Rosa Lyster

Cape Town, South Africa

Tag: i deliberately abandoned it on a train

Happy Birthday Guy Fawkes

  1. I don’t care about you.
  2. It’s almost sort of violent, the amount I don’t care about you. It’s overwhelming.
  3. This in itself is cause for examination etc. Why is that I don’t care about you at all, because it’s not as if I confine myself to only paying attention to important things.
  4. No sir.
  5. I found a six page poem I wrote about Secretariat, for example. That’s Secretariat the celebrity racehorse.
  6. You are objectively more important than Secretariat, and yet I find myself exhausted by this. Why are you more important? Why is there a Guy Fawkes Day, and yet no Secretariat Day.
  7. Why were you born such a long time ago?
  8. This might be the worst thing about you.
  9. Why also did you wear an irritating kind of hat, and have a painting of you kind of leaning over and looking like Rumpelstiltskin (who I also hate), and call yourself “Guido Fawkes” when you were “fighting for the Spanish.”
  10. What even is this.
  11.  Happy birthday though, I suppose.
  12. Sorry you got executed – that’s really terrible. However: the fact that you were executed is at least a strong indicator that some people thought you were mega important.
  13. Swings and roundabouts, basically.

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.


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”

Essay 25: The Sinister Shape in the Water

I’ve been trying to write fiction again.  I’ve been trying so hard to write fiction again that I paused for a long time after I wrote that first sentence and thought about its possibilities. “I’ve been trying to write fiction again” is not a bad beginning, for a story. It’s not great, but I have seen worse. Consider it: maybe the person who is trying to write fiction is a woman who has just quit her job at a university. Maybe she used to write and then she had some kind of Turn, like she looked at the blank page and saw only wiggly lines and heard the roar of the sea in her ears. She heard a distinct electrical humming, as of powerlines passing right through her living room. The living room has polished oak floors and on the wall is a painting by her father. It is of her mother, the upper part of her face obscured, sitting with her feet in a dirty swimming pool. There is a sinister shape in the green water, hands reaching out to the mother’s legs. Are they hands though? Or are they more flippers? The woman who cannot write is not sure. She has stared at the picture many times, and still cannot make out the meaning or import of the sinister shape. She can’t ask her mother or her father because they are both dead. Maybe this is the reason she can no longer write. This is surely why packed up her little exam pad, little pen, and got an admin job in the ecomonics department of a university. And now she is quitting, because the roaring has returned to her ears, or else she has come into an inheritance of some kind, or a combination of same. There is an evil but sexy sister. Her involvement in what happens next is not clear just yet, because I have no idea what happens next.

I don’t mean this in the way that some writers of fiction do, where they are happy to let their characters take over and dictate the course of the novel. I mean that I can’t do it. I would be thrilled to “let” my characters take over, if such a thing were possible. It is not. I don’t have that kind of a brain. Also, I am not in the opposing camp. If one side is Forster and “characters run away with you”, the other side is Nabokov and “my characters are galley slaves.” Again, this sounds great to me. I would be so, so happy to be the vicious captain of a ship called This Is What A Plot Looks Like. There’s all my characters below decks, sweating and straining away like in Asterix. There’s me, striding up and down the deck, holding a diet soda in each hand. I would love that. But this option is closed off to me as well.

I have no idea what happens next to the woman who cannot write, and I don’t care. I would never read that story. I hate it so much already, and it doesn’t even exist. I hate the evil but sexy sister, and I hate the painting on the wall. I hate the painting even though I cannot picture it. I have worked myself up into a state of high, pure irritation this week. I have tried to write one story, and then I have tried to write another one. I tried to combine the two. It doesn’t work. Nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes. It’s awful.

I try not to let this eat me up. I try to benefit and learn from this deeply chastening experience. I look to the woman who cannot write for inspiration, even though I hate her. Truly, I wish her ill. I hope her sister steals all her money. I hope her dad died of rage from looking at her stupid face. Still. The woman who cannot write would not give up so easily. She would keep trying, sitting on the polished oak floors with the light streaming through the windows, and the painting on the wall that I hate so much. She would sit there and wait, and sit, and something would happen eventually.


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.