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Peace begins with a smile

There hasn't been much to laugh about in the past week, two weeks, two years. But being able to smile even in the darkest times can help us to cope, to take control, to have hope.

People who work in the emergency services lead the way in this, of course, with the much documented 'gallows humour'.

I've always relied on satirical news programmes to bring a touch of sanity, insight and humour to increasingly baffling world affairs. When 'ordinary' people express what we 'all' seem to be thinking, highlighting the often ridiculous nature of politics and government, our collective laughter suggests that perhaps the problems aren't so great, so everything will be alright, it will all come good.

Recent times have proved particularly challenging for these commentators and comedians, though. When issues are a matter of life and death, how do they find the right tone for jokes and comments? How might there be anything funny to say about the situation in Ukraine? Is it possible to laugh about trivial concerns if we push these terrible events to the back of our minds?

I was amazed then at The News Quiz recently and The Now Show last week for their clever, astute but nevertheless sensitive approach to the events of Ukraine.

There was a time when I used to dip into 'The Mash Report' on television to see its often quirky take on the wrongs in society. I particularly enjoyed the pseudo-analysis provided by Rachel Parris. She is a comedian, a musician and a co-founder of an improv group called Austentatious who perform each unique stage show in the style of a Jane Austen novel.

When the lockdowns prevented live performances on television and in person, some comedians like Parris and her husband Marcus Brigstocke worked with a team called Always Be Comedy to provide comedy nights on Zoom. It was strangely comforting. They would speak from their spare room about what had happened to them that week, what they thought of the news, and then some silly games or songs. It felt like spending the evening with friends.

Rachel Parris has now written a book in the same tone as her performances, mixing sensible observation and commentary with her own wry and humorous take on life. It's similarly quite a comforting and enjoyable read, while at the same time encouraging the reader to share in a passion for change and justice.

Thank you for reading.

PS The heading this week is a quote from Mother Theresa.

Advice from Strangers
by Rachel Parris

When comedian Rachel Parris was invited to give an inspiring speech for pupils leaving her old school, she didn't know where to start. So she decided to ask the audiences in her comedy tour for their life advice.

The information she gathered she used as more material for the tour, prompts for the chapters in this book, as well as the school speech.

Rachel is familiar as the quirky analyst on tv's 'The Mash Report', as a comedy musician, and as the co-founder of the Austentatious improv company. She has a wry take on the little, and the not-so-little things in life, and this book presents a wide selection of her thoughts, musings and rants!

Each chapter begins with a piece of advice given to Rachel at one of her comedy shows. Some things are bizarre, others a bit pointless, others are deep and meaningful. She responds to the comments at length or with a few words. It's a real mix. There are details about her marriage, miscarriage and baby boy. There are her views on feminism today, government and how to 'Be Kind', as well as advising the reader to check your jeans have real pockets, don't try to fold a fitted sheet and begin each day with a song.

It's an odd book really. I was expecting there to be more funny stories behind the pieces of advice, but they are all taken at face value and solely as prompts for Rachel's comments. However, the mix of the funny and sad, wise and silly is just like her comedy skits and, for a fan, is very enjoyable to read. She comes over as a very warm and generous friend who is slightly over-sharing! I liked it and will turn to it again.

For recommended non-fiction titles, take a look here.
Max Counts to a Million
by Jeremy Williams

This is a difficult one because it's set in lockdown. It still feels too soon to read about living through the pandemic but actually this is a brilliant book.

Published earlier this month, it's aimed at readers aged seven upwards. It's funny, full of interest and pace, and it's uplifting and energising, all about a boy who counts numbers to cope with all that's happening in his life, and becomes a bit of a hero.

Max is eight and when school is shut early for the holidays it seems great news. But he's noticed that the adults are having hushed conversations when they think he's not listening and there are reports of a virus on the news. Then when his dad, a doctor, says he has to move out of home to work in the hospital, Max starts to feel less happy about the situation.

He gets into an argument with his mum, and she sends him to his room to count to a thousand to calm down. Instead Max says he'll count to a million, he's that angry!

As he starts to count he realises one million is a very big number indeed. But it distracts him from the unease he feels at how strange life has become, and counting turns into an all-consuming goal.

Others get to hear of Max's aim and as he gets more support and encouragement, it's clear that he can turn his efforts into a greater good, raising money and lifting spirits for people in his school and neighbourhood and beyond.

Although this story is set in a difficult time and does touch on the worry of family members becoming ill, it is all lightly and sensitively handled. And Max is a very resourceful, capable and positive boy who has a great sense of humour, so his take on life as the narrator of his story is amusing and entertaining. I loved this book!

Read about more recommended children's books here.

Browsers Bookshop Book Group
at St John's Hall, Woodbridge

Monday 28 March 8pm 
talking about...

by Anne Enright

Exploring a mother-daughter relationship, burdened by fame, it is said to be 'darkly funny', 'complex and multifaceted', 'one of the best novels about theatre'. What will we make of it?

Join in the discussion! Buy your copy of the book from Browsers Bookshop with the book group discount and there will be more details about the meeting nearer the time.
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