Mini-reviews of books I read last month. Three each of fiction and non- fiction this time. My pick of the novels is "No Country for Old Men" by Cormac McCarthy. Of the non-fiction books, music lovers should consider "The Music Instinct". "Blunder" is also recommended. 1. "No Country for Old Men" by Cormac McCarthy <http://www.amazon.com/Country-Old-Men/dp/0307387135> This novel is set in 1980 in west Texas, near the Mexico border. Llewelyn Moss, Vietnam veteran and welder by trade, is out hunting on a borderland plain. He comes across the scene of a drug deal gone wrong: shot up trucks and dead bodies are everywhere. After finding a case full of hundred dollar bills, he decides to take the money and run, knowing that he's probably putting his life in jeopardy. Sure enough, it doesn't take long before associates of both parties to the failed deal come looking for the money. Anton Chigurh is one of the guys hunting Moss and the money. We learn early on that he's a ruthless, sociopathic killer, with a collection of unusual but effective weapons. He's a strong believer in fate, driven by strict principles leaving no room for mercy. His only concession is to occasionally allow a coin toss to decide the fate of anyone who has "inconvenienced" him. The story is accompanied by the reflections of an old-school sheriff, Ed Tom Bell. Approaching the end of his career, he is forced to deal with murder and mayhem the likes of which he's never seen before in his formerly quiet and peaceful county. Given the level of violence, this novel is not for the faint-hearted. However, the writing and themes make it another great novel by Cormac McCarthy. It was recently made into a solid movie, with a worthy Oscar- winning performance by Javier Bardem as Chigurh. 2. "Pinball, 1973" by Haruki Murakami <http://www.amazon.com/Pinball/dp/B003C1DVGE> This is Murakami's second novel, which was never intended to be translated and released outside of Japan. Set in the late 1960s to early 1970s, it consists of two parallel storylines. The main narrative features Boku, a recent uni graduate whose day job is working in his translating business. He shares an apartment with a pair of quirky twin female students, that he can only tell apart by the tops they wear. His life is pretty ordinary, save for his obsession with pinball. He has a favourite machine, the rare Spaceship, on which he managed to get the highest score. Unfortunately, the parlour where the machine was located closed down. Boku decides to find out where the machine ended up in the hope of playing with it again. The search for the pinball machine doesn't take up much of the novel - it's just one of several that make up the book. The parallel storyline is about the Rat and his struggles with finding out what he wants to do with his life. He regularly visits a bar run by J, and a friendship forms as they discuss life, the universe and everything. By the end of the novel, the Rat has decided to leave town and start fresh somewhere else. Along with Boku, these three enigmatic characters who would feature in the later "Wild Sheep Chase". Overall, not a bad book. It's interesting to see Murakami's style start to develop. 3. "The Bridge of San Luis Rey" by Thornton Wilder <http://www.amazon.com/Bridge-San-Luis-Rey/dp/0060580615> This short novel is set in Peru in the early 18th Century. A visiting Franciscan friar witnesses the collapse of a bridge, causing the deaths of five people. Brother Juniper, who narrowly avoided the same fate, sees this event as an opportunity to investigate whether or not the deaths of the five people was part of some divine plan, or just a random accident. The life stories of the five victims are revealed. They were neither saints nor sinners, but ordinary people with the usual human frailties. As it happens, their lives do intersect via shared acquaintances and events. It's not clear if Juniper was successful in proving his point, but in the telling of the story, perhaps we find out something else. This Pulitzer-winning novel is short, and perhaps hasn't aged well given the era we live in. But I found it an interesting idea for a novel. 4. "The Music Instinct: How Music Works and Why We Can't Do Without It" by Philip Ball <http://www.amazon.com/Music-Instinct/dp/0199754276> As its subtitle suggests, this book is largely about what makes music tick. The motivation for the book is to refute the claim by linguist and cognitive scientist Steven Pinker that music is merely "cheesecake for the mind". Philip Ball argues that music is much more important than that. The book begins by describing the building blocks of music: notes, chords, melody, harmony, rhythm, timbre, etc. Examples ranging from nursery rhymes to classical, jazz and rock music are used to illustrate the concepts. The book is best read in conjunction with listening to music samples on the book's website: <http://www.bodleyhead.co.uk/musicinstinct/> (Hover over and click on the notes). The site also includes links to full performances of pieces mentioned, though some have been removed from YouTube for copyright reasons. The book covers many other aspects of music: how our ears work, how our brains respond to the sounds, artistic interpretation and theories on what exactly is being communicated by music. Along the way it describes how Western music in particular has evolved over the past few centuries. A must-read for anyone who likes music. 5. "Stuck: Why We Can't (or Won't) Move On" by Anneli Rufus <http://www.amazon.com/Stuck/dp/B00403NGI6> This somewhat controversial book is about the many ways we get "stuck": personal habits, nostalgia, hedonism, doing jobs we don't like, being in unhealthy relationships. Amazon customers seem rather divided about the book. This might be due to the very personal and political views presented by the author, some which may be seen as extreme. Rufus seems to target Sixties hippies in particular. She also takes a hard line against addicts, especially when they're treated as victims. I don't necessarily agree with many of her views, but she does make some interesting general points elsewhere in the book. Regardless of one's political or social views, it's always worthwhile taking time-out to reassess your personal goals, relationships, work and life in general. 6. "Blunder: Why Smart People Make Bad Decisions" by Zachary Shore <http://www.amazon.com/Blunder/dp/1596916435> The author is a professor of national security affairs. He's studied a fair bit of history, particularly regarding diplomacy and the military. He's concluded that despite obvious high levels of intelligence, people can still make catastrophic mistakes. According to the author, there are several different categories of blunders people make: exposure anxiety, causefusion, flatview, cure- allism, infomania, mirror imaging and static cling. Some of these labels for the types of cognitive traps are a bit too cute, and would make linguists squirm. But the use of extensive examples from history and literature to back up the author's argument make up for that. Overall, I found this a very interesting book. The arguments were convincing, and the author offers good suggestions on how to avoid the various cognitive traps. The historical focus of this book makes it a good companion to other books I've read that focus on the psychological and behavioural aspects of human decision making.