowed to wallow at a time like this; it is your brain's job to try and distract your other squishy human organs – all of which I can name because I am definitely human – from grieving too hard.

Here is what you need to read: Flannery O'Connor's Good Country People, followed by Voltaire's Candide. Good Country People illustrates how flawed our judgment can be when it comes to evaluating other people and their motivations, and Candide is a good antidote to all your friends who will tell you, post breakup, bullshit like "there's a perfect someone out there waiting for you" and "everything happens for a reason."

I'm sorry you were dumped. Whenever I have been dumped by my human boyfriends, or when my mailman asks to be reassigned because he finds my weekly orders of goat's blood and human magazines to be excessive, I remind myself that I wouldn't want to be around anyone who doesn't think I'm tops, and I move on. I encourage you to do the same.

Kisses,
Cienna

The Help Desk: Locker room talk and the arts

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 writing because a loudmouth white man has too much power. (Not THAT loudmouth white man, though if you have any advice on surviving Donald Trump’s administration I’d love to hear it.) I’m talking about a guy who holds a very high position in a Seattle arts organization.

The problem is his locker room talk. He’s never to my knowledge made unwelcome advances on a woman, but he’s prone to making jokes around women that make them feel uncomfortable. This has happened more than once, and I hear he’s been reprimanded for it, but he’s still in a position of power that affects local writers, and we can’t really ask him if he’s stopped making sex jokes, so there’s no way to know if the coast is clear. Everything has happened behind the scenes, and there’s never been any public acknowledgement.

Like I said, there’s no groping and no smarmy come-ons, but the sexual nature of the jokes make it very difficult to deal with him. I don’t know if I want him to lose his job, but I do know of at least one artist who won’t work with that organization because of the way he made her feel in the past, and he’s made no attempt to reach out to her.

I guess I’m hoping for some fictional scenario in which he sees this question, realizes it’s him, and cuts it out forever. But barring that miraculous outcome, what do you think I (and my friends and fellow artists) should do?

Sorry if this question is too vague.

Cait, Capitol Hill

Dear Cait,

Your letter reminds me of an old friend – a human one – who often says things that are so inflammatory and sexual my shoulders cramp from cringing. When in the company of this friend and strangers, what I typically do is make excuses for him: most of his close friends are women, which I believe in his mind is proof that he is harmless, and like all of us, he is cultivating an image of himself – that of a loudmouth, boundary-pushing dude adrift in eye-contactless, passive aggressive Seattle. He's fond of locker room talk but unlike Trump, he's no pussy grabber.

In fact, that is why we became friends. He is a man with whom I could joke about naming my next abortion "Lezbo" in order to offend everyone equally.

But that doesn't excuse his behavior, just as it doesn't excuse the behavior of the man you speak of. It seems this man has failed to acknowledge that his ambition is paying off – instead of being just another 20-something arts employee that people could ignore at will, he now holds a position of power. His words and actions carry weight. Cocking off at work, or after work with coworkers, artists and interns, is no longer even marginally socially acceptable.

You say it's been all talk at this point and he's been reprimanded for his behavior; it has cost him influence and professional relationships. I would hope that he has learned from this. But if I'm wrong, you should encourage those he's offended to go public with their grievances. The best way to affect institutional and social change is to address problems openly. It's also the only fair way to give the person you've accused of wrongdoing a chance to respond.

And if he still seems oblivious, I will meet you at University Book Store, where together we can purchase a copy of Strange Justice: The Selling of Clarence Thomas, wrap it in the book sleeve of Who Moved My Cheese, and beat him across the face with it.

Kisses,
Cienna

The Help Desk: Follow your heart, drench your liver

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,

After a long string of rejections, I’m happy to report that a short story of mine has finally been accepted. Unfortunately, it was actually accepted at two literary magazines, neither of which allow for simultaneous submissions. I was having such shitty luck that I decided to ignore the rules and cast a wide net, and my decision came back and bit me immediately.

One of the publications is more prestigious than the other, but I’m more likely to build a relationship and be published again at the less-prestigious publication. I’m pretty much burning a bridge no matter what I do, here. Which publication should I turn down?

Jackie, Tulalip

Dear Jackie,

Congratulations, that is great news! Not to shit on your great news with some of my own, but an investigative piece I wrote about the physical effects of teetotaling called "Sleepy Liver Disease: America's Silent Scourge" was recently accepted for publication as well. I was inspired to write it after noticing sober people forgo fishbowl sangria – a basement specialty of mine – at parties. Not only is it unhealthy to keep your liver out of work for too long, studies show that sobriety can make nearby livers feel sleepy, too. And you know what they say: sleepy livers lead to uppity spleens and rational thought.

Here is how you solve your quandary: Head to PetCo, buy a lap-sized aquarium, and fill it with four boxes of red wine, a bottle of cointreau, and one daintily sliced apple. Insert a mouth straw into the mixture and drink as you ponder: is it more important for you to have bragging rights about being published in a prestigious journal or to build a relationship with a smaller journal who might nurture your talents, offer feedback on your work and publish you again in the future?

A fully employed liver is the moral compass of the heart. An aquarium or two from now, it will know what to do.

Kisses,
Cienna

PS. If your liver fails you, my liver says to go with the smaller one.