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The Help Desk: A very Help Desk Christmas

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

Dear Cienna,

Do you have a favorite Christmas book?

Timothy, Licton Springs

Dear Timothy,

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



Dear Cienna,

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

Don, Roosevelt

Dear Don,

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



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

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

Dear Cienna,

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

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

Lily, Fairbanks, AK

Dear Lily,

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

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

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



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

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

Dear Cienna,

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

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

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

Sondra, Northgate

Dear Sondra,

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

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

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

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


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

Cienna Madrid is observing Veteran's Day; please enjoy this classic from the Help Desk archives. Do you need a book recommendation to send your worst cousin on her birthday? Is it okay to read erotica on public transit? Cienna can help. Send your questions to

Dear Cienna,

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

Liz, #7

Dear Liz,

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

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

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

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

“Sex games you can play with your cat.”

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



The Help Desk: Erotica tips from a bag of hair

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Dear Cienna,

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

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

Nancy, Friday Harbor

Dear Nancy,

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

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

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

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


The Help Desk: Does Stephen King have "it?"

Every Friday, Cienna Madrid offers solutions to life’s most vexing literary problems. Do you need a book recommendation to send your worst cousin on her birthday? Is it okay to read erotica on public transit? Cienna can help. Send your questions to Cienna is off this week; please enjoy this Help Desk column from August of 2015.

Dear Cienna,

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

Dan, Belltown

Dear Dan,

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hearts and butterflies,


The Help Desk: It's thick book season!

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Dear Cienna,

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

Darrel, White Center

Dear Darrel,

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

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

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


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

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Dear Cienna,

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

Whitney, [Neighborhood Withheld by Request]

Dear Whitney,

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

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


The Help Desk: My book club is going soft!

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Dear Cienna,

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

Until recently.

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

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

Skyler, Seward Park

Dear Skyler,

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

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

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

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



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

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Dear Cienna,

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

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

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

Missy, Monroe

Dear Missy,

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

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

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

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



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

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Dear Cienna,

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

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

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

Mary, [Neighborhood withheld by request]

Dear Mary,

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

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

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

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



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

Cienna Madrid's Summer cold has decided to stick around past the dog days. She's sick so we're rerunning this column from October of 2015. Our intrepid advice columnist will be back next week. And please remember to keep sending your questions! Do you need a book recommendation to send your worst cousin on her birthday? Is it okay to read erotica on public transit? Cienna can help. Ask her at

Dear Cienna,

There's this guy who rides the elevator with me at work pretty often. He always has a big, complex book in his hands — Bolaño, or DFW, or Knausgaard. He's pretty good looking, but I've held off smiling at him because I'm worried his choice of books means he's going to be pretty intellectually limited. Is there a safe way to test him in public before asking him out on a date?

Pat in the Columbia Tower

Dear Pat,

Here’s what I suggest: Start carrying around a copy of your favorite book in your bag. The next time you’re stuck in an elevator with this handsome stranger, break the ice by saying something like, “I notice you read a lot of very serious books written by unsmiling men, so I thought you might enjoy this change of pace. It’s my favorite.” The beauty is, it doesn’t really matter what your book is – it could be something truly great, like Octavia Butler’s Bloodchild, it could be last week’s TV Guide, or it could something he might actually enjoy, like the latest bullshit pumped out by Jonathan Franzen (if you go the TV Guide route, it helps to tape an unused condom to the inside cover). The point is, you’re being both flattering and assertive. If he’s smart and interested, he’ll read your book or at least continue the conversation. If he’s an intellectually stunted dummy, say “fuck it” and ask to see his abs. They can’t be any less interesting to talk to (and if by some miracle they are, you can always start taking the stairs).



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

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Dear Cienna,

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

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

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

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

Lorna, [Neighborhood withheld by request]

Dear Lorna,

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

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

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

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

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



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

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Dear Cienna,

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

Corinne, Capitol Hill

Dear Corinne,

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

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

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

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

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

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



The Help Desk: don't slag me, broseph

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Dear Cienna,

My friend wants to apply for a job at my bookstore and he keeps asking me to talk him up to the managers. My friend is kind of a mess — he does a lot of drugs and he’s a little handsy when he’s drunk. But I don’t want to shit talk him to my bosses, because that seems low, and it might get back to me somehow. Is it worse to flag his application as a no-go, or should I accidentally “lose” his application? Or should I just hope his uncouthness comes through in an interview?

Dean, Renton

Dear Dean,

I have a friend who, when drunk, routinely asks people questions from the New York Times’s 36 questions to fall in love to see if he can trick someone into loving him. Does that make him a bad person? Maybe! Does it make him unfit to execute his job as a seasoned mid-level government employee whose lust for life incrementally diminishes with each passing day? Nope! And who doesn’t like drugs? Did you know that fish antibiotics are virtually indistinguishable from human antibiotics once you adjust the dose by about 1,000 percent?

Perhaps your concerns about your friend are legitimate or perhaps you are being a fussy square. Here’s how you tell for sure: If your friend is a mess at his current job — if he consistently misses work or gets drunk or high on the job — tell him, “It would be cool to work with you but I love my job and can’t recommend you until you get your shit together.”

If your friend is an off-duty mess but publicly pulls himself together — what I call a bolo’d shit show — then it’s mostly none of your business how he spends his free time*. Leave his application alone and if your boss asks about him, answer honestly about his skills and personality (he is your friend) and let him earn the job on his own merits.



Help Desk: A summer reading list for the damned

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Dear Cienna,

I’m soooo tired of summer reading lists. What’s so special about summer? Can’t we all read in the winter too? In fact, isn’t winter better for reading, what with the incessant rain and all?

And what’s up with all the sweetness-and-light? When I’m sitting by the lake, what I really want is something meaty — something to distract me from giant ball of radioactive gas beating down and the razor-sharp grains of sand worked into the nap of my beach towel.

You’re the only one I trust. What should I put on my summer reading list that reflects the inevitable heat-driven doom that we’re pushing our planet toward?

Warmly (too warmly) yours,

Dottie, Chelan

Dear Dottie,

My apologies for getting to your letter so late in the season – I volunteer with the Break a Wish Foundation and summer is our busiest time of the year. As you might have guessed from this column, I am devoted to helping the less fortunate – the clueless, the tasteless, the terminally ill – which includes telling little Bruno that no, Michael Jackson will not be the special guest at your final birthday party, but here, take this single Bedazzled rubber glove and a polaroid of a flawlessly circumcised penis instead.

You are correct — winter is the best time for reading, and many summer reading lists are as fatally flawed as marriage vows and little Bruno’s right atrium. Light fiction should be saved for January, when our will to wash ourselves is weakest and we spend hours idly contemplating where to dump our parents off to die with dignity once they are too old to amuse us.

Conversely, what people need during summer is not fluff; they need something to balance out the relentless optimism of the sun. Here are a few sometimes bleak, weird and gripping books I suggest for you: The Answers, by Catherine Lacey, 100 Apocalypses and Other Apocalypses by Lucy Corin, and The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert.



The Help Desk: Downward dog-earing

Cienna Madrid is on vacation. Please enjoy this column from the 2015 Help Desk archives. And please remember to keep sending your questions! Do you need a book recommendation to send your worst cousin on her birthday? Is it okay to read erotica on public transit? Cienna can help. Ask her at

Dear Cienna,

Is dog-earing the pages of a book morally, ethically, or spiritually wrong? What about underlining?

Brooke from Capitol Hill

Dear Brooke,

In a world where Ted Nugent, Donald Trump, and Mark Driscoll can all boast of being New York Times bestselling authors, I have a hard time labeling anything short of a ham sandwich wrapped in pages of the Koran as morally, ethically, or spiritually wrong (especially if the infidel sandwich is thrown its own ticker-tape parade in Mecca during Ramadan).

But I digress.

A good book should have a much longer lifespan than you and far more friends than could fit at your funeral. So yes, there is an etiquette to how you handle good books and this is it: Use pen only for inscriptions. If you want to underline or respond to select passages, do it in pencil so that when you’re dead, your loved ones can read your thoughts and then carefully erase them. If you highlight anything outside of a school textbook, you are a dick (even then, turning text an aggressively hard-to-read shade does not make it more knowable. Learn to take notes like a civilized person.)

Finally, don’t dog-ear pages. On the scale of infidel sandwiches, this gaffe is more upsetting than sacrilegious (think Jesus stumping for Subway’s new gluten-free tuna melt). Still, if you can’t find one old receipt, gum wrapper, divorce decree, etc. to mark your place in a book then you're about as useful as Trump's thoughts on the economy, Driscoll's thoughts on women, and Nugent's thoughts on everything else.

You’re welcome,


The Help Desk: Books to ward off demon-children

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

Dear Cienna,

It's Summertime and that means car trips with the kids! Both my rugrats love reading, and will happily while away the hours (that they're screen-restricted) with their nose in books. They're seven and ten right now. Any good suggestions for things to keep them happy and humming along so I can listen to my podcasts in peace, and have a bit of time to mess around setting up the tent without them whining that they have dirt in their sandals?

Bob, Queen Anne

Dear Bob,

Fortunately for you, I have a 12-year-old sister and 10-year-old brother (the eggs in my family have a long shelf life). I made a vow when they were younger, and that vow was to buy them books for every major holiday and to never question the origins of their birth, even though – and I'm not being melodramatic here – they might actually be demons.

Look at the evidence: they both shot out of the womb cackling instead of crying, we had to file their teeth down to a congenial size (pity we couldn't do the same for their heads), and last Valentine's Day my brother gave me a homemade card that read: "God has abandoned you. Love Max."

Nevertheless, I do love them. They affectionately call me "Spinster Queen," I affectionately call them human, and I have remained faithful to my vow, except for the Christmas I bought them a trampoline and rape whistles because their parents pissed me off.

Based on my experience, here are a few books your children might like: Wonderstruck, The Book Thief, the Captain Underpants series, and for your older child, anything by the Norwegian cartoonist Jason, whose minimalist stories are especially well suited for road trips (be forewarned: his work is rather dark... I hear my siblings doing spit takes with holy water while reading it).



The Help Desk: The shelves of desire

Cienna Madrid is on vacation this week. Since this week is the second anniversary of the Seattle Review of Books, we're re-publishing her very first Help Desk column from the site's launch week in 2015. As always, you can send your own literary etiquette questions to

Dear Cienna,

My boyfriend and I are moving in together next week. I'm very excited about this, and I'm confident it's the right move. But we just had our first fight over a moving issue, and it's something I feel very strongly about: he wants to merge our book collections together. I want to keep our shelves separate. It's not that I fear intimacy; I'm 95 percent sure we're going to get married one day, and I'm very happy with him. But I'm not sure I ever want our books to mingle. Is a lifetime of bookshelf non-monogamy too much to demand?

Judy from Ballard

Dear Judy,

I have never lived with a man — not because I refuse to blend my bookshelf, for far more broken reasons — so feel free to take my advice with the same side-eyed respect you’d give a porn star in sweatpants. As I see it, how you arrange your book collection is a sacred thing. For instance, my books are arranged on three shelves: The top is all-time favorites no one is allowed to touch; the second is books I have never read, arranged in the order I aspire to read them; the third is books I have stolen from other people, mostly for petty reasons.

If a MAN came into my space, swinging his DICK around and inserting copies of How to Win Friends and Influence People and Atlas Shrugged and Hemp: A History all willy nilly — trigger warning — my shelves and I would feel a little violated.

Explain this to your boyfriend. If he still does not understand the importance of separate bookshelves, I suggest you get a cat. Name it Cienna. Then, whenever you and your boyfriend have a domestic dispute, wait until he sleeps. Take one of his books off the shelf. Piss on it. Blame it on Cienna. This will provide you with a physical way to vent your spleen after a fight (full disclosure: I don’t know physics) while slowly weeding your bookshelf of his books.

You’re welcome,


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

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

Dear Cienna,

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

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

Dinah, Central District

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

Dear Dinah,

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

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

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

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

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