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In The Critics this week

David Runciman on Kennedy's last 100 days, Rachel Bowlby on the changing nature of parenthood and Rachel Cooke on the Channel 4 drama Southcliffe.

Indian woman with sari.
In The Critics this week - Amana Fontanella-Khan’s book “Pink Sari Revolution". Photograph: Getty Images.

To kick-start this week’s Critics section is a review to complement our "What if JFK had lived?" cover of two new books about the assissinated president. Political scientist David Runciman begins by commenting on the role luck plays in determining a politician’s legacy: “Luck plays a big part in presidents' reputations – and not just in terms of what happens while they are in office (wars give presidents a boost; financial crises don’t).” He then contrasts the way Lyndon B. Johnson struck gold, while Kennedy’s office was unfortunately placed in times less conducive to political success. As a result, Runciman writes, Kennedy is remembered as “the crowd-pleasing playboy president” who was “brave, attractive and ambitious” but “ultimately ineffectual.”

Runciman then begins a diatribe against Jeffrey Sachs’ To Move the World: JFK’s Quest for Peace arguing that “Sachs is an economist, not a historian”. Runciman criticises two assumptions he believes the book rests on: firstly the idea that “treaties matter” and secondly, more dubiously, the idea that “speeches actually matter”. With reference to Kennedy’s “Peace Speech” of June 1963, he berates Sachs for devoting “too much of his book to analysing Kennedy’s rhetoric line by line talking up its logic, its beauty and its power to move.” Runciman deals the final blow by saying “he provides no evidence that it made the vital difference, beyond how it stirred him as a boy and stirs him still.” His damning indictment of Sachs’ argument draws to a close with the phrase “Sachs is surely right that the world needs another prod in the direction of justice. But the early-1960s oratory without the early-1960s context isn’t going to do it.”

The Cambridge don then moves onto Clarke’s account of Kennedy’s final 100 days in office (JFK's Last Hundred Days: an Intimate Portrait of a Great President), which he says is, when compared to Sachs’ account, a "warts-and-all" portrait. That said, Clarke is still too optimistic about Kennedy’s potential for Runciman’s liking: he argues that it is rare for presidents to achieve in their second-term what they failed to in their first. He goes on: “Kennedy kept talking up what he was going to do – “after 1964” became his mantra in 1963 – but he was also an inveterate ditherer who made sure there was always a get-out clause.” Ending on a realistic note, Runciman finishes with the statement: “Kennedy’s presidency was a mix of good and bad, like most of the others.”

Second up we have Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett, one half of the Vagenda, reviewing Amana Fontanella-Khan’s book Pink Sari Revolution: a Tale of Women and Power in the Badlands of India. Cosslett first describes the media storm created by a young female student’s gang rape in India late last year. The coverage entailed a swift arrest of the alleged perpetrators, who were eventually charged for their atrocious crimes (the girl later died from her injuries in hospital). However, as Cosslett identifies, this is not standard practice for the justice system in India, which is often rife with police corruption, victim-blaming and incredibly intrusive crime-confirmation procedures. Cosslett praises Fontanella-Khan’s book for conveying “not only the sense of injustice felt by these often-abused women, who live in the poorest of regions, but also their will to make things better by fighting, sometimes literally, to be heard.” The book follows Sampat Pal Devi, leader of the Gulabi “Pink” Gang and their struggle for women's empancipation in India. Cosslett concludes that “by the end of the book, it is difficult to view Sampat and her followers as anything less than superheroic”.

Our Critic At Large this week is Rachel Bowlby, author of A Child of One’s Own: Parental Stories. In “Birth Stories” she looks at the changing nature of parenthood, arguing that “over the course of the 20th century, having children became, in most western cultures, more of an active choice than a post-marital expectation.” Bowlby traverses the various new types of parenthood: gay parenthood, single parenthood, step parenthood and argues that there are now multiple interpretations of what exactly “biological parenthood” means. She explores the debates about what forms a “biological connection” between parent and child can take and concludes that “there are many more parental narratives to be told or discovered.”

Finally, Rachel Cooke reviews Channel 4’s latest four-part crime drama Southcliffe. She begins by agreeing that the drama about a murderer who kills 15 people in a small market town ticks all of the boxes and that over at Bafta HQ in Piccadilly ears will certainly be pricking up. Cooke, however, feels that Southcliffe is somewhat far-fetched and potentially “emotionally overloaded”. She concedes that it has certain plus points: the script has some “decent lines, the kind you notice and turn over in your mind afterwards” such as “I feel like a dead pigeon”, said by the murderer’s mother to her son. The criticism finally ends as Cooke decides that “Durkin certainly has an eye for an interesting horizon, for strange weather, for peeling clapboard – but I’m afraid that I don’t buy it at all as the work of art it clearly longs to be. Art simply isn’t this brutal, this laboured, this insistently pedantic.”