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The Help Desk: I want my husband's mistress to recommend books for me

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 husband is having an affair. It is what it is, and we'll get through it. In fact, he doesn't even know I know, and I think I'll leave it that way. All the guilt has made him pretty attentive and sweet!

But here's the thing: whoever his mistress is, she has amazing taste in books. How do I know? Because overnight he went from solely military sci-fi to reading Eco and DeLillo and Borges, and having interesting conversations about literature with me. I never could inspire him step outside his comfort zone, but I never thought about what literature would engage him intellectually like this, either. She did.

Here's my problem: I want her to recommend books for me! She has to be a librarian or a bookseller. I just know it. I snooped his browser history and stuff, but he's more tech savvy than me and obviously being smart about this. Any advice? He could go off and philander with her all he wants, just as long as she recommends a big stack of good novels I could enjoy while he was gone.

Selina, Georgetown Heights

Dear Selina,

Congratulations, you have made me deeply uncomfortable, which is a difficult thing to do! I’m tempted to send you a polyp in a jar as a prize, courtesy of my clinically resentful uterus! (I’ve been waiting for an excuse to make polyp de gallo like those crunchy new mothers do. All I need is one human-shaped friend to share it with.)

So your husband may be gently humping Nancy Pearl or one of her equally well-read peers. I am sorry but not surprised; it is a Northwest bourgeois intellectual fear that many of us partnered book lovers share. But perhaps I shouldn’t be sorry – you don’t seem that sorry.

If you want book advice from your husband’s mistress without outing his affair, here’s the obvious answer: Ask him for book recommendations and let this bizarre game of telephone play out. He’ll ask her for advice post-gentle-hump, he’ll pass that advice along and you’ll hopefully get what you want.

But here’s some extra free advice from a woman whose idea of “personal growth” is stored in canning jars in her kitchen: Seeking out book advice from your husband’s mistress isn’t the healthiest pastime. You live in a city pulsing with book lovers, book sellers, bookstores and librarians. Perhaps you should seek out your own literature-loving unicorn and leave your husband to his own.



The Help Desk: You can't dog ear a Facebook

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,

I’m friends with my local used bookseller. She recommends books to me, and I recommend books to her, and I sell books back to her, and everything is pretty great, for the most part. I know I’m lucky to have such a wonderful bookseller in my life.

But the other day, after I brought a big haul of books in to sell to her, my bookseller friend left a note on my Facebook wall that said, and I quote, “Stop dog earing your books!” Please bear in mind that this note came after she gave me over a hundred dollars in store credit for those books. She didn’t mention the dog-earing at all during the entire transaction while I was in the store.

It’s true that I dog-ear my books, Cienna, and I know it’s not okay. It’s a bad habit, like pulling out your own eyebrows or picking at pimples. But I feel a little hurt by the public shaming, especially considering that she’s never brought this up to my face.

Now I don’t want to go into the bookstore anymore, and I know that’s reactionary of me and more than a little silly. How do I salvage this relationship? Or should I only buy used books online from now on?

Danielle, Edmonds

Dear Danielle,

I assume your bookseller friend is a decent person because all used booksellers I've ever met are much better people than me – the kind of people who don't try to lure neighborhood children into their basement just to prove what bad parents they have.

Nevertheless, even booksellers can be cowards when it comes to interpersonal confrontations. Most of us would prefer to avoid the emotional feedback we receive – the hurt, confusion, embarrassment – when we tell someone we care about something that they probably don't want to hear. So we email them our criticisms. We text. We Facebook. And while that eliminates the special hell of an awkward interaction, our victim doesn't get the reassurances that physical feedback provides – tone, eye contact, a smile, maybe a hug. The mostly nonverbal cues that let people know they are valued, even when being criticized.

Receiving criticism via social media feels like a slap you didn't see coming, even if it is well-intentioned. I know the urge is to respond in kind digitally, but I don't recommend it. I recently did this and it cost me two friendships – one human, the other a spider I had named after my friend, who I had to ritualistically kill, dismember, and mail to my ex-friend in 11 tiny envelopes.

It takes guts to confront someone about their behavior. It's hard. But that is how strong friendships are built – in person, not over social media or texts. So this is what I suggest you do: Visit your favorite used bookstore like normal, buy a few books, and when your bookseller friend is ringing you up, say something like, "I think you owe me a happy hour drink." When she asks why, explain to her that you were a little embarrassed and offended that she chose to criticize you over Facebook for dog-earing your books, and that in the future, you'd prefer it if she talked to you in person about the physical state of the books you bring in for trade. But that she can make it up to you with that drink.



Cienna Madrid is on vacation this week, which means there is no new Help Desk. Please peruse the Help Desk archives for your advice fix; Cienna will return with a new column next week.

And if you have any book etiquette questions, you can always send them to Did you witness rude behavior at a bookstore? Do deckled edges detract from your enjoyment of a book? Are you sick of people opening their readings by talking about how boring readings are? Cienna can help. Send an email today.

The Help Desk: Maybe it stands for "Not Pleasing Readers"

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,

Some time ago, my local NPR affiliate stopped interviewing authors on a regular basis. They used to do author interviews practically every day, but now they’ll only feature a segment on a book once or twice a week, if I’m lucky.

This happened around the same time that the station stopped featuring as much local content as it used to. And it recently got involved in a very sketchy plan to buy out a smaller NPR affiliate in a situation that is way too distasteful to get into here.

But my main thing is the lack of author interviews. I thought they were a great way to get a ton of perspectives on the air, and they were terrific ads for readings at local bookstores.

So my issue is: how do I make my displeasure known? Do I keep donating to the NPR affiliate just because they’re the best of a bunch of terrible options, or do I stop donating and send them a letter explaining why? Even in their current diminished state, I’d be despondent if they suddenly disappeared off the radio dial because local media is so diminished as it is. How do I get their attention and let them know that they should be interviewing more authors in such a way that I don’t threaten their existence?

Jim, University District

Dear Jim,

What would your daily commute be like without NPR? Democracy Now! is only an hour long and spiders, while excellent travel companions, are prone to car sickness. If you have the financial flexibility to continue donating, I would encourage you to do so.

Catholics and Mormons tithe, Muslims practice Zakat, atheists have lottery tickets, and agnostics have public libraries and NPR. Much like voting, tithing involves buying into an imperfect system with the fervent hope that someday, you will be rewarded for your efforts.

And having once worked in journalism, I’d bet you five MegaMillions lottery tickets that your local NPR reporters are as frustrated than you (if not more so) with the state of their industry. Their resources are continuously being cut at a time when the city in which they operate is showcasing new, obscene riches every day. Feeling like there’s more popular support for another bar that sells $65 bottles of beer than for public radio, and that you can’t produce your best work without nearly killing yourself for pennies, is unbelievably depressing.

So donate. (If you have time, you could even volunteer.) But as a contributing member, you should also let them know you miss the daily author interviews. The most memorable criticism I ever got came with a small bouquet of flowers and a card that simply read, “You’re wrong.” It was funny, it was kind, and it made me reach out and engage with my critic when I otherwise wouldn’t have.

In the meantime, you’ve got at least one great alternative: This site’s very own Paul Constant is the most thoughtful and thorough author interviewer I’ve ever met (full disclosure: I consider Paul a “friend,” or as I prefer to call him, “human spider”).



The Help Desk: Lies and arson

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,

What's the best way to call out a book liar? There's this awful woman dating a friend of mine, and we're all at the same parties, and she says "Oh yes, I loved it!" anytime you ask her if she's read anything.

Have you read 2666? "Oh yes, I loved it!"

Have you read the Knausgaard? "Oh yes, I loved it!"

Have you read the Voynich manuscript? "Oh yes, I loved it!"

Have you read the secret novel tattooed on Nicolas Cage's inner thigh? "Oh yes, I loved it!”

Ugh! I wish she'd just say "No, tell me about it" or something. So, I decided next time I see her enough of this being nice shit, I'm going to call her out. You're mean and seem to not mind making people uncomfortable in public. How do I do this?

Pansy, White Center

Dear Pansy,

I think the better questions are, why do you care if someone else lies about reading books that you’ve read? How does it diminish your pleasure in having read them? If she bugs you so much, why not just avoid asking her about books — or rephrase your questions. Ask her “what are you reading right now?” or follow up with, “what did you love best about Nicolas Cage’s thigh oeuvre?”

I suspect you crave being right for its own sake, and all the better if you have an audience to witness your absolute rightness and her abject wrongness.

I can relate. This week I got into an argument with a coworker about which state has more trees in it – Idaho or Washington. The coworker said Washington, because Idaho is “mostly desert” according to her, and I said, “actually, Idaho is about 12,000 square miles larger and only the southern part of the state is high desert, much like the eastern half of Washington.” I do not like this coworker; she suspects rainbows are chemtrails that turn people gay and once accused the sun of being Mexican for giving her a tan. So when all of our coworkers and the internet agreed that she was probably right – Washington is called the Evergreen State, after all – my first thought was, “I’ll just start a few forest fires and we can resume this discussion next week.”

But being right doesn’t make you a hero and it doesn’t mean you win. Often, people just think you’re an asshole for proving how right you can be at the expense of a national forest or two.

I'd advise you not to confront this woman. However,if you absolutely cannot leave it alone because, like me, you are deeply flawed, here is what you do: the next time you’re at a crowded party and she professes love for a book you suspect she hasn’t read, point directly at her face and start screaming, “LIAR LIAR PANTS ON FIRE! LIAR LIAR, PANTS ON FIRE!” If you have a lighter handy and she is willing to stand still, attempt to light her pants on fire until someone physically restrains you. That’ll ensure she never wants to talk books with you again. Meanwhile, everyone else at the party will decide you’re a complete freak instead of a run-of-the-mill asshole, and forgive you more readily for your outburst.



The Help Desk: That new book smell

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,

Whenever people get angry about e-books, they always talk about how much they love the way books smell. Is this real? The only time I’ve ever smelled a book was when it was sitting in a musty basement for too long.

I’ve always had a decent sense of smell, I thought. I can tell when I forgot to put on deodorant in the morning, and I love new car smell. But of all the pleasures that books bring me, smell is not one of them.

Do books have a smell? What do they smell like?

Brian, Shoreline

Dear Brian,

What have you been doing with your life that you've only ever sniffed one book? I bet you've sniffed a handful of horrible things repeatedly in your life but you can't be bothered to pick up a book, close your eyes, and inhale until you run out of lung? I have three books sitting on my desk right now and each smells different: Shawn Vestal's Daredevils smells crisp, like socks fresh from the dryer; Sally Ride: America's First Woman in Space smells sour because I spilled old coffee on it; my 20-year-old copy of Flannery O'Connor's The Complete Stories smells like spiders in top hats because it is the book I return to the most often and thus have charged my most trusted spiders to watch over it like those somber circus-themed sentinels that guard the Vatican.

There have been scientific research papers written on how the smell of books change as they age. There are posters devoted to the aroma chemistry of them. Our memory is closely tied to our sense of smell, which is why book lovers cherish the scents that emanate from their favorite works, and which is probably why whenever I smell a spider in a top hat, I now have the urge to hug a wooden-legged woman.

If you're interested in seeing how books smell (har har), ask a handful of friends to bring over a favorite book and a bottle of wine. Cover the labels and blindfold yourself, and your friends can blindly drink and watch in amusement as you sniff out the unique notes of their favorite works.




Dear Cienna,

Enough about us. What have you been reading lately?

Donna, Winslow

Dear Donna,

My summer resolution is to put a dent in the Subaru-sized pile of books that have been gifted to me over the years. The last few books I've read include the above-mentioned Daredevils (for which I owe this fine website a book review), Sally Ride, Gilead, The Carter Family, and Between the World and Me. Currently I'm reading A Little Life, which is quite the depressing beach read! When I need a break, I reread an O'Connor short story because it's been long enough since my last time through The Complete Stories that her descriptions and humor awe and surprise me anew.

Thanks for asking!



The Help Desk: The grass is always green-eyed

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 brother married a gazillionaire heiress. She's really, really nice. She's generous, takes the whole family on luxury vacations where she pays for everything once a year, is crazy about my brother and they are, like, sickeningly cute together. And, she's beautiful, and smart, and has a big degree and a real career on top of it all.

Anyway. I can't help it but feel like trash around her. I dropped out of high school and had drug issues, and did stuff I'm not proud of. Now, I have my shit together like no other time in my life. I did it through writing, and sweating my pain and failure out of every pore in my body until my skin was clear. My life is really, really good now, and I'm working on my first novel, and I've been getting good feedback from my writer's group, and I have an agent that I'm talking to.

But goddammit, my sister-in-law just sold a novel. She did it to this big house with a star-studded agent, and I just know it's going to sell a gazillion copies. I mean, she's Ivy League, so she's smart and deserves it, but I just can't help but feel like it's so unfair. I feel like trash next to her, and she could stop working and give away her money every day of her life and still have enough to buy a country, but I have to struggle for every scrap. I don't begrudge her, but I can't help but feel jealous and awful, and I want to be a good sister to her too.

Help me, Cienna! What should I do?

Sister Heart, Capitol Hill

Dear Sister Heart,

Succumbing to jealousy is graceless and exhausting, like signing on to be the principal dancer in a clubfoot ballet.

I have been seethingly, sweatily jealous of two women as an adult: a fellow writer who I felt unfavorably compared to and the girlfriend of a man I briefly loved, who unfortunately shares many of my passions and hobbies (with the exception of breastfeeding spiders). Unlike you, there were no warring feelings of love for either woman. I felt only ugly things. At one point, I fantasized about the vainer one contracting jaw cancer and having her lower jaw removed so perhaps — just perhaps — she would post fewer pictures of herself doing things I loved to do (with the exception of breastfeeding spiders) with people I loved on the internet.

I wish I could say I overcame those feelings but I didn’t, not really. Fortunately, they burned so hot that they mostly burned themselves out. Once my all-consuming jealousy had collapsed into an emotional bruise that only ached when I acknowledged it, I was able to privately concede that neither woman deserved the emotions I ascribed to them. They had unwittingly threatened parts of my identity that I cherished, at times in my life when I felt especially vulnerable.

You, Sister Heart, are in an enviable position: You’re at a very good place in your life, you respect the woman you envy, and it sounds like you have a good relationship with her. You should know that her successes don’t undercut your own — the insights of a billionaire heiress writer are likely radically different from the insights of an ex-drug-using writer (and frankly, your life sounds more fascinating). There’s room in the publishing world for you both.

Looking back, if I were in your position and had a relationship with either woman, I would have exorcised my demons by telling them how I felt, in my own clubfooted way. Like, “I mostly enjoy your writing but I hate that people compare us because we’re both women.” Or: “I will probably always resent that a person who was so important to me treats you better than he ever could me. Sorry about that. Also, would it physically kill you to take a picture that didn’t prominently feature yourself in it?”

Sometimes I still fondly remember the jaw cancer.



The Help Desk: Will no one think of the white man in literature?

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,

I know we have to be very careful these days. I mean, political correctness or whatever you want to call it. But, just because you like books by the Marquis de Sade doesn't mean you want to do the things inside, right?

Just because you like a white male writer doesn't make you bad, right? What about us who just want to read whatever the fuck we want and don't want to have to freaking justify it to everybody?

Bellevue Man

Dear Bellevue Man,

I doubt anyone is arguing that you should disavow all white male writers, as they’re ubiquitous. You might as well proclaim that you don’t like your beaches sandy. But a lot of people agree that white male authors have historically received, and continue to receive, a level of reverence, attention, and clout simply because of their race and gender, and maybe we should make an effort to find some new voices.

Nevertheless, I am sorry to hear you’re feeling oppressed by the literati. It’s hard to feel unfairly judged for something you can’t help, like your ethnicity, gender, or preference for books authored by white men. What you need to do is find a group of like-minded peers with whom you can share your burden. I would suggest you drop in on a support group – like those offered by Seattle Counseling Services – but I suspect your kind would not be welcome there.

Instead, head down to the Hard Rock Cafe with a copy of Charles Bukowski’s Love is a Dog From Hell (or anything by Hunter S. Thompson) and belly up to the bar. Order one of Marshawn Lynch’s favorite drinks – Skittles Sangria or a Patronessy – and wait for another white man to sidle up and compliment your taste in literature and hip appropriation of black culture. I suspect that after a few weeks of this routine, you will have amassed your own fawning book club. No longer will you and your brethren have to stand in the shadows like the millions of other white men who like to read works by millions of still other white men. Finally, you too shall be free.



The Help Desk: Deflated by word balloons

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,

I never figured out how to read comic books. This sounds silly, I know, but every time I look at a page, I don't know where to start. This word balloon? That box with text over there? Starting in the upper left corner doesn't seem to work for a lot of comics pages. I'm 35 years old and I've tried to read all the comics everyone says I should read: Persepolis, Palestine. I never get more than a few pages in before I develop a terrible migraine. But my friends, particularly the guys, say I should keep at it. Is it okay if I just give up?

Deborah, Hawthorne

Dear Deborah,

I get it. Personally, I can’t read read technical instructions or nutrition information without bleeding from my eyes. If you’ve given graphic novels your best effort, feel free to do what I do whenever a well-intentioned friend confronts me with technical instructions or nutrition information and threaten to burn their house down. (Practice saying to your guy friends, “I am a strong independent woman and if you wave that shit in front of my face again I will burn your motherfucking house down with gasoline and fireworks.”)

If, however, you want to give the medium another shot, I suggest you relax and treat them as you would children’s books: look at the pictures first and then, if you feel inclined, read the text. Remember: you’re not being tested on the material so who cares about comprehension? Also, maybe try reading a fun graphic novel before diving into beautiful-but-bleak works like Persepolis and Palestine? I recommend Fun Home by Alison Bechdel. It’s at least equal parts funny and bleak.



The Help Desk: Checkboxes of despair

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,

I received the worst rejection slip from a literary magazine in the mail the other day. It was a form letter with check boxes, and at the top it said "NOT ANOTHER…" and then there were a series of options for the editor to check off: "…poem about alcohol," "…short story about horses," that sort of thing. My checked box said "…memoir about mothers and daughters."

Cienna, I'm more than a little annoyed about this. There's a lot more to my piece than my mom's death, and I think the response is a little bit condescending and, yes, sexist. My friends mostly say I should be happy I got a response at all, but that snotty little checkmark haunts my dreams. Should I blog about this rejection letter experience, or would I just look like a bitter freelancer?

Luann, Rainier Valley

Dear Luann,

I’m sorry, that is both disappointing and unnecessarily catty. Anyone worth their salt — or the salt of your tears — should have the decency to be both honest and kind in their rejection. Like this:

Dear madam,

Thank you for your submission. Your piece was raw and moving, and I encourage you to continue submitting to other publications. Unfortunately, it doesn’t fit with the tone of our magazine so we have to pass. You see, we are a literary magazine and thus we have a high bar to uphold in terms of both quality and content for our reader. From the feedback we receive, we know our reader is sophisticated, she enjoys sleepy short stories about the middle class in which nothing more startling happens than a blink. She is also a deep thinker who hates poetry and horses, and who happens to resent her own mother, which is why your story simply won’t suit (unless your mother’s death could be rewritten as more of a comedy?).

You may have noticed that literary magazines are experiencing something of an ecdysis, like when a snake sheds its skin only to reveal a dead snake underneath. Imagine a carpet of dying, molting snakes. In the literary world, we call this a “niche market.” In this niche market it pays to pander to our loyal audience of reader, and right now we’re niched so tight we can hear each other’s dying heartbeats. To mix a few metaphors, we are niched to the hilt. To Hell and back. I’m sure you understand we must keep our reader happy. Keep writing!


P.S. Change your gender and maybe we’ll talk!

I hope that letter helps put things in perspective. And yes, when in doubt you should always blog about your feelings. The internet is a carpetbag of freaks and wonder; someone is bound to find your insights helpful. Where else could I find a support group of fellow spider lovers struggling to discipline their out-of-control teens AND sweet discounts on Spanx?



The Help Desk: You sure did write a book, didn't you?

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 friend self-published a novel. I bought a copy and tried to read it and, well, I'm being charitable when I say it's not very good. "Unreadable" is a word I'd use to describe it. What do I do the next time I see my friend? He'll definitely ask what I think of it. I've avoided a few social events out of fear that he'll be there, and I can't keep living like this.


Jim, Bitter Lake

Dear Jim,

You’ve done your duty – you bought the book. That’s all any person should reasonably expect from a friend or partner: the precious token of affection exchanged when one person expresses a shallow interest in another person’s hobby. When my best friend’s hobby was emotional eating, I learned how to open packets of his favorite foods so that we could enjoy what he called “the couple’s gravy experience.” Now that he is a marathon runner, I offer him milk electrolytes and proteins sold in brick form. But I will not ask him about his bowel movements or split times or any of the other silly shit runners are prone to discuss for hours with each other while jogging in place because my attention span is a finite resource that must be reserved for my own hobbies, like watching spiders commit hate crimes on flies.

So what do you do? The next time there’s a party on the horizon, email your writer friend and ask him if he’ll be attending because you want him to sign your copy of his book. Bring the book (make sure to crack the spine in several places) and don’t give him a chance to ask what you think. Go on the offensive: Say that you really enjoyed the work. You immediately connected with the main character and got swept up in the narrative. Tell him he has a unique voice, reminiscent of TKTKTK (throw out the name of some writer he likes). Then, quickly pivot and begin asking him questions: What inspired him to write it? Has the book been reviewed? Has he been conducting readings around town? What feedback has he gotten from his friends/family/significant other? How thick is his fan club? What project is he working on now?

If he asks you any pointed questions about the work that you can’t answer because you haven’t read it, simply respond with, “I’m embarrassed to say I didn’t quite ‘get’ what you were trying to do there. I think it went over my head. What were you going for?”

When you’ve blown enough smoke up your friend’s ass, pivot the conversation again to your own hobbies with something like, “Speaking of man’s eternal struggle with nature, I’m embarrassed to say I think the spiders living in my home are incredibly racist and I’m not sure how to confront them about it. What are your thoughts?”



The Help Desk: Caking your claim

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,

What's the proper way to tell my aging father that if he gifts his art book collection, which I've been coveting my whole life and which made me go into arts curation, to my little brother who thinks he deserves everything, that I'm going to bring him back to life just so I can kill him again?


Witchy-Poo in Wedgewood

Dear Witchy-Poo,

In my family, we write all important missives on ice cream cakes. It makes news like “I’m engaged!” even more joyful – although the “You’re not my real dad!” cake and recent string of “I have diabetes!” cakes tasted decidedly bittersweet.

When crafting your cake, keep your message simple and direct: “Bequeath unto me your art book collection or else you are double dead unto me.” If your father is cake averse, you have two alternatives: On your next visit home, ask to borrow one of his books for research purposes and then say, “I know this is a morbid subject but when you die, I really hope you give me your collection. They sparked my passion for arts curation and I can’t think of a happier way to remember you than looking through them.” Or you can wait until Christmas (or Hanukkah or whatever fun superstition your family embraces – for us, it’s casual Satanism). Gift wrap his art books and address each present to yourself. Then be sure to note the surprise on everyone’s face when you unwrap them. This is how my devoutly Catholic aunt Mary came to gift me my first box of condoms for Christmas (or what we casual Satanists called “some Wednesday in December”). It makes for a fun, confusing way to get what you want!



The Help Desk: how to teach the lottery

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,

I'm a published novelist who makes a fair amount of income teaching writing classes on the side. And I have a secret: the truth is that most of my students will never get anywhere because they don't work hard enough. I mean, I tell my students that working at writing is the most important part, but they don't seem to listen. Too many things — work, social life, video games — get in the way.

I always want to be flat with them and say that if they're not willing to put in the time at writing, they shouldn't bother taking my class. But this is how I get paid. So instead I offer encouraging words and watch while they flush their dreams down the toilet by playing Halo 46 until three in the morning or whatever. Many of these students are more talented than I am, but I just can't get the idea that writing a lot is the secret to writing well through their heads. Do you have any advice for me?

Seamus, Port Townsend

Dear Seamus,

I hate to break it to you but that doesn't qualify as a secret. Most writers know that their odds of "getting anywhere" are slim, just as they instinctively know the sun is an attention hog, gravity's a drag, and vegan bicycles are the most insufferable type of bicycle. That's not the point. As I see it, there are two main motivators for taking a writing class:

  1. Being around other writers, and getting the chance to read their work, pass judgement, and get feedback on your writing.
  2. Having artificial deadlines imposed on your work.

People also enroll in your classes for the same reason I line my underwear with lottery tickets: there's hope embedded in the ritual. Which means your job — as a successful writer, mentor to other writers, and gatekeeper of hopes and dreams — is to impose those artificial deadlines, give good feedback, and facilitate discussion. Keep in mind that being a successful writer isn't like being an astronaut or child bride — there are no age restrictions. Students who are dedicated Halo drones today can develop the discipline it takes to finish a manuscript five or ten years from now. So tell them the truth but don't belabor the point: great writing takes time, discipline, and talent. Then smile, take their money, and invest at least half in underwear lottery tickets. Odds are you'll regret it but just think: what if you don't?



The Help Desk: Color me vexed

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,

I'm a bookseller at an independent bookstore in Seattle. (No, not that one.) I'm used to people having bad taste when it comes to books, but every time someone buys an adult coloring book from me, I become irrationally mad. It's getting so I can't even look them in the eyes anymore. I think they're a disgusting fad for rich people with way too much time on their hands. On the other hand, sales of adult coloring books are putting a roof over my head, so I probably shouldn't complain too much. How do I choke down this bile?

Juliet, Interbay

Dear Juliet,

I think adult coloring is supposed to sassy and therapeutic, like playing adult kickball or attending your coworker's cosplay divorce party. But I don't really get it either. I've received two adult coloring books as gifts and have had to fight the urge to say, "thanks but this isn't a real book." I suppose I know now how those "one man, one woman" marriage purists feel.

What I'm saying is, since we're losing this battle we might as well try to understand its appeal. Coloring seems to be therapy for adults who don't know how to address conflict with their words, so this week, I jotted down a few phrases that I said while in conversation with my neighbor and spiders, respectively, that I could tell irritated them but they were too polite to call me on.

Then I drew pictures of the phrases and gifted them to the offended parties, along with some chewed crayons I found. So far, neither has colored their drawings but I'm sure once they do, they'll feel much better. And they will thank me for it.

I encourage you to try it, Juliet, and see if it helps with your bile issues. I'm including copies of my drawings for you to practice on. Enjoy and remember: Get sassy with it! Those breasts don't have to be chicken colored, they can be any ol' color you choose!



P.S. For all you eagle-eyed art connoisseurs out there, yes, that is a Georgia O'Keeffe vagina on the back of that heifer.

P.P.S. And yes, several spiders already pointed out that I don't know how to spell "heifer."

The Help Desk: Are we pro or con when it comes to sexy librarian porn?

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 any opinions on sexy-librarian porn? I'm kind of flattered by the trope, but I also wonder if maybe it doesn't raise expectations to an uncomfortable level with my prospective girlfriends.

Annie, Admiral

Dear Annie,

I'm glad you asked! I have stronger opinions on porn than all the right hands in Gary Herbert's public health department combined. Generally, I'm pretty positive about the sexy librarian trope, and here's why: People who objectify librarians find their brains as sexy as (if not more so than) their physical appearance. Librarians are intellectuals. Gatekeepers of knowledge. Curators of imagination. Smart people pant over stuff like that. They swoon. And isn't that a refreshing change in porn?

Of course, if prospective girlfriends are making you uncomfortable with their objectification – if they demand you collect late fees while wearing a ball gag or read them Goodnight Moon while sitting on their face (and you're not into it), I suppose that's problematic. Maybe you should remind them that you're not just a sexy brain stuffed inside a sexy body with the entirety of modern thought harnessed at your fingertips, you're a real person with nonbookish interests who sometimes wants to sit in sweatpants, eat Muddy Buddies and watch Real Housewives punch each other in the Fake Tit.



The Help Desk: A griever's library

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 husband died. It was a few years ago, so the shock is over and I'm used to the idea of living my life on my own — I keep busy and have lots of friends and hobbies.

But his library, I just can't face. He was a scholar, and his discipline was very narrow, so it's probably one of the best libraries on his subject in the world, some 400 volumes collected over his 50-year professional career.

A few of his colleagues have dropped hints, and I know I could sell the whole collection, or donate to a library (I've gotten nice sympathy notes from his undergraduate and graduate alma mater, and also the University where he spent his career).

But Cienna — this seems more him than anything else. More than the smell on his old sweater, or the memories. This is where he invested himself, what he truly loved. How can I just let it go?

And yet, how can I keep it? It's selfish for a single woman to keep such a resource hidden away. I go and dust them every few months, but I never read. What should I do?

Broken in Bellingham

Dear Broken,

You can’t rush grief. When my grandmother passed away, the chair she died in remained in our living room for seven years before we finally burned it. Conversely, when my dad died, I left his ashes in a dog crate in the back of my Subaru because I didn’t want him in my house or fucking up the upholstery in my car. I’m sure some people found the former display creepy and the latter callous; fortunately, most people are aware that telling another individual they’re grieving wrong pegs them lower than a snake’s butt in the animal kingdom of assholes.

It’s not selfish to want to preserve and cherish your husband’s life’s work. There’s nothing wrong with keeping his library for a few years or the rest of your life. If his colleagues would like to use it, and you feel comfortable giving them access to your house, you can work out a case-by-case agreement to let them visit his library in your home. If that doesn’t appeal to you right now, give yourself permission to leave it alone and maybe revisit the question again in a few years.

And if his colleagues are bold enough to continue to drop hints about the future of his collection, just politely mention you’ve been having very vivid dreams about burning their houses to the ground, house pets and all. I’ve found this is a great way to stop unwanted conversations in their tracks.



The Help Desk: Literature and longing on Link light rail

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,

I ride the new Link light rail from Husky Stadium to Pioneer Square (it's pretty great). I've seen this same girl on the train nearly every day, our schedules are so close. And she's always reading the best books. Seriously, like this manga series I've been following for years, that I thought nobody else was into.

But, I know that harassing women who want to be left alone in public isn't cool, and she's probably just going to work. Is there something I can say to her, not a line, but just a little opening, to see if I get any response? I mean, is it out of line to say something about our shared tastes?

Tremulous on the Train

Dear Tremulous,

Everyone who reads enjoys being complimented on their taste in books. Many years ago I was flipping through a copy of one of my favorite books, A Confederacy of Dunces, at a garage sale and a shirtless man with a chest tattoo of a swastika knifing a black panther (one of the swastika arms was an actual arm with a knife in it) said to me, "That's a great book," to which I smiled and thought, "what a nice man." Such is the mighty power of literature.

Striking up a conversation with a woman is not harassment if you follow basic social cues:

  1. Wear something non-psychotic, like a shirt and pants.

  2. If she's got headphones in, leave her alone.

  3. If she's not making eye contact with anyone around her, leave her alone.

  4. Wait until there is a natural interruption to her reading, such as when you're both disembarking from the train. Then it's fine to tap her on the shoulder and say something like, "That's such a great book! Have you read TKTKTK?"

  5. If all goes well and you get her contact information, do not send her an Evite for a party in your pants.



The Help Desk: Give me back my damn books, mom

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 aunt and I are avid readers and tend to trade books back and forth. If my mom (her sister) is there when my aunt returns one of my books and hears us talking about it, she always says "sounds interesting, can I borrow it?" But every time, sure enough, if I stop by my mom's house, the books are sitting in her front door staging area... you know, the spot where she puts things that she wants to remember to take with her when she leaves. She will keep my books for up to 3 months then return them and admit she "never got around" to reading them. The last time she did this I said "Mom, let's cut out the middle man here"...and I wouldn't let her borrow them. My aunt thinks I should apologize. What do you think?

Georgina, Federal Way

Dear Georgina,

I met a woman once – let's call her Jaustiny – whose mother sat her down at the tender age of 14 and told her that she was leaving the family to go find herself. Not only was she tired of being a mother, she'd decided that she really liked the name Jaustiny so she was legally changing her name to the name she'd bequeathed on her daughter. Then New Jaustiny peaced out to San Francisco, bought herself new tits and realized her dream of being a childless waitress/artist named Jaustiny with sexy breast-induced back issues. The psychological mindfuck of that aside, her mother's new identity created a lot of weird burdens in Original Jaustiny's life as she grew up – her mother developed a criminal record stemming from a brief career as a meth chef and had most recently stolen OJs identity and ruined her credit by buying matching Harleys for herself and her new boyfriend, all of which OJ had to account for.

OJ told me this story at a bbq. Ten feet away stood my own mother, who was evaluating some cowboy she'd just met for the quality of his sperm (for me. Always for me). As I watched her inspect his gums for disease I thought, "that old broad ain't so bad."

Your complaint is that your mother borrows books that you and your aunt have already read but she doesn't read them, correct? How does this actually impact you if you've already read the books? Your mom wants to feel included in the conversations and closeness you share with your aunt but she sucks at the follow-through. That is a harmless annoyance stemming from love.

Be sweet to your mom. Apologize. Let her borrow all the books she's guaranteed to never read and be thankful she's not a Harley-riding meth chef named Georgina.



The Help Desk: Jonathan Livingston See-ya

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,

What’s the protocol for weaseling out of a relationship with someone over a book they own? I just discovered that my new-ish girlfriend has Jonathan Livingston Seagull steadying a wobbly sideboard in the basement of her apartment building. She oozes a snobby nastiness regarding her otherwise excellent taste in books that really turns me on, and I suppose there’s a chance that the sideboard isn’t even hers, but those facts are irrelevant. I don’t want to do the whole “it’s not you; it’s me" thing because it’s obviously not me, and I do believe that she deserves an honest explanation. I'd prefer a recommendation for action that doesn't make me look like a jerk.

Pavel, Capitol Hill

Dear Pavel,

Here is what you must do:

  1. Invite yourself over to your newish partner’s house and ask her to take a seat on her own furniture.

  2. Tell her you have something to say, and you hope she doesn’t judge you for it because you’re rather insecure and even though what you have to say will definitely make you seem like a jerk, you hope she is mature enough to keep those thoughts to herself that because maintaining the illusion that you’re not a jerk is very important to your half-baked ego.

  3. Tell her that you spotted Jonathan Livingston Seagull sitting in her communal basement propping up piece of broken furniture that may or may not belong to her.

  4. Explain to her that this has killed your boner for your fledgeling relationship. Since your previous few statements may seem nonsensical to her, you may wish to use an analogy to explain yourself: Your boner is like a whistle pig – a speed racing copulator that’s suspicious of its own shadow and absolutely terrified of top- or even bottom-level predators like seagulls and women who may or may not read books it disapproves of. Explain that your rodent boner for her is dead now and its carcass is being carried off by metaphorical seagulls to a new plane of existence that is not unlike heaven, yet isn’t heaven (if she’s actually read Jonathan Livingston Seagull these words may comfort her).

  5. Finally, shit your pants. This will ensure she’s too busy getting you off her furniture and out the door to care about what a jerk you are. Months, even years from now she will remember you with confusion and pity. Your story will become the fodder of legendary happy hours, which may be the best thing she gets out of this abbreviated relationship.



The Help Desk: Oh, the guilt!

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,

Sometimes when I buy books from used bookstores, I feel bad, especially if they're from small presses. Authors get royalties, however small, on each book sold new in bookstores. They get bupkis from used book sales. Maybe this doesn't matter so much for James Patterson, but when I buy a used copy of an indie title with a tiny print run, that sale could have gone a long way toward benefitting an author, or at least helping their self-esteem. Am I being too sensitive? Or should I only buy copies of bestsellers in used bookstores from now on?

Ingrid, Crown Hill

Dear Cienna,

I like readings. The one problem is I feel guilty if I go to a reading and don’t buy the book. What’s the etiquette here? Is there a rule of thumb? There are so many variations to this theme: sometimes you like the book and will considering buying it later; sometimes after a reading you decide you don’t like the book; sometimes you like the book but it’s too expensive.

I keep coming up with other examples from my life. Is it okay to tell an author you’ll get their book from the library? And what if the author at the reading is your friend?

My anxiety grows by the minute, Cienna. Only you can help me.

Effie, Mountlake

Dear Effie and Ingrid,

Guilt should be reserved for religion and select situations that deserve it, like telling a Girl Scout you have a tumor just so she will give you a free box of Thin Mints. To answer your questions:

  • Buying any and all books from used bookstores is fine. Authors also get nothing when you lend a book to a friend or check a book out from the library. Think of it this way: If those books weren't being recirculated, they'd be rotting in basements, used as coasters in bars or burned by people like me.

  • First and foremost, writers are thrilled to have butts in seats at readings. You are basically doing a very specific community service for one very grateful individual when you attend them. That said, you shouldn't ever feel obligated to buy a book. If your misplaced guilt overwhelms you, however, there is a compromise: When I attend readings and the book doesn't grab me but I really liked the author, I try to think of a senile aunt or friendly shut-in who might enjoy its content and buy it for them as a gift.

  • That said, yes, you are absolutely required to buy your friends' books if they are published authors. It is a $20 investment. If you are not willing to invest $20 in friendship, you do not deserve to have friends.

Finally, I would encourage you both to ruminate on the nature of guilt. I am concerned, based on the tenor of your questions, that neither of you has truly experienced this proverbial shit stain in the rich tapestry of human emotions. Guilt, when done right, should feel like running a coal mine marathon: You should be sweating more than normal and overwhelmed by a claustrophobic sense of hopelessness.

I recommend that you explore this feeling, either by looking someone in your life in the eye while you tell them that you love them and then taking it back 10 minutes later, or by actually running a coal mine marathon. Then you both will be better equipped to tackle slightly uncomfortable social situations, like how to conduct yourself at a book reading, in the future.