Rosa Lyster

Cape Town, South Africa

Tag: booksnakes

Essay 48: The Goblin Market

I am reading a Boring Book. Boring is probably the wrong word, because I hate it so much that it keeps me uncommonly alert, but if not boring then just wrong. Just not up my street at all. There are so many things wrong with it. I will accept novels whose action takes place in the Victorian era, as long as they are written by a person who was alive in the Victorian era. I’m afraid that I will only in the most exceptional circumstances, however, accept a book whose action takes place in the Victorian era but was written by a person alive right now. Is this my worst kind of book? Maybe. All filled with people lacing up their pointy shoes and getting onto wooden ships, or settling themselves comfortably into their carriages.  All kinds of vivid details about people being slightly delayed because olden-times shoes are made out of inconvenient materials, but no so delayed that anyone is catastrophically late, because the scene where the woman tugs impatiently at her leather laces leads nicely into a bit where she is allowed to either dash or race into the busy street to meet up with her stupid brother. Her scapegrace brother. They both have such pink cheeks. They are both greedily stuffing currant buns into their pretty red mouths. These books are so full of phrases I would never use. This is fine in principle, as my own vocabulary is quite limited, but the reason I would never use them is because they are terrible. There are so many descriptions of eating or laughing which rely on words that I would prefer to be removed from the language altogether: people are always gulping or gobbling things down, and they are chuckling or chortling or snickering as they do it. Men are guffawing. They are saying O! instead of “Oh”.

I will accept no novels which make too free with the word “whore”, especially when the writer seems all thrilled and invigorated that they are allowed to use it because that’s just what you used to call them then. The same way that they get a nasty old kick out of saying, for instance, “the Chinaman Ah Gow.” You imagine the writer taking out her fountain pen and writing “The Chinaman Ah Gow entered the dancing hall” and you just want to reach across space and time and whisper mean contemporary swearwords into her reddened ears.  Her ears are that colour because she only writes by candlelight and actually that can get quite hot. I especially object when the word is used every time the woman appears, like “the whore Jane entered the room.” “He wondered why he felt such affection for the whore Annabel.” Maybe it’s because the whore Annabel, in spite of her debilitating dependence on opium, is a girl with a healthy appetite and is constantly seen to be gobbling up pies and washing them down with Ale. Maybe it’s because men always like girls with healthy appetites in books like this. They are extra sad when the girl with the healthy appetite is murdered in a way that seems unnecessarily sexual. It is not essential to the plot that it happens like this, and yet it does. You imagine the writer refilling the green ink in her pen and you just want to reach across space and time and set fire to her collection of vintage underthings. “It’s called a bra, pal,” you whisper. “It’s called underwear.” “The next time you type ‘lacy underthings’ into eBay, you will hear a loud explosion.”

The thing about this book is that I knew I wouldn’t like it. It came out a few years ago and announced itself immediately as the enemy.  I was sure that I would never read it, but then I was at the airport and I panicked. I realised I had nothing to read on the plane. Normally the answer to this is many expensive magazines, but I am trying to be a better person these days, or at least not do anything deliberately bad, and spending over four hundo on magazines falls pretty squarely into that category, I think.  So I bought this nightmare of a book instead, and now no one is happy.

Except me, of course. What do you call it, when you are in a mood where hating something gives you near-undiluted pleasure? If I were the whore Annabel, I would say that the only pleasure it compares to is the private joy of the opium pipe. If I was myself, I would say that getting actually giddy off disliking something is sort of the same as spending over four hundo on magazines. Not good for you. Warps your facial expressions. Gives you an entirely unwarranted sense of superiority. Makes you talk and talk about things that no one can care about as much as you. Ultimately  turns you into a goblin.

In “On the Pleasure of Hating”, Hazlitt says “without something to hate, we should lose the very spring of thought and action.” This is exactly the kind of thing a goblin would say, but I am on board. Hating things whose feelings can’t be hurt (like a book or a style of singing where the mouth is open too wide and the person is just belting it out and you immediately think of the word “lusty”) is not very nice, but it is a victimless crime. Hazlitt then goes on to say, however, “We hate old friends: we hate old books: we hate old opinions; and at last we come to hate ourselves.” This is where it gets tricky, in the move from the dizzy hating of books to the more destructive hating of people, and the most corrosive hating of oneself.

The answer is to confine oneself, then, to the hating of small things, but the rule is you are allowed to hate it a lot. You are allowed to sit and hate it so much that your whole face and all your toes crunch up. And then after that you stop. You splash some water on your face, you put on your easy-to-wear shoes, and you go outside to greet the day.


Essay 39: Any game with a lot of rules

Most games are terrible. Any game where it is necessary to have a strategy. Any game where you must think more than one step ahead. Any game that is called Risk. Any game that is called Monopoly. A game where you find out what your career is going to be, and your career is going to be a nurse or a babysitter. A game that is an early 90s version of Trivial Pursuit, where many of the questions require an intimate knowledge of who hosted Telly Fun Quiz. A game of Thirty Seconds I once played where this girl swore up and down that she didn’t know what New Zealand was. She later relented and said that she had heard of New Zealand, yes, and that Robert Mugabe was the president. The Prime Minister, actually. This happened.

Any game with a lot of rules. Any game where the rules are either undefined or self-evident, which is to say self-evident to everyone but me. Any game that I am bad at, such as chess, checkers, all card games (except Snap and Cheat), poker especially, bridge (I have never played bridge, but I know I hate it), and backgammon. Dominoes in any form other than making patterns or lining them up so they fall over. I said Monopoly, but I will say it again.

The only games worth a damn are Pictionary, Ex Libris, and Winking Murderer. This is one of the few certainties I possess. I am sitting now thinking about how fun Winking Murderer is, and my heart is beating all fast. I will play Winking Murderer with you right now, as long as you are not a very little kid. Little kids slow things down, and plus they tend to blink a lot in general. On the other hand, a little kid is the best possible partner for Pictionary. They have the right kind of free-spirited approach, and they already know that they are shit at drawing so are less likely to get frustrated when you don’t guess what they’re trying to depict. The worst person to play Pictionary with is an adult who fancies themselves as a good drawer. They get so peevish when you don’t guess. I once played Pictionary with someone’s dad, an art director. He was trying to draw “jazz”, I think, and he just kept doing all these guys in hats, and cats all over the place, and pounding his ball point pen into the paper so that he ripped the page, and circles round and round the cats, and arrows pointing to the hats like are you some kind of moron, and then drawing the sun over and over again and crossing it out. We could not understand. He got so emotional that he threw the pen across the room and did not speak to anyone for several hours. We found out later that the crossed-out suns were because jazz only happens at night.

Although this was, on balance, a stressful occasion, it was still a good time. Pictionary is an amazing way to see how someone else’s brain works. If I was drawing jazz, for instance, maybe I would draw at least one person playing a musical instrument. I am a bad drawer, but all you would really need to do is just draw a stick person holding a saxophone, and even I can do that. If my cousin Sue was there, I would just draw her dog, because he is called Jazz and that would be nice for him. I would try to adapt, is what I am trying to say.

The art director dad, however, had one idea in his mind and by god he was going to make it happen. These kinds of insights are valuable. Ex Libris is not as much of a Rorschach test, or not in the same way, but it’s still excellent. The rules, if you don’t know them, are that you get a whole lot of books together, one book for every person playing. Try to get as wide a range as possible. Do not worry about quality. Ex Libris is not the place to raise your high brow. The best round of it I have ever played involved a South African detective book called SNAKE, published in the 70s.

The point of the game is to make up a plausible first or last sentence of a book. Say the book is SNAKE. You write down your realistic-seeming first sentence, like “The curtain fluttered, although there was no breeze.” Everyone else does theirs, and then you hand it to my friend Ben, who is in charge of this round. Ben reads out all the made-up sentences, and mixed in there is the real one. Everyone votes, and if people choose your made-up sentence, then you win.

I love Ex Libris for all the reasons you might expect: books, taking turns, all my friends are there. I also love it because I am weirdly good at it. It is the only game I have a reasonable chance of winning. I will be straight with you and tell you that I win at it a lot.

This is because I am a good mimic. I have a pretty advanced ear for style, if that is a thing, and it’s not at all difficult for me to copy it convincingly. I can write you a paragraph that seems to be from a bad 70s detective novel, and you will probably think it’s real. This is why I am the queen of Ex Libris.

This is also one explanation for why I love the books that I do. The books I love are the ones that would defeat me at Ex Libris, the ones whose style I cannot I cannot break down and understand. I could write you an extremely convincing Margaret Atwood first sentence, for example, but I could never do an Alice Munro. This is not to say that Alice Munro is objectively better than Margaret Atwood (she is, she is, she so clearly is), but rather that Alice Munro is a beautiful mystery to me in some way, and that is how I like it. I like books that I could never write. The closer someone’s style or subject matter is to my own, the more bored and depressed I get.

This might be a variation on that theme called Self-Loathing, but I don’t think so. Instead, I think it’s because the more I write, the more I see how unlikely and how difficult originality is. I don’t think it can be taught. I think it’s just there, sitting in some people’s heads, and I think that I can spot it a mile away.


Urging a Luncheon Companion to Accept a Cool Lima Bean

Everyone has their blind spots. Mine is JD Salinger. I reread the nine stories this weekend, and most of Franny and Zooey, and I loved them so much, again.

There’s a bit in Experience where Kingsley Amis is talking about “Don Juan”:

I had a strange experience with Byron the other night. There was an hour to kill before a dinner party in Chelsea and I went into a pub and started reading Don Juan. After half an hour I couldn’t believe how absolutely marvellous it was. I knew I liked Don Juan but this was oh, something of a completely different order. By the time I had to go I was looking round the pub wanting to say, ‘Has anyone here got any idea how wonderful “Don Juan” is?

That’s me, reading “Before the War with the Eskimos”, and “The Laughing Man”. I want to take people by the sleeves and force them to read Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters. I want them to admit how much they love it. “Just admit,” I want to say. “Just admit it.”

In the next paragraph in Experience, it’s revealed that Kingsley Amis was so enamoured with Don Juan because he was drunk. His point is that you can’t really get so woozy about a book, especially not a “classic”, especially not one that you’ve read before. Maybe this is true if you are Kingsley Amis, but it’s not true if you are me. People say that JD Salinger is twee, and Cute, and obsessed with the Glasses. Joan Didion, for instance, said that

“Franny and Zooey is finally spurious, and what makes it spurious is Salinger’s tendency to flatter the essential triviality within each of his readers, his predilection for giving instructions for living. What gives the book its extremely potent appeal is precisely that it is self-help copy: it emerges finally as Positive Thinking for the upper middle classes, as Double Your Energy and Live Without Fatigue for Sarah Lawrence girls.”

This is a bit Rich, coming from Joan Didion, but it is unassailably true. I don’t care though, and neither should you. I need to have my essential triviality flattered. I enjoy it very much, and I believe that everyone else would enjoy it too. I try to press these books on people without success.

There are some obvious parallels to be drawn here. People in JD Salinger are always pressing food on those who don’t want to eat it: the brother in “Eskimos” tries to get Ginnie Mannox to eat half a chicken sandwich; the waiter and Lane Coutrell try to get Franny to eat another chicken sandwich in Franny; Bessie Glass tries to get Franny to eat chicken soup in Zooey; and the narrator in “Esme” offers the titular girl a bite of his cinnamon toast. She declines: “I eat like a bird, actually.” The brother in “Eskimos”, especially, is insistent that she have at least a small bite of the chicken sandwich. He keeps telling her how good it is, and she keeps, for some reason, not wanting it. He doesn’t understand why she won’t just try.This is how I feel about people who refuse to love Salinger. They won’t even try.

It is my belief that Salinger was aware of this phenomenon. For evidence, I submit his dedication in Franny and Zooey:

“As nearly as possible in the spirit of Matthew Salinger, age one, urging a luncheon companion to accept a cool lima bean, I urge my editor, mentor, and (heaven help him) closest friend, William Shawn, genius domus of The New Yorker, lover of the long shot, protector of the unprolific, defender of the hopelessly flamboyant, most unreasonably modest of born great artist-editors, to accept this pretty skimpy-looking book.”

Accept this book. You’ll love it. Just admit.


Edited to include the information that Janet Malcolm said that “Rereading Franny and Zooey is no less rewarding than rereading The Great Gatsby” 

Booksnakes: TEENS

some of the best answers, below, to the question “What is a book that you would recommend to a teenage boy/girl?”

1. “If that boy was thirteen, I would recommend The Man Who Went to the Far Side of the Moon. It’s about Michael Collins, the third astronaut on the Apollo 11 space mission. He’s the one who was left in the capsule all alone while Neil Armstrong and Buzz Armstrong had a walk on the moon. It’s presented as a sort of scrap book and has loads of incredible facts e.g. “Together the astronauts bring: 15 packs of chewing gum, audiotapes with songs that have the word ‘moon’ in the lyrics and with taped sounds from earth: jungle noises, trains, dogs barking.””

2. ” Same book. “After 8 days, 3 hours, and 18 minutes in Columbia without washing, the entire body itches. It is hard to breathe in the spacecraft now. It smells like wet dogs and rotten swamp.””

3. (For a teenage boy): “This is difficult. Maybe some of those terrifying Shirley Jackson short stories. I don’t know why, anything that creates a healthy confusion but doesn’t bring on an existential crisis would be fine.”

4. “An actual teenage boy or aspirant, “intellectual” male teen? For an actual teenage boy – on the young side (13-15) – I’d recommend the perks of being a wallflower or this book I can’t remember about a teenager growing up in Oakland who has terrible parents and meets this perfect girl at a trailer park vacation spot and there’s lots of teen sex. I wish I could remember the name. A youth on the run? A youth in revolt?

For a 14/15 year old nerd – maybe slaughterhouse 5 or something (that’s what I read at that age – and I wasn’t even a boy).

15-18 – either very alienating stuff like the stranger or bromance stuff like on the road. But honestly I wouldn’t really recommend either, as like a gift to society. I don’t think the world needs 16 year old alienated, mysoginistic atheists.

A responsible recommendation – a sentimental education by Flaubert; a heartbreaking work of staggering genius; the Rachel papers.”

5. (Teenage boy) “The Art of Fielding”

6. “The Art of Fielding”

6. “Maybe The Art of Fielding, because sports and having a crush on Pella”

Booksnakes Round 2: The Zadie Smith Enigma

One of the questions on the Booksnakes Questionnaire is:

Which author do you feel certain would personally dislike you?

I love reading all the answers, to all the questions, but I cannot deny that my heart speeds up a bit when I get round to this one. It’s my favourite. If you want to get to know someone, you should ask them this question. It is like peering straight into their soul.

Some of the answers I could predict, or at least feel unsurprised by. For instance, my dad saying that he feels certain that Virginia Woolf would personally dislike him does not come as a great shock. Ditto my mum and JM Coetzee.

Three different people, so far, have said Donna Tartt. This answer knocks me out, and I love it, but it’s not a surprise. Donna Tartt is a chilling, harrowing presence. Also, the three people who gave her as an answer are all quite thoughtful, quite self-deprecating or at least self-aware, and I find it very easy to imagine all three of them looking inside themselves and coming up with Donna Tartt.

Martin Amis came up a bit as well, which makes a lot of sense. He is clearly the kind of person who would trip you up at a dinner party when you were saying a stupid and throwaway thing. He would ask you to repeat it, and then raise his eyebrows and say “goodness me” in a quiet voice, or else “extraordinary”,  and make you feel like a terrible idiot all evening and then you go home and realise that actually it wasn’t even that stupid of a thing to say, but it is too late, and now you must live with the humiliation forever.

My own answer was nearly Martin Amis, but I ended up going with Kingsley. Also Philip Larkin and Nabokov, and Sylvia Plath.

Here are some other answers, all of which seem eminently reasonable:

“Stephen Pinker. And Paulo Coelho.”

“Any of the ones worth a damn.”

“Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.”

“Stephen King.”

All fine, all comprehensible.

But then! Who should emerge sinister from the shadows but Zadie Smith? Zadie Smith!

Four different people have said her! A lot of people, when pressed, have said that she was nearly their answer, edged out at the last minute by Donna Tartt or an Amis. I don’t understand it at all. It’s Zadie Smith! She seems so kind and beautiful. She writes so nicely about her dad and her dog and her little girl. She has a groovy husband. She writes nicely about him too. If I had ever thought about it, I would have said for sure that Zadie Smith would love me. Not because I am so lovable, but because I feel that Zadie Smith has space in her heart for all creatures of the earth. Is this wrong? It feels right. What are other people seeing that I am not?

I googled “Zadie Smith is a terrible person” and came up with nothing much, except one article that was so sexist it made my eyes water. Its opening paragraph contains the following sentence: “She’s smart, thin… and the best looking person in the room.” Thin. Besides from that, not much.

So. Zadie Smith. A dog whistle of a person, who emits a shrill and terrifying sound that only a very few can hear. What is it though, that they are hearing? I would love to know. Follow up questions coming.

An Addition

A very brilliant and charming person who wishes to remain anonymous just pointed out to me that the big one missing from the Booksnakes questionnaire is: “What book would you NOT recommend to a teenage girl?”

This is an important distinction. I asked this brilliant and charmingly anonymous person what books they wouldn’t recommend, and here is the answer in full:

“Well, all abuse-memoirs, all books about dying teenagers, all books (i.e. twilight) that encourage girls to think of boys as passion-driven and animalistic, like if he’s not maybe gonna violently rape you then he doesn’t really love you. But then also all books by lady-writers that are clever and write well but write with this infuriatingly small scope. Like they are just about women who hate their bodies and are unhappy in their marriages and nearly have affairs but then go home and look after their children instead. (X) made me read one of these recently. It was by Barbara Kingsolver. I think I didn’t finish it. That protagonist was just not fit to be a protagonist as she had no agency at all. She had no control over her own life. She didn’t drive the story forward so much as she was propelled in some random direction by the story, and she did a lot of complaining about it along the way. It’s not that these books are bad, its just that they fail to broaden the mind. They are like the book version of having a pleasant conversation with your conservative aunt.”

The first Booksnakes Questionnaire

(These were the questions I sent out a few weeks ago. PLEASE fill these in, if you would like to, and email them to! Please note the hissy double s in the address.

Here is an answer I got last night:

  1. Which author would you like to be friends with?

“Edith Wharton if she weren’t such a reputed bitch. I think the fact that I can’t think of one reflects badly on me, and not on writers as a group.”)

Below, the questions!

  1. Do you read books over and over?
  2. If yes, which books?
  3. Who is your favourite heroine of fiction?
  4. Why?
  5. Who is your favourite hero of fiction?
  6. Why?
  7. Do you have any books that you would unhesitatingly recommend? Which ones?
  8. What is a book that you would recommend to a teenage boy?
  9. Teenage girl? It doesn’t matter if they don’t like reading. Let’s say that they get locked into a room until they’ve finished it.
  10. Have you ever had a book pressed on you that you cannot believe anyone thought you would like? For example, I have been told to read Murakami by at least ten different people, because they believe that I would love it, and they are sorely mistaken about that.
  11. Do you think it’s possible for a book to change a person’s life?
  12. Has a book ever made you cry? Which book?
  13. Have you abandoned books? Which ones?
  14. Do you have a list in your head of books where if someone says (x) is their favourite, you think less of that person? Not only “they are possibly not as smart as I thought”, but also “they are possibly evil”?
  15. Which author would you like to be friends with?
  16. Which author would you never like to meet?
  17. Which author do you feel certain would personally dislike you?
  18. Do you like it when a novel goes on and on about what people eat? Which is your favourite example of this type?
  19. Do you like it when a novel goes on and on about what people wear? Which is your favourite example of this type?
  20. What are you currently reading?

Essay 17: The Booksnakes Manifesto

(Today is less of an essay and more of a mission statement.)

I can’t read another book review where the sound of knife-sharpening is clearly audible. I can’t read another book review written by a man in gently flared bootleg jeans and a stained fleece who believes himself to be waging an assault on literary pieties.  My objection to this is in large part aesthetic: I find it unkind, but mostly I find it tragic and aggressively uncool. The world of letters is wretched enough as it is without people unsheathing their terrible word-swords everywhere. Enough.

I can’t read another book review where the writer is in hot pursuit of something nice or meaningful to say. Orwell moaned that “Prolonged, indiscriminate reviewing of books is a quite exceptionally thankless, irritating and exhausting job. It not only involves praising trash but constantly inventing reactions towards books about which one has no spontaneous feeling whatever.” I can’t read another book review where you can see that this is what’s going on. They are always written by the person you dread being seated next to at dinner – someone who is very Helpful and good at unobtrusively clearing away the dishes, but who asks too many rote questions and is thrown totally off guard if someone interrupts them. Such people tell themselves that it’s fine to have no sense of humour at all, because they make up for it by being Helpful. They are unfortunately mistaken about that.

I don’t know if it’s always been this way, or if I just noticed it now. I am possibly being ungenerous. And there are, obviously, very many brilliant reviewers and very many erudite people who don’t know what the hell I am talking about. Still, I have the very strong feeling that talking about books, especially in South Africa, could be a bit more fun and interesting, and a bit less uptight and effortful.

My solution to this is Booksnakes! I thought of the name before I thought of anything else. Like bookworms, but more powerful.

Booksnakes, for now, will be published on this site. I would like it to be a place where all different kinds of people write reviews, on any sorts of book they feel like writing about: new ones and old ones, serious ones and not.  It doesn’t have to be the standard review format, it doesn’t have to be Funny or Clever or make some sort of overarching point. It doesn’t have to be a disquisition on this terrible world. If I was giving a Power Point presentation about the purpose of Booksnakes, I would flick over now to a photograph of people going very fast on a speedboat, or else riding a horse at full gallop, or Dickie Greenleaf on his yacht. I would say, “I’m thinking fun, I’m thinking freedom, I’m thinking first to knock, first admitted; sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes a not so innocent.”

So. I sent out an email a little while ago, to a few people, with the very first Booksnakes questionnaire attached. I set out twenty questions, which I’ll post here too. The responses that I’ve got, so far, have made me very happy. Everyone is so funny and charming, and everyone has such strong opinions about the books they like, and the books they hate.

I will be posting more of these in the coming weeks, but here are a few little bits, for now.

Who is your favourite heroine of fiction?


“Jane Eyre”



“Heidi because she had such a brilliant life with her grandfather and Peter when she was small and then married Peter and had twins in the end”

“I fell in love with her”

“Cathy because she’s wild and full of shit and loves Heathcliff”

What is a book that you would recommend to a teenage boy?

“Anything Beatnik or Gonzo. Might as well get it out the way. Maybe Animal Farm for the same reason. But more seriously can I recommend something I haven’t myself read? “Crime and Punishment”. Hardship. Stoicism. Idealism. I think these are good things for teenage boys to see depicted romantically.”

Do you like it when a novel goes on and on about what people eat? Which is your favourite example of this type?

“Definitely. Especially what posh people are eating. That said I will never forget Pip’s pork pie for the convict. And the brandy of course.”

“Only in Brideshead Revisited. ALTHOUGH I will never forget all the epic stuff Denise ate in The Corrections (kidney, grappa).”

“This is really a stupid idea.  And sometimes they put recipes in. Can’t think of one now , but its probably one of the books I abandoned,  that being one of the reasons.”

Do you like it when a novel goes on and on about what people wear? Which is your favourite example of this type?


“No, that’s crap.”

“Yes. I love reading all the footnotes in Pride and Prejudice about the clothes.”

“Yes. I love it.”

Have you ever had a book pressed on you that you cannot believe anyone thought you would like?

“THE MAGUS. An unbelievable number of times.”

“Cat’s Eye.”

“Actually a few people have tried to press some Ayn Rand on me, saying, “oh my god, you will love Atlas Shrugged”. I’m hoping that they’re just hopelessly self-involved, and not that I come across that way.”

“Anything by Salman Rushdie”

Have you abandoned books? Which ones?

“Ulysses.  I bought it in Ireland, and thought it was the proper place to read it.  I deliberately left it on a train.   I also abandoned a dreadful Australian book about the second WW in Burma, that won the Nobel  prize recently.”

“Cat’s Eye.”

“All the time. I’m ruthless – I have never read the last chapter of The God of Small Things for instance.”

“Yes. John Updike. Kingsley Amis. Robertson Davies.”

“The Hobbit”

“Books that are too dry or sad, like Invisible Man or maybe any Coetzee book that goes on about the Tokai picknpay.”

Which author do you feel certain would personally dislike you?

“Zadie Smith”

“Zadie Smith”

“Virginia Woolf”

“Jack Kerouac”

“J.M. Coetzee”

“Donna Tartt”

More soon. I think this could be the start of something beautiful.