Monday, July 16, 2007

Anybody Can Do Anything

Perhaps my favourite book ever, 'Anybody Can Do Anything' by Betty Macdonald is a little-known semi-autobiographical story, set in Seattle during the Depression. I read a copy I found at home when I was about 11, and have reread it many times since. Like other Macdonald enthusiasts I have bought several copies from secondhand shops, just so I can give them to people - though a nice new paperback means you can get your own, along with her other novels. These include 'The Egg and I', which was filmed with Claudette Colbert and spawned the Ma and Pa Kettle films; and 'The Plague and I', the funniest account of life in a TB sanitarium ever written.

Despite the title, 'Anybody Can Do Anything' it isn't a self-help book - it refers to Betty's sister Mary's lifelong habit of encouraging her into ambitious projects, mainly jobs for which Betty is completely unqualified. The action follows on from the rural dystopia of 'The Egg and I', when Betty leaves her husband on the farm to start over in Seattle. A wry, self-deprecating humour and lively use of language make it as absorbing and amusing as, say, Bill Bryson. A random snippet:

In the lobby [Mary] introduced me to about fifteen assorted men and women and explained that she had just brought me down out of the mountains to take her place as private secretary to Mr. Webster. In her enthusiasm she made it sound a little as though she had to wing me to get me down out of the trees, and I felt I should have taken a few nuts and berries out of my pocket and nibbled on them just to keep in character.

It isn't all bright breezy stuff - the depiction of the Depression is powerful in places, and an encounter with an insane co-worker is one of the most disturbing things I have ever read. Somewhere in the text she says something along the lines of 'never collect things because after a while they begin to collect you' - a concept I would like to explore here once I have tracked down the actual quote.


Rob Spence said...

I remember "The Egg and I" from, ooh, about 40 years ago...

I wasn't aware of the Ma and Pa Kettle films- but I did enjoy sharing this clip with a colleague in the Maths dept:

Lotus Reads said...

BBC Radio 4 is featuring this book on their "Book At Bedtime" series, I am definitely going to take a listen!