Our Critic's Tip Sheet on Current Reading: Hitchens Dunked; Patricians Behaving Badly; and Ehrenreich to the Rescue

The last word on Christopher Hitchens’ ludicrous Vanity Fair waterboarding caper, Leon Wieseltier’s magisterial put-down in The New Republic (www.tnr.com):

“There are many things that might be said about such a stunt—that moral understanding is not arrived at by means of the senses, or by personal acquaintance with evil; that ordinary intelligence and ordinary imagination are quite sufficient to establish the foulness and the folly of such procedures, which is why judges who have not dressed up in Guantánamo drag have been able to rule persuasively against them; that the victims of waterboarding do not commonly towel down and head for the Waverly Inn—but I have no intention of dignifying this high clowning with serious reflection. I hope only that Hitchens next tries rendition.”

IF YOU’RE LOOKING FOR a glamorous cast of characters and a whiff of history in the making, read the first 250 pages of Bill Patten’s My Three Fathers: And the Elegant Deceptions of My Mother, Susan Mary Alsop (PublicAffairs, $27.95). Mr. Patten grew up thinking that he was the son of a diplomat stationed in Paris. After this putative father died (when Bill was 12), his mother married the legendary political columnist Joe Alsop, friend and adviser to J.F.K. And when he was 47, he learned from his mother that his biological father was in fact Duff Cooper, a bon vivant womanizer and pal of Winston Churchill. As long as we’re in the company of great men and dazzling socialites, the memoir zips along. Alas, the story of Mr. Patten’s later life lacks sparkle, and he isn’t a good enough writer to keep us interested in a humdrum existence.

FROM THE HAVES TO the have-nots: Barbara Ehrenreich once again rides to the rescue of the dispossessed in This Land Is Their Land: Reports From a Divided Nation (Metropolitan, $24). Tirelessly skewering the Bush administration’s “deft upward redistribution of wealth” and a culture that applauds an “orgy of accumulation at the top,” she almost makes me wish I were a hidebound, flint-hearted Republican, so that I could test the sharpness of her barbs. They seem well honed to me, but is that only because I so badly want them to sting?

PULLING THE PLUG on the L.A. Times Sunday Book Review is a “philistine blunder” according to a statement issued by four of its former editors. They ought to borrow Barbara Ehrenreich’s whetstone.

FURTHER PROOF THAT the wash of verbiage on the Web is eroding written English: Mignon Fogarty’s Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing (Holt, $14). Ms. Fogarty has made a name for herself with her popular Grammar Girl podcasts, intended, as the title of her cheerful book proclaims, to improve people’s prose. The trouble is that good grammar, though helpful, isn’t the same as good writing. For instance, in her introduction, she writes, “I’m not in this for the thrill of running a metaphorical red pen through e-mail messages or blog posts.” No errors there, but I’d love to run my red pen through that “metaphorical.”

Our Critic's Tip Sheet on Current Reading: Hitchens Dunked; Patricians Behaving Badly; and Ehrenreich to the Rescue