I have three book reviews for you today.
The Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages, by Norman Cohn – I bought this on a whim when I found it at the school bookstore for $2, but it turned out to really be up my alley. Apparently this was a fairly famous book for its time (it was originally published in 1957, and then expanded for the 1970 edition), but I guess it didn’t retain its popularity. It deals with the apocalyptic cult movements of Europe in the Middle Ages, with an underlying theme being how the lower classes tended to turn to such radical beliefs when they felt particularly put upon by the secular and religious authorities. The book of Revelation tells of a struggle between Christians and the Roman Empire, but when the Empire adopted Christianity as its official faith, the idea of the coming millennium of peace and love had to be altered to reflect this development. Eventually, the storyline had it that there was a golden age before private property and class structure had been developed (some people blamed Nimrod for this), and that it would arrive again when Jesus returns to Earth. Before that happens, however, the last emperor would journey to Jerusalem and offer his robe and crown to Christ. As it became obvious that most of the rulers and the clergy were looking out for their own interests, many peasants took to following various leaders who claimed to be reincarnated emperors and such, and attempting to bring the new millennium to the world by reorganizing society, and often killing church leaders as well as Jews. None of them lasted, but the same basic idea has arisen throughout history in different forms, usually in times when people feel particularly exploited. Definitely worth reading if you take an interest in religious history, or just weird cults.
Big Trouble, by Dave Barry – I’ve had this in my “to read” queue for years now, but since my queue isn’t actually a queue so much as just a general pool where various items float to the top for different reasons, I didn’t get around to reading it until just recently. I’ve been a fan of Barry’s humorous essays for a long time, and his first foray into novel writing is about what I might have expected. It’s sort of a comedic thriller in which two stupid small-time criminals, through a bizarre set of circumstances, end up with a nuclear bomb without even realizing it. One of the blurbs on the back cover mentions a similarity to Kurt Vonnegut, which I can definitely see. It has the same sense of everything being connected in unexpected and often ridiculous ways. Not as good as the best of Barry’s newspaper column work, but still a fun read.
The Mystery of the Deserted Castle, by Alexander Volkov, translated by Peter Blystone – In the last of Volkov’s Magic Land stories, the country is invaded by aliens. No, seriously. The Oz books occasionally incorporated science fiction elements, but they never delved this deeply into B-movie territory. It even has the amateur astronomer who discovers the aliens before any government authorities do, in the form of the now-reformed Urfin Jus. Our space invaders are from the planet Rameria, and are divided into two classes, the proud, lazy Menvits and the servile Arzaks, the former of which are able to control the latter with their hypnotic eyes. This brings in the theme of class struggle that is frequently present in these Russian stories, and provides the inhabitants of Magic Land with potential allies. The titular castle is the former dwelling of the giant Hurricap, where the aliens make their temporary base, but I’m not entirely sure what the mystery is. It could be the aliens’ own unfamiliarity with the castle or the people of Magic Land not knowing about the aliens, but either way I think this is the least appropriate title in the series. Maybe different sorts of titles sold in the Soviet Union, though. I don’t know. Anyway, the premise makes the tale a little difficult to take seriously, but it’s a pretty good story, incorporating the strengths of formerly introduced characters in defeating the Ramerian invaders.