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've done a few onstage interviews at bookstores, and I enjoy doing them. My area of interest is in vogue right now, so there are a lot of authors of popular books who come to town, and talking to them is usually a joy.
Cienna, in almost any other field — journalism, for instance, which I do a lot of — I would be paid for my time. Venues and publishers never offer to pay me for my time as an onstage interviewer. A lot of preparation goes into those events: I have to read the book, read and listen to past interviews with the author, wear nice clothes, promote on social channels, and bring good stage presence.
I understand that bookstores don't have a lot of extra cash laying around. (Although they could surely offer a cup of coffee or a small gift card or something, couldn't they?) But the publishers, who pay for the authors to travel the country on tour, must be willing to cough up a little bit of cash for a good interviewer?
I'm not expecting to make a living as an onstage interviewers of authors, but some sign that my time is valuable would be nice. In almost any other field, being asked to do something as intensive as an onstage interview in exchange for exposure would be seen a huge rip-off. Should I ask for compensation next time, or am I being an entitled baby?
In an ideal world, yes, you would be paid for your time as an interviewer – just like in an ideal world, sex appeal wouldn't be the strongest currency of women, people named Kash and Tiffini would automatically be registered as Assholes in some sort of community registry, the word "dollop" wouldn't exist, tweezers would scream for you, and ex-presidents would be taxidermied into their most memorable political moments and line the halls of Congress in Plexiglass tubes.
But we do not yet live in an ideal world, so we must do the hard work of fashioning one for ourselves. Here's what I suggest: the next time a publisher asks you to interview one of their authors onstage, respond with "Sure! My fee is now X." They may negotiate with you, you still may end up being paid in coffee or booze or nothing at all, but at least you'll have the satisfaction of sticking up for yourself and communicating that your time is valuable.
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.
I work in a bookstore and I deal with self-published authors who come in to place their books on our shelves on consignment. Some of the authors are very polite and kind and understand that they're not my only client. But the pushiest authors I know, the ones who bug me incessantly and continually ask why I don't put their books on the counter at the front of the store, have the self-published books that don't even look like books — they're double-spaced, and the covers are garbage and they're printed on 8 1/2 by 11 paper. The back covers are riddled with errors, and the dialogue reads like it was written by an ESL class from Tokyo on its first day.
The most confident authors I've ever met are also the worst authors I've ever met. In your experience, is self-confidence a sign of bad writing?
Pat, Columbia City
Did you know that some spiders breastfeed their young? Imagine the body confidence it takes for a spider to look at a dairy cow, nature's milk-producing poster child, voluptuous udders refracted in each of its eight tiny eyes and think "Nice try but I can do better."
Spiders do not even have mammaries. What they lactate could better be described as protein venom, yet produce it they do. The reason? Confidence, willpower, and spite.
All artists are powered by a blend of confidence, willpower, and spite. It takes those three traits to take stock of the world – and the art already in it – and conclude an important point of view is missing: their own. This isn't a bad thing, but as you've discovered, when one trait outweighs the rest, the artist becomes insufferable.
Nature will take care of over-confident writers in time. Like over-confident spiders, their protein-to-venom ratio is screwy and they will find few volunteers willing to suckle at their teets, metaphorically speaking. This vicious cycle will continue until they are all venom, devoid of protein, and they find to their horror they have misspelled their own name on the cover of their own self-published book. On that day, they will quit art altogether and resume their career as a real estate agent/fly catcher while the watchers of the world, like you, quietly celebrate.
When you ignore all the day-to-day noise of politics, my Twitter feed was manageable until those writing astrology accounts started taking off. Now every writer I know is gabbing about how Mercury is in retrograde and how nobody understands Sagittariuses and they're all getting their charts done. It's bullshit. It's all bullshit.
But now this horoscope talk is becoming so widespread that I can't block everyone doing it. Some writers I really admire have started blabbing about the healing power of crystals, for fuck's sake! Is this just a passing fad, or am I going to have to move to the wilderness to get away from this insipid shit?
Leo, Capitol Hill
I feel your frustration but unpucker your buttocks for a minute and consider this: in times of fear and uncertainty, people often turn to religion and divine intervention – or for the nonreligious, stars and crystals – to inject a sense of structure and stability in their world. And as your Twitter newsfeed or the entire state of California or really anyone with a mouth will tell you, these are damn uncertain times.
Sure, astrology is annoying – or rather, people who proudly make important life decisions based on astrology are annoying. But I'd advise you to take a page out of Facebook star Sheryl Sandburg's playbook and instead of fighting the astrology/crystal fad, Lean In. Launch your own crystal-harnessing, planet-divining Twitter feed – only instead of talking about crystals, nature's kidney stones, sell actual kidney stones. In fact, you can Lean In even further and claim to harness the power of George Soros's kidney stones. Imagine how powerful and vindictive (and expensive) those are!
As for astrology, stars are only worthy of your passing contempt and most planets are unimpressive (what has Venus ever done for society?). The only planet worthy of attention is Mars. Named after the Roman god of war and agriculture, Mars is a severe and judgy planet, a planet whose approval starry-eyed crystal gazers will crave. And NASA's InSight Mission makes Mars' opinions especially topical right now. By harnessing the power of Soros' kidney stones and offering only Mars-based astrological readings, you will fill an important Twitter niche for the insecure and directionless. For example: "A coworker smells weakness on you. Your greatest professional fear will be realized in the coming weeks unless you take aggressive action. Mars advises you to buy two Soros kidney stones and practice sharpening everyday objects at work. Eat two servings of spinach daily for strength and vitality."
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. Cienna Madrid is spending Thanksgiving weekend with her spiders; this column originally ran in 2015.
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 in 2015 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.
As you know, I got a dog last year. He's wonderful.
Naturally, I wanted to read some good non-fiction books about living with dogs, in order to better understand the new member of my household. But the problem is that I've started to read four dog training books and they're awful. They're not about the dog at all — they're just self-help books in doggy drag. One of them (the Dog Whisperer one) was all about how to raise a good dog, you need to be a better person. Another one I tried to read turned out to be a Christian recruitment pamphlet disguised as a dog training manual. Baaaaaarf. I'm not averse to changing my behavior to be a better dog owner, but I am averse to taking cloying life advice from cable TV show stars.
The only good dog book I've read so far is John Homans's What's a Dog For?, which looks into the history of human-dog relations. It was great because it focused directly on the behavior of dogs and the reasons for that behavior — a useful guide to what's likely going on in my dog's head. But it didn't have a whole lot of practical advice for dog-owners.
Cienna, are there any books out there that are good for dog owners to learn how to be better dog owners by learning more about their pets?
Paul, your editor
You are in luck. I have skimmed a ton of dog books, as spiders are basically dogs with stunted lifespans and a more elegant thirst for blood. You might like The Other End of the Leash, although that, too, examines pet behavior in relation to person behavior. Here are a few other great training books I've flipped through: The Culture Clash, Don't Shoot the Dog, and How to Behave so Your Dog Behaves.
But here is what even the best pet training book won't tell you: never accrue more than your body mass in one species. Even with animals as tame as the domesticated dog or common house spider, flirting with this critical tipping point is foolhardy. Both species operate as pack animals, and when the pack becomes too large, your position as alpha becomes tenuous. I would hate for you to awaken to the unique betrayal of your toes being delicately amputated by a pack of creatures you have lovingly named and baptized as family.
So my best friend just got, like, a gazillion follows on Instagram by all these celebs and start-of-alphabet listers after she posed sultry librarian pics WITH MY DANG LIBRARY!!!!!!
She won't even tag me or anything, so I'm having tons of FOMO about her living big on my taste, and all these people are like "we like the same books!" and she doesn't even read.
How can I get back at her?
Wendy, West Seattle
Your friend sounds needy, and not in a cute trying-to-bribe-nurses-at-George-Washington-University-Hospital-to-give-RBG-stem-cell-jello-shots-because-sweet-tap-dancing-Jesus-all-20-pounds-of-that-85-year-old-woman-must-stay-fit-and-healthy-and-strong-for-another-two-years-at-least kind of way. Your friend sounds needy in the traditional, boring way: she is a praise hound.
You cannot stop a praise hound from panting and baying for praise any more than you can stop birds from trying to have sex with bees, or RBG's flappy little limbs from slowly calcifying right before our horrified eyes.
Here is what you can do: invite your friend over for another library photo shoot – perhaps offer to snap some pics of her in a festive sweater for a holiday card, since the Instagram post was so popular. Before she arrives, go to a used book shop and add some fun alt-right Easter eggs to your shelves like "The America We Deserve" and "Time to Get Tough" by Donald Trump, "Contemporary Voices of White Nationalism in America," "Truth, Justice, and a Nice, White Country," maybe something cheap and smutty by Ann Coulter, and perhaps a copy of "Mein Kampf". If she's not a reader, she won't bother looking at your shelves because to her, books are merely a platter on which praise is heaped.
Or, if you don't want your friend to be accused of sympathizing with the alt-right movement, you could just comment on her Instagram post, something along the lines of "Yes, I'm dying to know what your favorite book from my library is."
Either way, be playful! Have fun with it! And pray and/or offer up a blood sacrifice for RBG.
Cienna Madrid is off this week; this column was originally published in 2015. Every Friday, Cienna 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.
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.
I keep wanting to write and ask you for your take on the latest political scandal, but every day it's a new one (or four), and then no matter what happens is blamed on the people I vote for by people who have agendas that serve their pocketbooks. I guess I'm feeling a bit overwhelmed by everything, and need a recentering. Got any good poems or art or, sorry book review website people, music that pulls you out of a deep years-long depressive funk?
First of all, you are not alone. Second, you have come to the right place. As an unlicensed therapist who keeps irregular office hours on a Metro bus, I have a few thoughts on misery – the potent combination of helplessness and hopelessness – and its antidote, hope. Some of my therapies are unconventional but that is because I am not owned by Big Pharma or constrained by the chains of science.
First, I recommend you go to the mall and befriend a baby. People like to chitter "children are our future" but they also make great therapy pets and in my experience, most mall mothers are willing to trade a few minutes of supervised baby time for a 20oz Orange Julius. Once you have your therapy baby on your lap, begin a game I like to call "Kisses for Breakfast," wherein you look deep into its baby eyes and ask it if it would like kisses for breakfast. (Don't wait for it to answer – babies cannot give consent, which is part of what makes them ideal therapy pets.) Proceed to give it lots of little kisses all over its soft baby cheeks. Then repeat. For fifteen minutes, you will forget how fucked the world is and the baby will likely enjoy itself until it realizes it would like something other than kisses for breakfast.
If human babies repulse you, that is okay. Therapy spiders are also a viable option and – lucky for you! – fall is the ideal time to harvest them. Therapy spiders are great for travel, as they are quiet, compact, and you do not need to register them with your host airline. I rarely leave the house without a pocketful anymore – when I encounter someone in public who is in desperate need of therapy, I can reach into my pocket and throw a spider at them.
As for books, I know I've mentioned Rebecca Solnit's Hope in the Dark in this column but I'll do it again. Solnit makes a measured case for what can be gained when you embrace hope over helplessness. I also recommend reading (or re-reading) Shel Silverstein – especially his poetry and the book The Giving Tree. If you haven't read Silverstein as an adult, his intelligence, humor, and the unexpected emotional complexity of his stories will delight you.
I also recommend that you reevaluate your relationship with the media you consume. This article about the toxic effects of news didn't convince me abstain from reading it each day but it did make me more aware of what I was consuming and how I was processing it. In addition, you might want to start your day by reading the New York Times's good news briefings.
What's the best musical ever made from a book. No picking Hamilton.
Tia, On the Boards
By far the best book-to-musical adaptation I have ever seen is Struwwelpeter – Shockheaded Peter – which toured Seattle in 2001. The book is a collection of German victorian children's morality fables that illustrate what happens to children who won't eat their soup (they starve), who whip dogs (they are badly bitten), and who suck their thumbs (their thumbs are cut off by a maniac with large scissors). The stories were narrated by the Tiger Lillies and an accordion.
I would like to see more musicals commissioned to tell vital stories that people avoid because they are too sad or too true to deal with right now: Bastard out of Carolina, When Breath Becomes Air, The New Jim Crow, Fear: Trump in the White House – someone should jazz up those word piles with a few aggressively catchy songs and shove 'em on stage.
Maybe also The Old Man and the Sea because I can't think of an author more antithetical to the genre and I want to watch an old man sing to a large fish for at least two hours.
Do you speak any other languages? If so, do you read books in other languages?
Either way, do you think that good translations exist? I’m monolingual, but the idea of translating fiction or poetry from one language into another always seemed like doing eye surgery with an old hatchet. I don’t spend much time reading translated stuff because of that, but I always have the nagging sense that I might be missing out on something good.
Pauline, Crown Hill
I've been told my forked tongue is perfect for a particularly dead Latin dialect and I speak French like a child who has no concept of the passage of time. But yes, I do attempt to read books in other languages, mostly crone hexes from the motherland (in my case, Idaho) and the occasional Spanish children's book (I'm trying to use my bad French to teach myself bad Spanish). It took me six months to get through Lucha Libre: The Man in the Silver Mask but I would highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys mask-themed fiction.
I do believe good translations exist – there are multilingual authors who translate their own texts, for example. And as a monolingual reader (or a stumpy trilingual reader, in my case), worrying about what you're missing out on is a bit silly, like refusing to fly Southwest because you'll never grow feathers. Sure the experience is different but it's still a journey. Isn't that the point of a good book and/or economy travel?
If you want to try reading a good translation, the National Book Awards announced just this year a category for translated literature. In fact, Seattle's own Karen Maeda Allman is a judge for that category. Small fuckin' world, right? I'd start there.
You remind me of my Aunt Alice, who once told me that the only difference between men and women was obligation, sensibility, kindness, and everything else. (But then again, she hated women, had "will obey" in her vows, and lived a very orthodox life.)
There was this one thing, though: she was really, really, really into spiders. She used to make all my dresses, and on every label she made a little black spider on a thread. Every birthday card: spiders. She once knit me an afghan that had all radiating spider web patterns.
Given how much you write about spiders I thought maybe you could throw some light on Aunt Alice. Any insights?
Thanks. Based on your description, I strongly believe your aunt and I could've had a fine time alone together in a dim room, not speaking. I think we both identify with spiders' solitary, independent nature – they are unconcerned with being either overlooked or hated, as most are too busy with snacking and butt play.
And I suspect that your aunt would have a harder time hating women in today's climate. Even if you ignore for a moment judge Brett Kavanaugh's alleged sexual misconduct and under-oath lies, congressional Republicans' staunch support of getting this man's shithooks planted on the Supreme Court prove they have dropped the charade that women are human beings and should be listened to and respected as such. Why even call us women – why not "man's best friend"? They treat us alternately like bitches and dogs.
The silver lining is that more people are taking notice. It's not just self-ascribed feminists beating the drum about women's basic rights any more (like the right not to be groped and harassed, the right to be listened to and believed). Did you know that some spiders are social? And that their personality can change depending on what other spiders they're socializing with? If spiders can change, I have hope that more people can, too.
PS. I want that afghan.
P.P.S. This conversation reminds me of the life and writings of Pearl S. Buck, who was raised in China by missionaries but went against her church and spoke out against Christian missions later on in life. She was also an ardent advocate for women and minority rights. You should read The Good Earth – it won a Pulitzer (and she won a Nobel Prize in Literature) way back before "affirmative action" became a sly talking point to dismiss the accomplishments of women and minorities.
Now that DFW has been called out in #MeToo by Mary Karr, and the Shitty Media Men list has been made public, I'm wondering if you could make like a Quantico professor and offer us a profile of the kind of asshole we should avoid?
Dizzy and disillusioned, Bellingham
Wouldn't it be grand if life were that easy? I wish we could assemble one profile and be done with it. I also wish surreptitious gropers willingly wore mittens and would-be rapists wore chastity sandwich boards to curb their destructive, dehumanizing behavior. Sadly, shitty men evolve with each new generation and the only unifying factor seems to be that they view women at best as second-class citizens, or at worst as objects, and few shitty men are going to respond truthfully to the question "do you view women as second class citizens or objects?" when asked – not even Supreme Court justice nominees, and you'd think those sitting on the highest court in the land would place even more weight than the general public on the truth, wouldn't you?
That said, my great grandmother Goldie, who was named after a horse, had a few timeless guidelines for evaluating men to avoid. Over the years, I've added to her list:
I hope that helps.
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. Cienna is off this week; the following column was originally published in 2015.
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.
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. The following is a republication of a column from 2015.
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 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.
I'm so fed up and mad about this whole bullshit incel thing and so I've decided to read every great feminist book I can find. I know about Backlash, The Second Sex, The Feminine Mystique, and all the other biggies, so I'm looking for lesser-known works that will inspire me to understand more and give me language to fight back against my broken gender. Any suggestions?
Personal improvement is a noble goal – I have the organizational instincts of a hoarder but so far have lacked the space and discipline to cultivate them. Good for you for trying.
These reads may already be on your radar but they’re some of my favorites: Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist, bell hooks's Feminism is for Everybody, Rebecca Solnit’s Men Explain Things to Me (although I’d recommend just reading the title essay online here and skipping the rest – much of it is overly academic for a general audience. Unless you're ready to dig really deep, pick up Hope in the Dark instead).
Because if you really want to better understand women, you don’t need to read the feminist canon, you just need to be a good ally. One way to do this is by choosing to read books written by women and with strong female protagonists – and then recommending those you enjoyed to your male friends. Children are often socialized to regard books with female leads and perspectives as “girl books” and books with male leads as books for everyone, and this sentiment unconsciously carries into adulthood.
Until that changes, or until someone launches angryhorny.com — a dating website exclusively for incels so that women can efficiently detect and avoid them en masse – we are stuck in an imperfect world, one in which I don’t own nearly enough cats to fill up even one garbage bag.
A bunch of friends and I were out drinking one night and we realized that we all had stories about passing dirty novels around in elementary school. Usually ones like Judy Blume's Wifey, since my parents thought all Judy Blume books were for kids. But other friends said Piers Anthony, one friend even claimed The Story of O was the hot property in her school, but when caught they told the ignorant teacher it was about a girl named Olivia who loved a dog that bit people.
Anyway, I was wondering if you have a story like this, first. And second, what books do you think kids today pass around?
Curious since pre-puberty,
Vanessa, Out by Carkeek
No one but a pervert could describe mine as a normal sexual awakening. Around puberty, I plucked a copy of Love is a Dog from Hell from my mom's bookshelf and from it learned that mailmen fart better than they fuck (to paraphrase). When my grandmother caught me reading about asses that never age and semen free-flowing from hookers' thighs (to paraphrase), she overcorrected by giving me a copy of a 60s romance novel set in a post office, filled with endless "package" euphemisms that further reinforced the horniness of mailmen. (For years, I described budding desire as "mailman feelings.") Then, for my 13th birthday, someone bought me The Joy of Sex, which taught me the mechanics of the female orgasm and how to appreciate the boldness of a well-coiffed bush. None of my friends wanted anything to do with any of these books. All of them had sex before me but none of it was described as joyful or involving the USPS.
As to your second question, I don't have to guess what kids are sharing these days – I have a 14-year-old sister and a 12-year-old brother and neither of them appreciated my attempts to lend out my copy of The Joy of Sex or talk through their complicated mailman feelings. Judging from their social media feeds, sex-ed has evolved from covertly reading soft-core stories to following soft-core social media stars whose nipples have their own #sponcon deals. While I envy the ease with which today's youth can explore their sexuality online – eliminating much of the covertness and for some, fear and shame – reading about sexuality allows readers to develop their own desires rather than embracing the same bushless, overtanned images of what constitutes conventional attractiveness. (For instance, have you ever noticed what great calves postal workers have? Yet my search for #postalworkerporn yields no results on Google.)
Fortunately, the New York Public Library recently announced a campaign to bring literary classics to Instagram... perhaps some day they can be persuaded to add coming-of-age classics like Wifey and Love Is a Dog from Hell to the mix as well?
Cienna Madrid, our literary advice columnist, is on holiday this week; please enjoy this column from 2015. 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.
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
My dog threw up on a first edition my girlfriend loaned me from her dead mother’s library. I of course told her right away and apologized. She accepted my apology, but I still feel awful. I’m not much of a reader so maybe you can help. Is there something sweet and literary I can do to make up for it?
My father used to tell me "the world isn't full of problems, it's full of opportunities" and while I didn't often listen to him – he had a severe drinking opportunity until the day he died – in your case, his advice is applicable. Here is what he would've recommended you do:
Take out a few of your most treasured possessions – Yeezy sneaks, CPAP machine, whatever the kids are into these days – and line them up on your coffee table. Then invite your girlfriend over, cook her favorite meal, and lace it with ipecac. Seconds to minutes later when she begins to projectile vomit, point her at the lineup and let her go to town. Immediately afterward – this is important – kiss her firmly on the mouth without flinching and offer to split a handle of Tito's with her.
However, if you've never lightly poisoned a loved one before and don't think you have the stomach for it (HAHAHA), I suggest looking for an upcoming reading or literary event that she might enjoy and buying tickets to it.
What’s your go-to work of fiction for reliable snakebite cures? Hoping for a speedy reply.
Rebecca, Black Canyon
Sorry that my response came out slower than a tick turd – I've had a busy summer sweating and drinking a firehose of Irish wine (white wine with a shot of whiskey in it, potato chip garnish).
If you want to read your snakebite a book, I recommend Their Eyes Were Watching God, which features rabies, snakebite's natural rival. But if you're looking for a cure, try the Foxfire series – if it doesn't have a reliable cure for snakebite at the very least it'll give you step by step instructions on how to marry the snake what bit you. Then you can check the box marked "honest woman" on Trump's 2020 Whites Only Census.
A while back, someone sent you a question about gender-swapping classic literary characters. As her example, she said she wondered what would happen if you gender-swapped Columbo.
I don’t blame you for not knowing this, but there was a TV show in the late 70s called Mrs. Columbo starring Kate Mulgrew of Star Trek Voyager and Orange is the New Black fame. It didn’t do very well. (Here’s the opening credit sequence.)
Just thought your readers might want to know!
RC, Westwood Village
Thank you for the note – it was especially timely given the armpit of a summer we're having. My favorite episode so far is "Feelings Can Be Murder," followed closely by "Ladies of the Afternoon," in which Kate Columbo discovers that extortionists are forcing housewives to become prostitutes. BYOIrishwine.
My wife and I have a great relationship but she likes baths. She loves to take books into the bath, and they always get wet and waterlogged, she’ll scratch her leg and then instead of drying her wet fingers sensibly on a towel, she’ll just turn the page.
I like buying first editions in hardback. Not like a snooty collector, but to support authors and I can afford them so why not? I just can't stand what she does to my books. It's driving me mad. She ruins them!
I’ve tried getting her a Kindle (she thinks it will electrocute her), buying TWO copies of books she wants to read (she has a crazy good memory and doesn't use bookmarks so it's not uncommon that both books get a soaking), and plain old pleading, but she keeps saying “honey, relax, it’s just a book.”
Yeah. But then see what happens if I leave one of her screwdrivers out of place. Ugh.
Anyway, she agreed that I can write to you and get advice, and she will abide by it. Please, Cienna, for the love of all that is good. Please help me.
Even your wife must admit that sometimes wonderful things are incompatible. Drinking and texting. Feminists and weddings. Raccoons and dinner parties. (Stop me if I'm repeating myself.) Such is the way with books and bathtubs.
That said, it's nearly impossible to change a person and foolish to try, much like attempting to switch the theme of your aunt's funeral from "farmer's banquet" to "Harry Potter" because the only black thing you own is a cloak with matching hat.
So what do you do? Tell your wife that from now on, whenever she ruins one of your hardcover books, she owes you $100. With that $100, buy yourself a new hardcopy and save the rest until you have enough in ruined book restitution to purchase a lawyer's bookcase – one with a lock in which you can store your prized collection. And if she fails to pay up within a week of each offense, start sponge-bathing her screwdrivers.