Sunday, January 16, 2011

Alekseev’s Underground Moscow, My New E-Reader, &tc.

I think I’m finally over the holidays! Here, at last, is a very brief account of Gleb Alekseev’s Подземная Москва (Underground Moscow), a 1924 novella, plus a few bits of news…

Gleb Alekseev’s Underground Moscow is a short novel about two groups competing to find Ivan the Terrible’s underground library. Underground Moscow is a moderately entertaining blend of underground adventure, Ivan’s terribleness, and a satirical depiction of Western involvement in Russian affairs. There’s even a method of hiding old regime diamonds that makes caching gems in upholstery, as in The Twelve Chairs, look downright pedestrian.

Moscow’s underground tunnels have popped up in lots of other fiction I’ve read, including one of Boris Akunin’s Fandorin novels and Aleksandr Ilichevskii’s Matisse, plus I remember reading about Moscow’s diggers when I lived in Russia… which is to say I think Underground Moscow must be the earliest piece I’ve read about the subterranean city. I should add that Gleb Alekseev seems little-known; he died in 1938, a victim of the Stalin-era terror. My collection of Alekseev’s work contains other novellas that I’m looking forward to trying. The History Channel has an almost hilariously sensationalist short segment about Ivan’s alleged library here.

I bought an electronic reader, an Ectaco Jetbook Lite: it’s low-cost ($85 from Newegg for the reader with a case and ear light), uses regular or rechargeable AA batteries, and reads Cyrillic without any coaxing. It’s very easy to load files to the reader from a computer; it seems to prefer text format (where it can even search for Russian words) but PDF and other formats work, too. Reading on the Jetbook is far more pleasant than I’d expected. The screen is sharp with good contrast, font size is adjustable, and there’s no flash when the pages turn. One downside is that the device seems to love deleting bookmarks; it didn’t like trying to search for a word on a PDF either.

One of you recommended Vsevolod Benigsen’s ГенАцид to me… my two usual book sites don’t have it in book form, so I timed myself downloading it to my Jetbook. It took a total of five minutes to copy and paste the journal version of the text from the journal Знамя’s page on Журнальный Зал to Word, then load and open the file on the Jetbook. I may be a big spender, though, and pay $1.54 to download the full book from Though my strong preference is to read books on paper contained within a cover, transferring legal copies of books from the Internet to the Jetbook is a great alternative to, well, nothing.

Speaking of Знамя, the journal honored winners of its annual awards on January 13, 2011. (news item) The fiction winners were: Timur Kibirov for his novel Лада или радость. Хроника верной и счастливой любви (Lada or Joy. A Chronicle of True and Happy Love), German Sadulaev for his novel Шалинский рейд (The Raid on Shali) (beginning) (end), Sergei Samsonov for his long story/novella Зараза (literally contagion, but something like Scum might work here…), and Olga Slavnikova for her novel Легкая голова (A Light Head) (beginning) (end).

Finally, the new Books from Russia site offers, among other things, writer biographies and book lists, plus several sample translations from the Rossica journal. Books from Russia is an Academia Rossica site/project produced with support from the Russian Federal Agency for Press and Mass Communications.

Up next: New translations, 2010 and 2011. And some of Fazil Iskander’s Детство Чика (Chik’s Childhood) stories, which I’m thoroughly enjoying.


  1. An Interesting choice of an e-reader. I am curious to find out how it will work out for you.

  2. I'm curious, too, Steven! Price was one of my main criteria: books on paper, between covers, are my preferred reading medium, so the reader is just a backup. It has already come in handy, and I'm sure it will be a nice way to carry books when I travel.

  3. Lisa, I was delighted to read about Подземная Москва! I found it last time I was working in Petersburg, and read a few (very entertaining chapters). I hadn't even realized it was on, so thanks for the tip - now I can finish it.

  4. Russian Dinosaur, I love a real-life happy ending so am glad this post will help you finish Подземная Москва! I also thought the beginning was very entertaining, with some very funny scenes. The novella didn't hold together (or come together?) quite as well as I'd hoped but it was still well worth reading, good fun. And I like that underground theme...

  5. Lisa,
    I quoted your review of the Jetbook on this little lament about Kindle not being able to read in Russian.
    See, if it's ok - and please post more on your reading experience with the Jetbook. I am thinking of getting it as a present for my wife.

  6. Alexander-Sashura, yes, your translation looks great, thank you! I thought the newer Kindles were able to read Russian -- two Russian readers have told me they use theirs for Russian but I don't know if they had to "adapt" theirs.

    I'll probably write more about the jetBook reading experience (as opposed to the technical quirks) when I write later this week about Slavnikova's Лёгкая голова, which I downloaded from Журнальный зал.

    I'm very satisfied with the jetBook as a very basic reader for moderate use: I prefer paper-and-cover books and bought the jetBook for reading manuscripts and books I can acquire, legally, online but not buy as paper books. In the case of Slavnikova, I preferred to read the book's журнальный вариант.

    Some of the jetBook's technical quirks include difficulty handling files with Cyrillic names, erasing bookmarks (e.g. when batteries are removed), and freezing when I tried to search a word in PDF mode. When transferring an RTF file to the jetBook, you need to change coding for the file but that step only takes a couple seconds. The battery gauge is a little indecisive, too, but battery life seems quite decent.

    I don't see any of those quirks as problems, particularly given the jetBook's low price (today it's selling on Newegg for $79.95 with light and case) and intuitive operation. I particularly like the quick page turning in text (RTF) regime and the small size. And the fact that I didn't have to hack or otherwise prod it to read Russian. The dictionaries (including Russian-English) and ability to search words in Russian can be handy. The jetBook would probably be a serious disappointment for gadget lovers but it's perfect for someone like me who just wants a simple, functional reading tool. I'm already thinking about what to load for travel!