Us Conductors: A Novel

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Us Conductors: A Novel

by Sean Michaels

Random House Of Canada | April 8, 2014 | Trade Paperback

Us Conductors: A Novel is rated 5 out of 5 by 3.

Winner of the 2014 Scotiabank Giller Prize

A BEAUTIFUL, HAUNTING NOVEL INSPIRED BY THE TRUE LIFE AND LOVES OF THE FAMED RUSSIAN SCIENTIST, INVENTOR AND SPY LEV TERMEN – CREATOR OF THE THEREMIN.

Us Conductors
takes us from the glamour of Jazz Age New York to the gulags and science prisons of the Soviet Union. On a ship steaming its way from Manhattan back to Leningrad, Lev Termen writes a letter to his “one true love”, Clara Rockmore, telling her the story of his life. Imprisoned in his cabin, he recalls his early years as a scientist, inventing the theremin and other electric marvels, and the Kremlin’s dream that these inventions could be used to infiltrate capitalism itself. Instead, New York infiltrated Termen – he fell in love with the city’s dance clubs and speakeasies, with the students learning his strange instrument, and with Clara, a beautiful young violinist. Amid ghostly sonatas, kung-fu tussles, brushes with Chaplin and Rockefeller, a mission to Alcatraz, the novel builds to a crescendo: Termen’s spy games fall apart and he is forced to return home, where he’s soon consigned to a Siberian gulag. Only his wits can save him, but they will also plunge him even deeper toward the dark heart of Stalin’s Russia.

Us Conductors
is a book of longing and electricity. Like Termen’s own life, it is steeped in beauty, wonder and looping heartbreak. How strong is unrequited love? What does it mean when it is the only thing keeping you alive? This sublime debut inhabits the idea of invention on every level, no more so than in its depiction of Termen’s endless feelings for Clara – against every realistic odd. For what else is love, but the greatest invention of all?

“Michaels’ book is based on the life of Lev Termen, the Russian-born inventor of the Theremin, the most ethereal of musical instruments. As the narrative shifts countries and climates, from the glittery brightness of New York in the 1920s to the leaden cold of the Soviet Union under Stalin, the grace of Michaels’s style makes these times and places seem entirely new. He succeeds at one of the hardest things a writer can do: he makes music seem to sing from the pages of a novel.”
—Giller Prize Jury Citation

Format: Trade Paperback

Dimensions: 368 pages, 9.15 × 6.26 × 0.96 in

Published: April 8, 2014

Publisher: Random House Of Canada

Language: English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10: 0345813324

ISBN - 13: 9780345813329

Found in: Fiction and Literature

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Reviews

Rated 5 out of 5 by from Highly recommended! I bought this for a road trip and read read read. It's highly engrossing, superbly well written (at times I paused to re-read sentences because they were so *right*), and the plot's fascinating. Fascinating that it's based on reality but not a slave to reality. Easily #1 or #2 of all the books I've read in the past 3-4 years.
Date published: 2014-10-13
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Electric! What a wonderful book. I was immediately drawn into the story, and wanted to learn more about this mysterious theremin, about which I knew nothing. Although Termen was famous in his own right, having him tell his own story made him seem much more ordinary - which made what he did and what he lived through seem so much more extraordinary. The author took me through historical times and places that were at times exhilarating, emotional, enlightening and always entertaining. Sean Michaels has a way with words that compelled me to reread several passages because I loved the way the words flowed and the images they created. I'm already anxious to see what his second novel will bring.
Date published: 2014-07-01
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Looking Forward to Fantasy Consummation Scene in Movie Version This is a heck of a novel, be it the author’s first or his tenth. It certainly casts a spell on the reader, from which he or she emerges blinking 340 pages and many decades later. The book’s key themes seem to me to be obsession for an unrequited never-consummated love, the advent of an exotic unearthly musical instrument called the theramin, and how the most bizarre and horrific political regime in history (to that point) contorted countless lives even when it failed to destroy them utterly, the protagonist here being spared destruction only by dint of his inventive brilliance. When Terman plays his theramin for celebrity-studded audiences in American venues, there is almost the sense that this is the musical embodiment of Lenin’s revolution, an innovation that will sweep away the existing infrastructure of the music establishment. When Rachmaninoff and Toscanini attend one of his theramin recitals, reminisces Terman, “They were imagining, I am certain, the chopping and splintering of ten thousand cellos, violins, and trumpets, rendered obsolete by the theramin’s ethereal tone.” They compliment his performance and the device that produced it, but “…in both men’s voices there was the faint faraway tremor, the shiver of men who are shaking hands with their executioner.” Ironically, it will be Terman himself who one day will shiver in the ghastly presence of Beria, one of Stalin’s chief executioners. For me the key irony of the book is Terman’s periodic mention of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, always followed by “(may his memory be illuminated).” It’s both humorous and saddening. Had it not been for Lenin and the horrors that he and Trotsky unleashed upon Russia, Terman would likely have wound up in America and stayed, rather than been sent back to Russia for internment in various camps, one of them an absolute nightmare he barely survived. The likes of Stalin was practically inevitable during the consolidation phase of ‘the dictatorship of the proletariat’, which had to be the worst idea in all of history. There’s also plenty of humor here. One of my favourite passages is Terman’s description of the two NKVD lunk-heads serving as his controls: “I know that all suits are made of cloth but I was struck by the way their suits looked particularly made of cloth.” Another line captures the spirit of budding romance, but with a wink: “For the first time in the history of the world, since the seas cooled and birds alighted in the trees, Clara Reisenberg and Lev Sergeyvich Terman danced together.” One great advantage of a novelist’s version of Terman’s life is that not many scientists/engineers are capable of memoirs full of lyrical observations and reflections. And the professional biographer can only go so far in re-creating scenes and events from long ago. It’s a bit difficult to give an account of the story without ‘giving away’ the various plot-turns, so I’ll refrain. Suffice to say that the multiple flash-forwards and flash-backs on two continents and in between, from revolutionary Russia, through America’s Roaring Twenties and Great Depression, and then back to Russia and Stalin’s gulag, would translate very well into a movie, which this novel will surely become. As an indication of the hold this tale had on me, I’ve ordered the ‘Clara Rockmore: The Art of the Theramin’ CD as well as the Albert Glinsky biography of Terman, just to get some more mileage out of the 'Us Conductors' experience.
Date published: 2014-05-25

– More About This Product –

Us Conductors: A Novel

by Sean Michaels

Format: Trade Paperback

Dimensions: 368 pages, 9.15 × 6.26 × 0.96 in

Published: April 8, 2014

Publisher: Random House Of Canada

Language: English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10: 0345813324

ISBN - 13: 9780345813329

From the Publisher

Winner of the 2014 Scotiabank Giller Prize

A BEAUTIFUL, HAUNTING NOVEL INSPIRED BY THE TRUE LIFE AND LOVES OF THE FAMED RUSSIAN SCIENTIST, INVENTOR AND SPY LEV TERMEN – CREATOR OF THE THEREMIN.

Us Conductors
takes us from the glamour of Jazz Age New York to the gulags and science prisons of the Soviet Union. On a ship steaming its way from Manhattan back to Leningrad, Lev Termen writes a letter to his “one true love”, Clara Rockmore, telling her the story of his life. Imprisoned in his cabin, he recalls his early years as a scientist, inventing the theremin and other electric marvels, and the Kremlin’s dream that these inventions could be used to infiltrate capitalism itself. Instead, New York infiltrated Termen – he fell in love with the city’s dance clubs and speakeasies, with the students learning his strange instrument, and with Clara, a beautiful young violinist. Amid ghostly sonatas, kung-fu tussles, brushes with Chaplin and Rockefeller, a mission to Alcatraz, the novel builds to a crescendo: Termen’s spy games fall apart and he is forced to return home, where he’s soon consigned to a Siberian gulag. Only his wits can save him, but they will also plunge him even deeper toward the dark heart of Stalin’s Russia.

Us Conductors
is a book of longing and electricity. Like Termen’s own life, it is steeped in beauty, wonder and looping heartbreak. How strong is unrequited love? What does it mean when it is the only thing keeping you alive? This sublime debut inhabits the idea of invention on every level, no more so than in its depiction of Termen’s endless feelings for Clara – against every realistic odd. For what else is love, but the greatest invention of all?

“Michaels’ book is based on the life of Lev Termen, the Russian-born inventor of the Theremin, the most ethereal of musical instruments. As the narrative shifts countries and climates, from the glittery brightness of New York in the 1920s to the leaden cold of the Soviet Union under Stalin, the grace of Michaels’s style makes these times and places seem entirely new. He succeeds at one of the hardest things a writer can do: he makes music seem to sing from the pages of a novel.”
—Giller Prize Jury Citation

About the Author

Sean Michaels was born in Stirling, Scotland, in 1982. Raised in Ottawa, he eventually settled in Montreal, founding Said the Gramophone, one of the earliest music blogs. He has since spent time in Edinburgh and Kraków, writ­ten for the Guardian and McSweeney’s, toured with rock bands, searched the Parisian catacombs for Les UX, and received 2 National Magazine Awards.

Editorial Reviews

WINNER 2014 - The Scotiabank Giller Prize FINALIST 2014 – Paragraphe Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction   FINALIST 2014 – Concordia University First Book Prize “Following the life of Leon Termen, the inventor of the theremin,  Us Conductors  takes the reader from Leningrad to New York City, from gulags to speakeasies, dance floors and concert stages to laboratories and cattle cars.  Us Conductors  stretches its arms to encompass nearly everything—it is an immigrant tale, an epic, a spy intrigue, a prison confession, an inventor’s manual, a creation myth, and an obituary—but the electric current humming through its heart is an achingly resonant love story. Sean Michaels orchestrates his first novel like a virtuoso.” —Anthony Marra, author of A Constellation of Vital Phenomena “A fascinating novel! Told with grace and confidence, and in a finely wrought voice,  Us Conductors  kept surprising me to the end. I was swept from the speakeasies and artistic fervor of 1930s Manhattan to bleak, secretive Soviet Union prisons, and never once was the illusion shattered. Throughout the story, the themes of love and music sing like the pure, ethereal notes of the theremin.”  —Eowyn Ivey, author of the New York Times bestseller The Snow Child   “Sean Michaels revisits the story of Lev Termen with just the right amount of distortion and invention, drawing a fascinating para
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