Sunday, April 3, 2011

Mini-Reviews of Books Read, March 2011

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

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

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

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

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:
(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

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

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.