Reviews round-up

The critics' verdict on a new biography of Tolstoy, Saul Bellow's letters and Salley Vickers' short

Tolstoy: A Russian Life by Rosamund Bartlett

Last Saturday was the centenary of the great Russian novelist's death and has predictably been accompanied by a slew of new Tolstoy biographies and studies. Chief among these is Rosamund Bartlett's new biography.

Philip Heshner, writing in the Spectator, thinks Bartlett's life of Tolstoy is full of "knowledge, insight and aplomb", though is sceptical about her decision to look at the novels solely "within the context of historical trends." In the Guardian, Christopher Tayler is less than impressed with Bartlett's account of Tolstoy's life. Whilst he acknowledges that she does uncover new information on Tolstoy , he finds that "the dutiful potted histories and near-total lack of critical discussion sometimes make it hard to remember why you're interested."

Conversely, AN Wilson, a previous biographer of Tolstoy, is all praise for Bartlett in the Financial Times, judging that her study of his life "conveys Tolstoy to me more vividly than any biography I have read."

Saul Bellow: Letters by Saul Bellow, edited by Benjamin Taylor

Leon Wieseltier, Bellow's friend and sometime correspondent, writing in the New York Times, gives a slightly sycophantic review, in which he suggests that these letters constitute "one of Bellow's greatest books", whilst also finding the space to salute Benjamin Taylor's "elegantissimo" editing.

From the Guardian, John Banville is intrigued by Bellow's "prickliness" in the letters, though is disappointed to find that they are "not as exciting or stimulating as one would expect from this most incandescent and opinionated of writers", a fact perhaps due to Bellow's tendency "to relax the force of his personality" in his correspondence.

In the New Statesman, Leo Robson decides that "the existence of the collection is a cause for celebration, but there are shortcomings, especially in the provision of contextual detail" and gives Taylor lukewarm praise for his "almost-great service" as editor. Robson does, however, admit that he read the letters with "an overpowering feeling of joy."

Aphrodite's Hat by Salley Vickers

Michele Roberts' review, from the Financial Times, gently chides Salley Vickers for her prosaic style in her first collection of art related short stories, describing them as being "marred by cliché" and overly "genteel", whilst, contrarily, Frank Cottrell Boyce in the Guardian is overflowing with superlatives for Vickers, writing that "the emotional and technical range of this collection is both impressive and delightfully disorienting".

Michael Arditti, writing in the Telegraph, is more ambivalent about the stories, concluding that "although a couple of the stories are duds ... the collection is shot through with a gentle wit and a winning charm."

Home Alone 2: Lost in New York
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The best film soundtracks to help you pretend you live in a magical Christmas world

It’s December. You no longer have an excuse.

It’s December, which means it’s officially time to crack out the Christmas music. But while Mariah Carey and Slade have their everlasting charms, I find the best way to slip into the seasonal spirit is to use a film score to soundtrack your boring daily activities: sitting at your desk at work, doing some Christmas shopping, getting the tube. So here are the best soundtracks and scores to get you feeling festive this month.

A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965)

Although this is a children’s film, it’s the most grown-up soundtrack on the list. Think smooth jazz with a Christmas twist, the kind of tunes Ryan Gosling is playing at the fancy restaurant in La La Land, plus the occasional choir of precocious kids. Imagine yourself sat in a cocktail chair. You’re drinking an elaborate cocktail. Perhaps there is a cocktail sausage involved also. Either way, you’re dressed head-to-toe in silk and half-heartedly unwrapping Christmas presents as though you’ve already received every gift under the sun. You are so luxurious you are bored to tears of luxury – until a tiny voice comes along and reminds you of the true meaning of Christmas. This is the kind of life the A Charlie Brown Christmas soundtrack can give you. Take it with both hands.

Elf (2003)

There is a moment in Elf when Buddy pours maple syrup over his spaghetti, washing it all down with a bottle of Coca Cola. “We elves like to stick to the four main food groups,” he explains, “candy, candy canes, candy corns and syrup.” This soundtrack is the audio equivalent – sickly sweet, sugary to an almost cloying degree, as it comes peppered with cute little flutes, squeaky elf voices and sleigh bells. The album Elf: Music from the Motion Picture offers a more durable selection of classics used in the movie, including some of the greatest 1950s Christmas songs – from Louis Prima’s 1957 recording of “Pennies from Heaven”, two versions of “Sleigh Ride”, Eddy Arnold’s “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” and Eartha Kitt’s 1953 “Santa Baby”. But if a sweet orchestral score is more your thing, the Elf OST of course finishes things off with the track “Spaghetti and Syrup”. Just watch out for the sugar-rush headache.

Harry Potter (2001-2011)

There are some Christmas-specific songs hidden in each of the iconic Harry Potter scores, from “Christmas at Hogwarts” to “The Whomping Willow and The Snowball Fight” to “The Kiss” (“Mistletoe!” “Probably full of knargles”), but all the magical tinkling music from these films has a Christmassy vibe. Specifically concentrate on the first three films, when John Williams was still on board and things were still mostly wonderful and mystical for Harry, Ron and Hermione. Perfect listening for that moment just before the snow starts to fall, and you can pretend you’re as magical as the Hogwarts enchanted ceiling (or Ron, that one time).

Carol (2015)

Perhaps you’re just a little too sophisticated for the commercial terror of Christmas, but, like Cate Blanchett, you still want to feel gorgeously seasonal when buying that perfect wooden train set. Then the subtly festive leanings of the Carol soundtrack is for you. Let your eyes meet a stranger’s across the department store floor, or stare longingly out of the window as your lover buys the perfect Christmas tree from the side of the road. Just do it while listening to this score, which is pleasingly interspersed with songs of longing like “Smoke Rings” and “No Other Love”.

Holiday Inn (1942)

There’s more to this soundtrack than just “White Christmas”, from Bing Crosby singing “Let’s Start The New Year Off Right” to Fred Astaire’s “You’re Easy To Dance With” to the pair’s duet on “I’ll Capture Your Heart”. The score is perfect frosty walk music, too: nostalgic, dreamy, unapologetically merry all at once.

The Tailor of Gloucester (1993)

Okay, I’m being a little self-indulgent here, but bear with me. “The Tailor of Gloucester”, adapted from the Beatrix Potter story, was an episode of the BBC series The World of Peter Rabbit and Friends and aired in 1993. A Christmastime story set in Gloucester, the place I was born, was always going to be right up my street, and our tatty VHS came out at least once a year throughout my childhood. But the music from this is something special: songs “The Tailor of Gloucester”, “Songs From Gloucester” and “Silent Falls the Winter Snow” are melancholy and very strange, and feature the singing voices of drunk rats, smug mice and a very bitter cat. It also showcases what is in my view one of the best Christmas carols, “Sussex Carol.” If you’re the kind of person who likes traditional wreaths and period dramas, and plans to watch Victorian Baking at Christmas when it airs this December 25th, this is the soundtrack for you.

Home Alone (1990-1992)

The greatest, the original, the godfather of all Christmas film soundtracks is, of course, John William’s Home Alone score. This is for everyone who likes or even merely tolerates Christmas, no exceptions. It’s simply not Christmas until you’ve listened to “Somewhere in My Memory” 80,000 times whilst staring enviously into the perfect Christmassy homes of strangers or sung “White Christmas” to the mirror. I’m sorry, I don’t make the rules. Go listen to it now—and don't forget Home Alone 2: Lost in New York, which is as good as the first.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.