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Linda Burgess’s life in books (Image: Tina Tiller)
Linda Burgess’s life in books (Image: Tina Tiller)

BooksJanuary 24, 2024

‘A bit of posthumous virtue signalling’: The book Linda Burgess would take to her grave

Linda Burgess’s life in books (Image: Tina Tiller)
Linda Burgess’s life in books (Image: Tina Tiller)

Welcome to The Spinoff Books Confessional, in which we get to know the reading habits and quirks of New Zealanders at large. This week: writer Linda Burgess.

The book I wish I’d written

I’ve only just finished reading it, so currently it’s taken over my life, but Paul Murray’s The Bee Sting is beyond enviable when it comes to a piece of writing. Structure, character, multiple points of view, sheer pace, along with subtle foreshadowing, layers and so on – I couldn’t do that in a million years. Elizabeth Strout is another writer who walks steadily (Murray strides speedily) making it look easy when surely it mustn’t be. Though perhaps it is for them. Ferociously talented, the two of them.

Everyone should read because

Everyone should read. The choice of what is yours to make. However: If someone mentions self-improvement books, especially the how-to-become-a-CEO sort, I want to tap them on the shoulder and say there there, you poor dweeb.

The book I want to be buried with

It’d be sort of ironic to be buried with something by Barbara Kingsolver as I’d get in a bit of posthumous virtue signalling, especially because the only way I’d allow my late self to be buried is in a natural cemetery like Mākara. Also, she writes big books, so a feast for ordinary worms along with bookworms. Not Demon Copperhead which I found irritating and abandoned halfway through. Poisonwood Bible would do the trick.

The first book I remember reading by myself

Probably Janet and John in all its tedium. And I could recite A. A. Milne’s poems by age five. But I always read, racing my way through all the Enid Blytons by six or seven when I became a hopeless snob and moved on to Noel Streatfield, the Pullein-Thompsons, and Pamela Brown. No one told me about Narnia, or Susan Cooper, or Arthur Ransome, damn them. I spent my childhood reading, writing stories and plays, and drawing. Like most boomers, I lived in a street packed with other kids. So I was outside in the hedge hut, or playing hopscotch, or knuckle bones and clock patience on wet days, or slogging round town on my bike. I therefore lived – or so my memory leads me to believe – an idyllic life. There were no screens of any kind, except for the one at the picture theatre, where with a roll of lollies (fizzy zips, I salute you) I saw Tammy Tell Me True, which I thought was going to be about a dog. And Robin Hood. And Rob Roy. And my first horror movie – Snow White.

From left to right: the book that Linda Burgess would be buried with; the book she wishes she’d written; and one of the first books she remembers reading by herself.

The book I wish I’d never read

We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver. Part way through reading it I googled Lionel Shriver to see if she had any children. I’d suspected she didn’t, because honestly they’d never have forgiven her for even starting to imagine this story. A work of genius but truly I still regret not putting it in the incipient dread pile along with Sophie’s Choice.

The book I pretend I’ve read

I don’t pretend to have read books as it’s like saying you went to a posher school – someone would be sure to say “Oh remember everybody’s favourite, Mrs X?” Although at university I pretended to have read Moby Dick and the lecturer somehow sensed this, giving me a C- for my essay. 

It’s a crime against language to

Have people tossing their hair, raising their eyebrows, lowering their lashes, curling or biting their lips, clenching their teeth and so forth. It’s the linguistic equivalent of starting a movie with ragged breathing and shots from above showing running feet. Oh go and get yourself killed then, I always think. Every time I curl my own lip, I resolve to do something more original. 

The book that made me laugh

I got pneumonia in my second year at university and my French lecturer dropped off Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis for me to read. How I adored it, and felt quite sad as Kingsley Amis, over time, got more and more awful. Many writers make me laugh because I enjoy a bit of wit and it can turn up in the saddest of places. Thank goodness for writers who do that.

If I could only read three books for the rest of my life they would be

Books by mid-century women writers. Almost all of them are called Elizabeth. Or Penelope. I’d make an exception for one male writer – R. C. Sherriff, The Fortnight in September. Elizabeth Jenkins’ The Tortoise and the Hare. Tessa Hadley’s short stories, After the Funeral. But in five minutes time I could choose three quite different ones. The Bee Sting of course. I’m very much hoping I’ll have more than three books to read before my life ends.

The book character I identify with most

Oh god probably Olive Kitteridge. Speaking of funny – the scene in which she hides one shoe from her new daughter-in-law’s going away outfit is funny in the best way. Not laugh-out-loud funny but punch-in-the-gut funny. Yes!! Honest and true. And clearly – memorable.

The book character I never believed

Saucepan Man in the Faraway Tree series. He was unrelentingly annoying. In every other way I loved those books but he was unwelcome to me whenever he turned up, banging on in misheard words. Though given the state of my own hearing, I’d probably love him if I came across him now, and find him utterly credible.

The original cover of Folk of the Faraway Tree (1946) showing the Saucepan Man on the bottom right. And a more modern iteration in the cover on the left.

The book I wish would be adapted for TV or film

In a solipsistic fashion I’m going to say my own short story What They Did in the Holidays about two girls going waitressing in their summer break would make a terrific movie. There are still plenty of old pubs and cars from the 60s so it would be perfectly possible. I want the amazing team who made After the Party to do it.

The most overrated book

Don’t come to me if you want to rhapsodise over either the book or the appalling film The Bridges of Madison County. My friend Raewyn and I nearly got kicked out of the Palmerston North picture theatre for becoming weak with laughter. People were sharply tutting at us. It started when water slowly dripped from a penis-shaped shower head. Hmmm, “weak with laughter” might need editing – though like all good cliches, it’s accurate and true.  

Favourite encounter with an author

Thanks to Book Festivals I met and became friendly with two amazing writers – Barbara Trapido and Carol Shields. I have had excellent encounters with a number of New Zealand writers as I’m fortunate enough to be friends with some of the nicest, meanest, funniest ones.

Greatest New Zealand book

I’m tactfully choosing Janet Frame’s Owls do Cry. That was a life-changing read.

From left to right: the book that made Linda Burgess laugh, her pick for the greatest New Zealand book and the book she’s reading right now.

Best thing about reading

Is being part of the those-who-read group. Is going into Good Books in Wellington and having Jane Arthur saying to you, “I thought when I was reading this book, Linda would love it.” (Elizabeth McCracken’s The Hero of This Book. She was right.) Also, if you read you don’t have to stoically climb hills or clean the silver if you have time to fill. But probably the best thing is knowing there are people round the world who care about the small details, the pleasures of home, the idiosyncrasies of human nature. Who work out a new way of saying things. Who reach your heart, challenge your brain, make you feel better. Make you laugh. One of my greatest joys is that my granddaughter Lucie Sheehan is an avid reader. 

Best place to read

Paper books, not Kindle. Bed or sofa, first equal. Dog jammed against thigh, and feet must be up. Bath was up there too, before we moved into an apartment which bloody well doesn’t have a bath. What were they thinking?

What are you reading right now?

I’ve just started Curtis Sittenfeld’s Romantic Comedy. I am at the shall-I-keep-going-or-not? point. I wish I were just starting her wonderful American Wife.

Someone’s Wife by Linda Burgess (Allen & Unwin, $40) can be ordered from Unity Books Wellington and Auckland.

Keep going!