04/24/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Book Review Roundup

In case you missed any book reviews this weekend, here's your weekly book review roundup:

"The Routes of Man," Ted Conover
The New York Times

Conover's travelogues can be fascinating in and of themselves, and his meditations about roads frequently achieve an even higher order -- thoughtful, temperate and generous all at once.

"Major Pettigrew's Last Stand," Helen Simonson
The New York Times

As with the polished work of Alexander McCall Smith, there is never a dull moment but never a discordant note either. Still, this book feels fresh despite its conventional blueprint. Its main characters are especially well drawn, and Ms. Simonson makes them as admirable as they are entertaining. They are traditionally built, and that's not just Mr. McCall Smith's euphemism. It's about intelligence, heart, dignity and backbone. "Major Pettigrew's Last Stand" has them all.

"The Autobiography of an Execution," David R. Dow
The Los Angeles Times

Dow's voice throughout is one of modulated anger: He seethes within boundaries. His book feels authentic and heartfelt as situations and conversations vary and is eminently quotable. At many points Dow describes the legal theory under which an appeal is to be made by his team, hoping a judge or panel of judges buy it. Mostly they do not. But what becomes clear is that when we kill under the law, we kill according to theory.

"The Essential Engineer," Henry Petroski
The Los Angeles Times

[Petroski] makes a convincing argument for shattering the halo we have clamped so firmly on the heads of scientists, who are expected to solve problems they are ill-equipped to take on. Science tends to get bogged down in politics -- Petroski uses examples from the early debates on global warming and from the health industry.

"The Death of American Virtue: Clinton vs. Starr," Ken Gormley
The San Francisco Chronicle

Gormley paints vivid pictures of those who played significant roles in these events. Rarely stopping to editorialize, he keeps the narrative moving along, deftly interweaving sources from the time and his own interviews with the key players. Gormley, a law professor, must be an excellent interlocutor - protagonists from all aspects of the affair seem to have been comfortable and confident talking with him.

"Switch," Chip Heath and Dan Heath
The Wall Street Journal

"Switch" doesn't announce any scientific breakthroughs. Politicians, for instance, have long known that appeals to emotion are more effective than appeals to logic--not because people are stupid but because the mind is designed to use logic as a tool for supporting our beliefs rather than for changing them. It took some pretty big emotional events (a reminder of mortality, the arrival of fatherhood), not new facts or arguments, to make me get serious about losing weight. What the Heaths do well is to explain how important it is to bring both systems onboard for change--and explain why that still isn't enough.

"The Citizen's Constitution," Seth Lipsky
The New Republic

Lipsky does not claim to be a scholar. Instead, as one might expect, he writes as a passionate citizen, with particular views that sometimes color his annotations. He invites a dialogue with his readers, whether or not they agree with his tilt. He appears, for example, to be a federalism buff, revealed most dramatically in his opening comment on the First Amendment.

"Just Kids," Patti Smith
The A.V. Club

This meandering memoir is rife with juicy snapshots of '70s New York cool at its grittiest and most seductive. But while Smith succeeds in communicating the thrill of social climbing at Max's Kansas City and CBGB, she doesn't provide much evidence of Mapplethorpe's supposed appeal. Perhaps she doesn't care whether readers see what she saw in him, but given that her book is largely a love letter to the man she alternately called brother, soulmate, and coach, a few more clues would go a long way toward making her devotion relatable.