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 email@example.com.
I love to read. I love to smoke pot. I can't smoke pot and read. I can get high and watch movies, but words on a page get all swimmy when I've had even just a single puff. But I have friends who love to smoke and read, and they make me so jealous when they talk about sitting down for a night with a book and a joint and reading two or three hundred pages at a go. Can I make my dream a reality, or is my own brain chemistry working against me?
Jean in Shoreline
I find your friends' claims of reading (let alone retaining) hundreds of pages of text while high incredibly suspect, perhaps because I have trouble with basic tasks while high, like peeling fruit, blinking, and telephones. What in the Oxford-loving fuck are your friends reading and how could it possibly be more fun than rubbing your belly and chanting the word "velocity" under your breath in a dark closet?
To your question: Instead of reading books, give graphic novels a try. Ignore what little text there is and focus on the beautiful illustrations. I'd start with Black Hole and Bottomless Belly Button – both of which, if memory serves, are pretty light on text. Another option is to pick up Weathercraft or Congress of the Animals by local genius Jim Woodring. Most of his books are wordless, beautiful and weird.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Once, I met an author I loved and it was a total letdown. She was narcissistic and bored by all the people who came out to hear her read, and I disliked her so much it made my skin crawl. Now I can't enjoy her books because it reminds me of how unpleasant she was. Should I bother going to readings anymore? I don't want to lose any more favorite authors, and the risk of them being jerks is scaring me away.
Mary, Bainbridge Island
Once, I was invited to a fancy literary party full of very impressive people – best-selling authors, sitcom writers, actors, comedians. I couldn't throw a fork without hitting someone whose work I admired. As parties go, it was normal: People sipped champagne, talked child rearing, traded jokes and were surprisingly tolerant of me sweating on them. I should say, it was normal except for me. Intimidation, my natural dearth of social graces and a near-painful desire to make a good impression rendered me mute – that is, until the hosts' daughter, a sweet-looking girl of about 12, emerged from the kitchen with a plate of fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies and began offering them to guests.
“Mmmm, is there anything better than a cute little girl handing out warm cookies?” One actor asked rhetorically.
That is the moment I found my voice. “Only if she's stripping,” I said.
The actor stared. The child proferred her plate to me with pity in her sweet brown eyes. There was a moment of silence as everyone in the room wished my place were filled by someone who could pass the very low bar of not sexualizing children in casual conversation. That was the day Paul Constant learned that bringing me as his date to parties is like reading Proust to a pig.
I bring up this story, Mary, to illustrate how awful some writers are at interacting with other people. Others are just awful in general (Norman Mailer was a notorious misogynist who once told a crowd of fans that “a little bit of rape is good for the man's soul.”). Either way, you have to separate the person from his or her work and be generous enough to pity them when they act like dicks in public, as all those people pitied me years ago.
Because by their nature, books are a private obsession, both for writers and readers. So attending an author's reading is, to me, an unparalleled act of public intimacy that can go horribly wrong or beautifully right. Personally, I think it's worth wading through a few assholes to experience the beauty.
Have you ever tried to get somebody to change by offering a book that you think might affect them? I have a friend who is drinking himself to death. He listens to books, but not people. Books have changed me, maybe one would change him. Any ideas?
Seth in Georgetown
As a teenager I received at least seven copies of How to Make Friends and Influence People from a bouquet of well-intentioned dickheads. I read the damn thing at least twice. It did not make me better at making friends, or even better at making eye contact with strangers. It did nothing but make me resent the fact that I was too old to be cute and too young to drink.
That said, I’d caution you about gifting a book with the hope of changing someone. In my view, books are not topical salves prescribed to fix personal flaws, they are the simplest form of love letter – you give them to people you love because you believe their content will resonate with them on an emotional and intellectual level. Whatever personal change occurs because of that connection is secondary.
Fortunately for you, I have a ton of heavy drinkers in my life and I love at least half of them. Here are three books I’ve read about addiction: Drinking, A Love Story; The Night of the Gun; Dry. I gave the first two as gifts to friends (I didn’t love Dry, to be honest, but I know quite a few people who did). The books did not change my friends’ drinking habits at all. But it did create an avenue to talk about addiction and we’ve had a few good conversations about alcoholism since then. Usually while drinking.
So: I recommend you read those books and see if any of them remind you of your friend. If you have the time and interest, you should also read this fascinating article published last year in The Atlantic that critically challenges the efficacy of AA.
More importantly, I’d like to point out that I have lots of friends now, even if most of them are only half sober.
Suck it, Dale Carnegie.
In my house, all I hear is my son humming the Imperial March. Stars Wars coming back is like the second coming (the seventh coming?) for him. He’s read all the Star Wars books, so I’m hoping I can expand his horizons a bit by some other science fictional universes. Any recommendations?
You're in luck: Because I have a womb deemed "clinically resentful," I've resolved in this new year to be a better parent to other people's children in lieu of trying to fashion one myself. Think of me as a well-endowed, biblio-centric wet nurse! I am figuratively leaky with ideas.
Here are a few: Dune, The Dying Earth, the Shannara novels, and the Wrinkle in Time quintet. Those should keep your son busy for 2016 and if not, huffing paint will! (HAHAHA, JK. Don't let your child huff paint, Jean – unless you do it as a dare to teach him a lesson about the stupidity of accepting dares.)
As a bonus, here are a few other parenting tips for you, from practiced non-parent to parent:
At dinner, do not allow your child to eat directly from the can. Encourage him to use a bowl, instead (i.e. a fancier form of can).
Avoid making direct eye contact while saying, "I love you" lest your child develop an over-inflated sense of self. It's better to always look just beyond his right shoulder. Then, if/when he accomplishes something noteworthy with his life, he will have earned the combination eye contact and praise.
My granddad died in the spring. He left me all of his books. The gesture meant a lot to me. He used to read to me when I was a baby, and I remember spending hours in his study when I was a kid, flipping through his books. So now they're my books. But there's a problem: they stink. My granddad was a heavy smoker and I'm not. His books reek of cigarette smoke. I've looked around online and the solutions for this are complicated and seem like they might not work. Am I a terrible person if I give these books away? Will anyone even take them? They really, really smell bad.
I empathize. When my grandmother, Berta, died on Christmas Eve a few years ago, my mother inherited the chair she died in and I inherited her death suit: a fuzzy blue robe and dog-hair enhanced red slippers. Everything smelled like ham and stale Easter candy. So loud was the candy-ham stench that cats and men in camouflage named Rufus started showing up asking vague questions, or mewing, with shifty eyes. I took up not bathing just to mask the odor.
Have you considered not bathing? It frees up a lot of time for reading!
Most babies have shit taste in books, so I hesitate to guess what your collection could entail. Still, I suggest going through and choosing one or two that have sentimental value. Carefully pack those books in a drawer with aromatic soaps (or a candy-ham combo), which will help the smoke smell dissipate after a time. Then, organize a party (New Year’s is a fine excuse) and sacrifice the rest of your grandfather’s collection to a roaring bonfire. I know book burnings are still gauche everywhere except church parking lots and the odd Trump rally, but still: donate books in such terrible shape and they’ll end up in the dump anyway. You might as well celebrate in style with friends, family, and a smokestack worthy of your grandfather’s memory.
Has there ever been a movie adaptation that's better than the book it's supposed to be based on?
Douglas, West Seattle
That's like comparing apples to Amtrak. While they've got plenty of flash and money, movies can never hope to encapsulate the depth and imagination of books, let alone best them. The two mediums are as vastly different as a fortune cookie is from my favorite psychic-slash-preschool-teacher, Raven Moonwhisper. Sure, the cookie is momentarily satiating and its simple platitudes vaguely pleasing, but is a cookie ever going to charge me $50/hr to tell me which of my spirit guides is too drunk to trust and whether I should quit my job to pursue a career in animal husbandry? (Through trial and error I have discovered farm animals find my presence unnaturally arousing.)
At best, a good movie can enhance a great book experience in much the same way that playing Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon enhances silent screenings of The Wizard of Oz and Schindler’s List.
But to answer your question: Ben Hur is definitely more entertaining than the Bible.
Please settle a bet. My friend says our culture is spiraling toward illiteracy. He thinks we're devaluing language to a point where we'll soon only communicate through pictures, or video. I think we're more literate than ever before. I read more every day than I ever have in my life. Of course I read more websites than books, but I'm of the opinion that reading is reading. So who do you think is right? Are we becoming illiterate, or are we more literate than ever?
Sure, more people may be able to fulfill the most basic definition of literacy but I disagree with you that "reading is reading." Like butt implants and Bible interpretations, reading varies wildly depending on the source. Is it great that a higher percentage of Americans can functionally read words, a necessity formed by our texting, emailing culture? Yes, but that doesn't mean they're critically engaging with what they read, or that the writing our culture is currently producing inspires intellectual curiosity (I'm specifically thinking about the sad state of journalism, which would best be encapsulated by a gif of people eating popcorn at the site of a grisly car crash. Also beautifully summed up today by this debacle). As for your friend, please tell him or her that their argument is based on a false premise: words are not a cash commodity that can be devalued or replaced. For instance, there will never be a picture that can convey specific words like "lugubrious" and "malady" or even "uranium," which in pictorial form just looks like moldy bread. Since you are both wrong, I win your bet. You owe me a critical 500-word essay responding to an interesting article you've read recently and your friend owes me $20 and a gif of people eating popcorn at the site of a grisly car crash.
Please send both to email@example.com.
Every Friday, Cienna Madrid offers solutions to life’s most vexing literary problems. Well, except for this Friday because it's Thanksgiving weekend and Cienna's probably drunk somewhere. We didn't want to leave you hanging, dear reader, so we thought we'd republish the very first Help Desk column from way back in July, in case you didn't read it. Next week, Help Desk will return. Do you have questions for Cienna? Send them to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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
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.
My son hates to read. The rest of the family? That's all we do. We don't have a TV, even. The other five of us could pass every moment of every day with our noses in a book, but our son wouldn't read chocolate if it were a book. We bought him a computer, and he's getting pretty good at programming and really likes it, but I think he needs to let his eyes rest from all of the vibrating pixels every now-and-again. He thinks we're all (the wrong kind of) nerds, and wants us to learn more about the internet. What kind of compromise do you think we can find?
Georgia in Georgetown Heights
I'm friends with a man who claims to ironically love the writings of Tucker Max. He seems like a sweet guy, but is he secretly nursing an inner bro? Should I throw an intervention, and if so, how should I do it?
Nathalie, Crown Hill
If your friend "ironically" loves the misogynistic writings of Tucker Max, the man known for "jokes" like: "I know this really sexy move you can do with your mouth. It’s called ‘shutting the fuck up,'" he sounds like the kind of guy who'd "ironically" joke that Bill Cosby was being a gentleman by handing out free drinks to women.
Fortunately, there is hope for people who view women as breasty garbage bags to be alternately fucked and despised, and Max himself is proof of that. Perhaps you weren't aware but he's now happily contributing to what your friend might "jokingly" call the pussification of America. His latest book, Mate, Become the Man Women Want was co-written with evolutionary psychologist Dr. Geoffrey Miller. Parts of it are still problematic (for example, in interviews Max compares dating to knowing your enemy before entering into battle). But it's also got some sound advice and when you consider the enthusiastic audience Max has built up with his previous books, his words become especially important:
Objectifying women isn’t just a moral failure. At the purely practical level of attracting women, it’s stupid. It might temporarily reduce your anxiety about approaching them (about making your pitch), because if you think of them as targets, you can try to trick yourself into thinking that they won’t be judging you when you walk up to them. But they are judging you—and that’s OK, as long as you understand how and why.
Here's the intervention I suggest: Buy Max's latest book, read it, and then give it to your friend. Tell him that you're really eager to discuss it with him and get his thoughts on Max's evolving views on women and relationships. (Also make note of the parts of Max's book that you disagree with and be ready to explain these parts to your friend.)
If your friend is resistant, join our nation's great underground army of literate feminists and their decades-long campaign to sissify our great nation: pull a Cosby and start dosing his drinks with birth control pills. I'm not a doctor – although I'm considering legally changing my first name to "doctor" for the free respect and travel upgrades – but the extra estrogen will probably help. I spent years throwing birth control pills in the open reservoir at Volunteer Park and I'm pretty sure it turned at least a few gay men I know even gayer.
PS. Happy World Vasectomy Day, everyone!
I can't remember if my anger and frustration with Amazon began when I heard about the "gazelle" project, or when I heard about their total lack of philanthropic investment in our city, or what, but by the time the Hachette e-book price wars started up, my rage had reached a boiling point, and with the opening of their stupid bookstore, I am just seething. I hate what they've done to books and book publishing and everything I hold dear as a writer, editor, and reader. So my question is: how best to channel my rage? I already stopped shopping there, and I think my friends and family are honestly pretty sick of my virtual and in-person ranting on the subject. I need some new ideas for creative or constructive outlets for my Amazon hatred. Help!
P.S. I am a pacifist so violent direct action is not an option.
I understand your feelings of impotence and frustration. It would be melodramatic to say that Amazon ruined the publishing industry, the book selling industry, or Seattle. However, it's fair to say that Amazon waited until publishers, booksellers, and the city of Seattle as a whole was sleeping, took a big smelly dump on their chests and said, "you look like shit but that's not my problem."
A better advice columnist might tell you to take the high road and ignore their crappy business dealings but I'm afraid of heights so the high road is never an option for me. So what do you do? I suggest working to change the only item on your above list that you have a kitten's chance in hell of influencing: Amazon's philanthropic giving, which is laughable. It amazes me that with 24,000 employees in Washington state alone, and many of them Seattleites, those employees aren't demanding better from their employer. Instead of instigating poster wars that attempt to shame Amazon tech bros for moving to Seattle and "ruining" neighborhoods, why aren't Seattleites banding together to demand Amazon be a better philanthropic presence in the city that has contributed greatly to its success?
There are enough readers, writers, booksellers, sympathetic Amazon employees, and liberals in Seattle to put pressure on that company to change its corporate structure in one small way. How to accomplish that exactly, I can't say. Someone who's well versed in organizing, rather than telling alcoholic librarians what to do every Friday, should come up with a plan. (The only protest I can claim participation in took place last Christmas when, after a bathtub's worth of hot buttered rums and gin! Gin! Gin! my liver went on strike.)
Affecting change in that way, I believe, would make a satisfying difference.
(If it doesn't, you could always try taking a dump in front of their store. That also makes a satisfying difference.)
I have a nasty secret. I really like to pretend I've read books that I've never actually read. Sometimes I'll be at a party and someone will start talking to me about — here's a recent example — Gore Vidal. I've never read Gore Vidal, but I enthusiastically lied and said that I had, that I enjoyed many of his books. But it's not just the lie; I like to get really risky with my book chat. I'll sometimes string along the conversation, becoming more and more specific in my commentary. I said, for instance, that the dialogue in Gore Vidal's novels are often wooden. Is his dialogue wooden? I don't know. But the person at the party believed me.
I'm pretty honest otherwise, and I read a substantial book or two a month. I'm fairly well-read, but I will leap at the chance to tell lies about books I've never read. Is this a cardinal sin? Am I going to wind up in some literary circle of hell, where Gore Vidal and J.G. Ballard and Gertrude Stein shove fondue forks into my haunches while reading their collected works aloud?
Beverly, White Center
That is not a nasty secret — a nasty secret is the tattoo I have on my left buttock of a fist punching a baby with the word 'YOLO' inscribed under it. What you seem like is a lot of fun to have at parties. Lying about books is the most harmless form of lying I can think of and makes conversing with hordes of drunk strangers in enclosed spaces sound almost appealing.
I mean, what else are you going to talk about? Politics? The weather? The politics of weather, which is a stupidly fraught topic thanks to climate change deniers, who can often pass as sane people at first glance? Personally, I'd rather take a cheese grater to my nipples than get trapped talking about any of those subjects.
If there is a circle of Hell reserved for people like you, it certainly must be the most fun circle of Hell — the kind populated with people who eat raw cookie dough straight from the bowl and women with tattoos of a fist punching a baby with the word 'YOLO' inscribed under it.
Just be careful and know your audience. There are some people it's never a good idea to deceive for your own amusement. For instance, spiders. They have six eyes and at least four of them can detect lies.
I just came home from a conference that was inspirational and amazing, and filled with creative people. But when I look at my blank page, I'm feeling nothing but imposter syndrome. You'd think being at the damn conference would be enough to get me going, but apparently not. Can you help me get over myself?
Quenton, Queen Anne
When I'm feeling insecure about my gifts as a writer, I like to hang out with my 11-year-old half-sister, Ana. We eat a snack, she tells me about school and then she plays me a violin piece she's been practicing or reads me some of her poetry. She's a smart kid but these interactions remind me that I'm smarter than her. My poetry is way better than hers and I don't even like poetry. Someday she'll likely be a very successful doctor like her mother and I'll be living in her basement on the cheap because she pities me but right now, I am her role model. It's a job I take seriously. Yet most of the time when she reads me a poem I think, "I can top that," which is why I've begun writing coming-of-age feminist poetry to share with her. For example, here's a limerick I wrote about sexual assault:
There was a young woman from Buhl
Who was assaulted one day after school
She bought a claw hammer
And without a stammer
Raped the man with her oversized tool.
"Police!" Screamed the man down the street
As blood waterfalled to his feet
“I don't mean to be crass
But I've been raped in the ass”
Said the girl, “vengeance truly is sweet.”
“This woman is batshit insane!”
He denied every ounce of self-blame
But police had no way
With no DNA
Of connecting his rape to her name.
Odds are this won't happen to you
But you know how to act if it do
A conceal'd weapon it's not
And if you get caught
Remember: Christ was a carpenter too.
My point is, sometimes it helps to go to an open mic night or hang out with a child and remind yourself (silently, don't be a dick) that you're a better writer than the company you keep. Until you're famous, which most of us will never ever be, you must be your own most devoted fan. Start acting like it.
We can’t help but notice that several months after your weekly advice column, The Help Desk, launched on the Seattle Review of Books — to be specific, the first one was published on July 31, 2015 at 10:01am, PST — the New York Times Book Review is preparing to launch a literary advice column this week called Help Desk. You've written nine of these columns so far. Our question is: what the fuck do you think is going on there?
Martin and Paul, downtown
Dear Martin and Paul,
Ideas are always stolen, they don’t even have to be great ones. Russia stole the idea for invading Ukraine from the Poles, Michael Jackson stole moonwalking from the moon – or at the very least, astronauts – astronauts stole Tang from diabetes, and diabetes stole my grandmother’s pancreas. There’s no use being a frown clown; that’s just how the world works.
Here’s a more personal example: For awhile now, I’ve planned on having a baby and naming it Spite. The baby changes depending on my audience – for instance, if I’m frustrated with my grandmother and her lazy pancreas, Spite is half-black because it makes her deeply uncomfortable. I’ve told a few close friends about my Spite baby, including the spider that lives in my bathroom. Lo and behold, I get home from work yesterday to find my spider friend has hatched 1,000 babies on my bathroom wall. You guessed it: that bitch named every one of them Spite.
I could take it personally. Hell, I could shovelize her and her offspring in a heartbeat but she’s done nothing but be a good friend and sympathetic listener who knew a great idea when she heard one and ran with it.
The New York Times can offer book advice. They can even steal the name of our book advice column. But this is the same media outlet that taunts its readers with achingly beautiful portraits of homes we can never afford in places only those too poor to leave reside (“What You Get: $900,000 homes in Mississippi, Pennsylvania, Ohio”? Go fuck yourself, NYT), and thus it will never possess the charm, compassion and practical advice of a single woman living in a $500 rental full of pet spiders.
The only Help Desk endorsed by spiders™.
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
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).
I'm a single dad and my ten-year-old daughter apparently found my copy of Story of O. She confessed after I found her posing Barbie over Ken's lap for a spanking. How the heck am I supposed to explain something as complex as power fantasies to her, or at the very least help her from seeing her dad as a big creep?
Ermine, University District
Awhile ago I met a nice Christian woman who believes sex before marriage is amoral but regularly masturbates her male dog before competitions because she says it relaxes him. I asked, but no: she is not married to her dog.
My point is people compartmentalize sex in individually weird ways. Reading Story of O doesn’t make your daughter damaged or you a creep – in my book, nothing short of competitively masturbating your pet in public while praying for the salvation of sluts does.
It’s not your job to explain power fantasies to your daughter. It’s your job to buy her ice cream and tell her that what she read was fiction and a bit above her reading level. Then, it’s your parental duty to purchase a copy of The Joy of Sex and give it to a cool female friend to give to your daughter (trust me, no young woman wants to get a sex manual from her dad). My grandmother bought me the Joy of Sex when I was about 10 and once I got over the horror of being handed a sex thing by a near dead thing, I treasured it (sex ed in Idaho in the 90s doubled as our “Faces of Meth” campaign). Hopefully your daughter will stop snooping through your erotica as she practices hundreds of new positions to put Barbie and Ken in, all while developing an appreciation for diverse body types and prize-winning bushes.
Just keep her away from your dog.
In the military I was taught to keep it high and tight—that's my hair, of course, but also a good attitude towards life. Efficient, controlled, prepared, and to the point. But, it turns out, I have a certain softness for rich Victorian fiction that curls in on itself and never leaves any aside unsaid. Middlemarch has stolen my heart. Jane Austen makes me giggle. Cienna, I'm a man's man. I should be reading spy novels and hard stuff. What is it about those books? What the hell is wrong with me?
Burt in Burien
No one is asking you to make your own beef jerky out of old cow parts, ejaculate on a pile of fawning virgins, or any other questionable chores ascribed to the elusive “man’s man.” There’s no conflict with loving military precision and efficiency, and enjoying romance novels. In fact, the two are very complementary.
A good romance novel allows you to suspend logic and control for a few hours and be swept up in an emotional story that manages to be dramatic through its inevitable happy ending. We all want happy endings; that’s the allure of the genre. And massage.
In fact, last month, after a particularly bad date that took place at a supermarket cheese counter – where I ingested an hour’s worth of free cubes while chanting, “My God, Cienna, which vindictive crone did you offend to deserve this romantic hellscape?” – I curled up with a Tillamook baby loaf and a feminist romance novel and read until I believed in the concept of romance again (the lurid sex scenes that somehow never include the word “penis” helped).
There is nothing wrong with you. I suspect your military buddies could say that you have shitty taste in books but it would be a pity to deny them that – one of life’s sweetest pleasures is judging other people’s reading lists. Plus, it’s not like you’re carrying around a signed copy of Left Behind.
I suggest you join a book club filled with people (most likely women) who will be thrilled to discuss Victorian bodice rippers with you and very impressed by how poetically you can describe a penis and breasts without ever using the word “penis” and “breasts.” Or, if you’re not quite ready to be out-and-proud about your taste in books, at least consider these feminist historical romance writers: Courtney Milan, Cecelia Grant and Sarah MacLean. I bet you’ll enjoy them.
My mother just came out as Wiccan at 62. Dead serious. What the fuck am I supposed to do about this? Is there any book in the world that can help me unfuck this pile of candles and Stevie Nicks lace?
I understand your horror. Just last weekend my own dear mother let it slip that she’s interested in butt play. While I’m fully supportive of her curiosity in the abstract, there are some things daughters are better off not knowing. Those things include butt play and the belief that mortals can control the wind.
I have a few suggestions for you, all of them outstanding. First, buy this book: When Someone You Love is Wiccan. Reading it is optional. Crack the spine in a few places and put it next to your toilet where your mother is sure to see it, just as I nailed a butt plug to an old swing in my mother’s front yard to express my support of her alternative lifestyle.
Then, when your mother next brings up witchcraft, gently steer the conversation towards Satanism. It could be that your mother is lonely. Maybe she’s frustrated by the current state of American politics, repulsed by organized religion, and therefore susceptible to the conviction that chanting beneath the light of a waning gibbous will ward away chin hairs and parking tickets.
But is she aware of the fantastic work the Satanic Temple has spearheaded lately? They’ve countered anti-abortion Planned Parenthoods demonstrations in cities like Detroit, drafted a “religious exemption” letter to combat anti-abortion laws in states that attempt to dissuade women from ending a pregnancy, and lobbied to erect statues of the goat-headed deity Baphomet in states like Arkansas that allow for monuments of the Ten Commandments to be placed on Capitol grounds.
As you can see, the Satanic Temple is an incredibly active organization – perfect for a perhaps lonely older woman looking to join a new community. Plus, Satanists love candles!
Ask your mother to mull it over, while also acknowledging that religion and butt play are two very personal choices that mothers must make for themselves. If, in the end, she decides that she would rather believe that a clutch of candles and a prayer can influence the tides, bless her heart and buy her a fire extinguisher.
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.
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.
Our literary advice columnist, Cienna Madrid, is taking a vacation for Labor Day weekend. She advises you do the same.
As always, you can always ask Cienna questions about life, reading, and/or your reading life at email@example.com.