The Help Desk: Miss Rona came to town

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,

Hello! I am feeling very helpless at the moment with all the coronavirus pandemic unfolding around me. I still have a day job, I can work from home, and my housing is secure, so I acknowledge my privilege here.

I want to use that privilege to help others, but every time I open my social media feeds I feel like I'm getting a firehose of desperation right to my face. Everybody needs money right now, and not just the usual charitable organizations. Every bookstore I shop from needs money. The booksellers at those bookstores need money, and many of them have been laid off. Local artists need money. Local charities need money. Local arts organizations need money.

I don't have that much money to give, but I've got some. I've already bought big gift certificates from a few local businesses as investments into their future, but I just don't know if I'm doing the right thing. Is it better to spread what I have around, or should I be looking to make the biggest impact? Should I be giving to arts organizations, or should I be giving to charities that are actively saving people's lives?

Just tell me what to do, please, Cienna.

Paul C.

Sheltered in Place

Dear Paul,

Take a deep breath, make yourself a quarantini (two shots of hand sanitizer steeped with your favorite Tic Tacs) and try to unpucker yourself.

It's true: people are exceptionally needy in these uncertain times. Unless you've been preparing for global catastrophe for years – unless you've got a bunker full of wedding dresses purchased online from bitter divorcees that can be reconstituted as toilet paper OR as wedding dresses for the farm animals you've also been hoarding in your bunker and need to see married off ASAP because NO ONE lives in SIN under your dirt roof NO SIR!!! – well then, you might be shitting exclamation points right about now.

Me? I am living my best underground life. As a child, I was given boxes full of honeybees for Christmas. It taught me resiliency and to never shake presents.

Take another deep drink of that quarantini. Go ahead. I'll wait.

Now then: what you're doing is great. Continue buying gift certificates to book stores. Consider donating to an arts relief fund. Or an emergency relief fund to help restaurant employees (and restaurants). The thing to remember is, there is no donation too small. Just find a cause that feels right to you and support it.

And remember: money is precious but so is your time. There are many people in the world who aren't thriving in a bunker, wondering if it's unethical to marry a horse to a goat without either of their consent. (And arguing with herself about who makes the prettier bride.)

Chances are, you know at least one person who is suffering in isolation, who is stir crazy or lonely or scared or depressed at the news they can't seem to stop reading. Call your friends. Send them books. Reach out. Write them letters!

Money is not always the solution, sometimes your time means more.

Or, you know, bee boxes are fun.




Dear Cienna,

I have a friend whose 28th birthday is in early April, and her boyfriend broke up with her in January, so she's been sheltering in place on her own. What's the best book to send as a gift for someone who will likely be entirely alone as she enters her late 20s?


Capitol Hill

Dear Cate,

That depends – is she still weepy about it or did she think to herself "that fucker beat me to it"?

If she's sensitive and needs an uplifting read, I suggest:

Fly Girls, a nonfiction book on five women who made aviation history, which might be a nice change of scenery during social isolation.

The Story of My Life by Helen Keller. Read about her life and wallow in the shameful knowledge that some days it's too hard to put on pants that button.

If your friend is in a bitter-but-funny headspace, here are a few fun options:

I Feel Bad about My Neck, I was Told There'd be Cake and Half Empty (because there's never been a better time to embrace defensive pessimism!)

Air kisses,