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.

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.”

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