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The Help Desk: $15 Reasons Why

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 manager at a local bookstore complained to me about Seattle’s $15 minimum wage. He said it was impossible to run a business with a wage that high. He did make one good point: restaurants and most retail stores can raise the prices of goods they sell to pay for a higher wage, but books tend to have the prices printed right on them. On the other hand, I think everyone should have the right to a living wage: especially bookstore employees. I pretty much didn’t say anything. Should I have been more forceful? Should I argue the point again?

Patty, [Neighborhood Withheld by Request]

Dear Patty,

In the age of Trump, I don't believe it's worthwhile or effective to be forceful in disagreements. What is worthwhile is being reasonable, which is a perversion of my nature. Yet sometimes I try.

For instance, if someone pointed out that "books tend to have prices printed right on them," I might respond with, "that's what stickers were invented for." Or if someone complained that it was "impossible to run a business with a wage that high," I might inquire what they thought their own time was worth – less than $15 an hour in the sixth most expensive city in the nation?

And then, before I went back to that bookstore, I would consult my human friend Silly P – who is a big-brained intellect, voracious reader, and somewhat of an expert on Seattle's $15 minimum wage – and ask him what other helpful talking points I could throw at this misguided bookstore manager in lieu of discretely lighting his body hair on fire.

Since you may not have a Silly P in your life, I took the liberty of consulting mine for you. Here is what he added:

The minimum-wage law was designed and instituted in such a way as to give small business an advantage over the corporate chains – the wage increases at a slower rate for independent businesses with less than five hundred employees.

That delay is important for a few reasons. One: it allows businesses a lot of time to plan for the increases. Two: it provides time for the increased spending power of a lot of Seattleites who were previously making 8 or 9 bucks an hour to take hold. Workers in Seattle have more money to spend, now that the wage has increased. I know personally that a few local bookstores had their most profitable Christmases ever last year, and I bet much of that spending can be attributed directly to the waiters and dishwashers and retail workers who had more money to spend.

That said, both Silly P and I agree with you – Seattle has a lot of creative, thriving bookstores, and those bookstores wouldn't exist without booksellers. Those booksellers deserve a living wage; they deserve to be able to afford to live in their city.

Kisses,

Cienna

The Help Desk: Writing residencies at the end of the world

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,

All my friends who’ve done writer residencies swear by them. But they also don’t really have any work to show from their time away. As an aspiring writer with very little free time on her hands, should I be wasting writing time on residency applications? Or is it better to put that time toward, you know, actually writing?

Bea, Interbay

Dear Bea,

A question: how are you gauging your friends' productivity – by word count? – and why is it up to you to judge? Residencies have a lot to offer – for instance, Hedgebrook gives women weeks of uninterrupted time to write and revise alone in the woods (with very limited access to internet), while other organizations like Tin House are more workshop- and group-centered, and can be a great way to network with congenial non-spiders.

Even the process of applying to residencies and workshops, which is a subtle but proactive way of affirming your identity as a writer, can be empowering. It can also be a great exercise in pitching your work, which you eventually will have to do with an agent or 50.

If you don't feel that any of that would be useful to you right now, keep your money in your wallet and spend your time honing your work. But it doesn't hurt to keep your mind and your ears open for opportunities that can strengthen your skills or inspire you.

For instance, this summer I am hosting the first writing residency for doomsday preppers. These brave and paranoid individuals spend much of their free time training for the end of the world, but I feel their storytelling skills use massaging, as they will be the keepers of human history until a new hive of superior beings colonizes our planet and enslaves them as benign pets.

The residency will take place July 20, 2018, unless America is reduced to ash before then. Space is limited but I am happy to send you its GPS coordinates for two cans of vegetables and a mule's weight in ammunition.

Kisses,

Cienna

BONUS QUESTION:

Dear Cienna,

My friend and I are big fans of your column. We look forward to reading it every Friday.

I have a problem, and I kind of know the solution. My friend sometimes ruins books I loan her, and it’s really a bummer because we trade books often. I know I should speak up, but it would make things weird and I like to avoid discomfort as a rule. So I’d like to be passive-aggressive and use your column as a semi-anonymous bulletin board, if that’s okay with you:

Dear friend: PLEASE STOP EATING CURRY WHEN YOU’RE READING BOOKS I LOAN YOU.

Thanks again for fighting the good fight, Cienna.

Joan, Wallingford

Dear Joan,

I am happy to help. If this polite note is not enough to curb her bad habits, use a dry sardine as a bookmark in the next few books your friend lends you until she is forced to broach the topic herself.

Kisses,

Cienna

The Help Desk: At your disposal

Every Friday, Cienna Madrid offers solutions to life’s most vexing literary problems. Do you need a book recommendation to send your worst cousin on her birthday? Is it okay to read erotica on public transit? Cienna can help. Send your questions to advice@seattlereviewofbooks.com.

Dear Cienna,

This isn’t book-related, but I like your advice and you seem to have a good head on your shoulders, so I’d hope you’d entertain my question. Is it okay to run food through the garbage disposal even though the city of Seattle runs a composting program? Whenever I flip the switch on some food scraps in my garbage disposal, I always feel like I’m stealing vital nutrients from some plants somewhere. But sometimes the disposal is more convenient! Should I deactivate the disposal completely to remove temptation?

Joe, Portage Bay

Dear Joe,

I'm glad you asked. You can find conflicting reports about whether garbage disposals are more environmentally friendly than other forms of organic waste disposal, so let's not focus on that. Consider this instead: Garbage disposals – or rather, food disposals – are a great example of the economics of laziness that allow capitalist production to flourish in all its illogical glory. Think about their function – using large quantities of potable water to dispose of food scraps that minutes before you were willing to put into your mouth, but that are now unworthy of touching your hands.

No, Seattle isn't suffering from a water shortage but no city is an island and look at the dry and sandy fucking California residents just suffered through – or Cape Town residents are currently bracing for. Do we really want to continue promoting that kind of water use because we can't be bothered to compost?

Buck up and compost, Joe. Or at the very least, deactivate your disposal and install two chickens under your kitchen sink. In my experience, they'll happily eat all your food scrap waste barring onions and garlic casings.

Kisses,

Cienna

The Help Desk: Make room for a woman on that pedestal, buddy

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 am bestowing upon you the power to remove any one man from the literary canon. At the same time, I’m granting you the power to add any woman to the literary canon. Whom do you choose?

Francine, Whittier Heights

Dear Francine,

I would remove: Tom Hanks. (Please just stop.)

And replace him with: Seattle writer Stacey Levine.

Calling a writer's prose "unexpected" is trite but Levine's prose is exact and strange and provokes thoughts in my head that I would be unable to produce on my own. She is underrated and I think it's a shame.

Tom Hanks will make a great Mr. Rogers but his short stories are a snooze fest – only by the grace of slavering sycophancy did one of them end up in the New Yorker. I'd rather tweeze hairs from strangers' chins for tips than read another Tom Hanks short story. I'd rather watch a rat gnaw the mole off my left breast. I'd rather listen to the late Mr. Rogers read 50 Shades Freed fanfic.

In fact, I think everyone who paid $75 to see him at Seattle's McCaw Hall (or anywhere else in the country) should now be forced to pay their favorite local literary nonprofit $75 to listen to Tom Hanks as Mr. Rogers read 50 Shades Freed fanfic – that would be a worthy crossover event that would tap Hanks's actual talents for a great cause. And it would likely make for a more interesting evening than watching Hanks read about young youths and old typewriters.

Kisses,

Cienna

The Help Desk: What book would you give to your teenage self?

Every Friday, Cienna Madrid offers solutions to life’s most vexing literary problems. Do you need a book recommendation to send your worst cousin on her birthday? Is it okay to read erotica on public transit? Cienna can help. Send your questions to advice@seattlereviewofbooks.com.

Dear Cienna,

If you could give one book to yourself as a teenager, what book would it be? It can be any book from any time, even if it was published after your teen years.

Helga, Crown Hill

Dear Helga,

What a wonderful question, as one of my favorite pastimes is stewing in regret. Your question reminded me of a time in my early 20s when I told a good friend and mentor (who is male) that I didn't think women wrote as well as men. My comment was the product of what I'd been exposed to in school: illustrious male writers I admired and identified with, and the occasional woman thrown in whom I did not: Barbara Kingsolver, Jane Austen and Anne Frank. The female authors I read on my own were mostly romance writers and other genre authors, and while I enjoyed their work I didn't want to emulate them.

When that thoughtless comment fell out of my mouth, my mentor did not correct or lecture me. He simply gave me a look of pity and then did the same slow fade I employ at parties when someone four beers in says, "Well if I was a girl I'd take it as a compliment." That pitying look prompted me to search out and read contemporary female authors and, unsurprisingly, I found a ton of work that I identified with and authors that I now love.

If I could go back and give my teenage self one book, it would be Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping, which is one of the most beautifully constructed books I've ever read. (Also, Robinson is from Idaho like myself, and should be celebrated more in her native state instead of a lionized dude like Hemingway, who simply shot himself here.)

I would also give myself Claire Vaye Watkins's essay "On Pandering," which every female writer should read.

Kisses,

Cienna

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 advice@seattlereviewofbooks.com.

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.

Kisses,

Cienna

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 advice@seattlereviewofbooks.com. 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.

xoxo,

Cienna

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 advice@seattlereviewofbooks.com.

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).

Kisses,

Cienna

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 advice@seattlereviewofbooks.com. 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 advice@seattlereviewofbooks.com.

Kisses,

Cienna

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 advice@seattlereviewofbooks.com. 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.

xoxo,

Cienna

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 advice@seattlereviewofbooks.com.

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.

Kisses,

Cienna

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 advice@seattlereviewofbooks.com.

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.

Kisses,

Cienna

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.

Kisses,

Cienna

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 advice@seattlereviewofbooks.com.

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.

Kisses,

Cienna

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 advice@seattlereviewofbooks.com.

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.

Kisses,
Cienna

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 advice@seattlereviewofbooks.com.

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.

xoxo,

Cienna

The Help Desk: Erotica tips from a bag of hair

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 advice@seattlereviewofbooks.com.

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.

Kisses,
Cienna

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 advice@seattlereviewofbooks.com. 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,

Cienna

The Help Desk: It's thick book season!

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 advice@seattlereviewofbooks.com.

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.

Kisses,
Cienna

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

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 advice@seattlereviewofbooks.com.

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.

Kisses,
Cienna

The Help Desk: My book club is going soft!

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 advice@seattlereviewofbooks.com.

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.

Kisses,

Cienna