Us Conductors: A Novel

Paperback | April 8, 2014

bySean Michaels

not yet rated|write a review

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

Pricing and Purchase Info

$23.92 online
$24.95 list price
Out of stock online
Prices may vary. why?
Please call ahead to confirm inventory.

From the Publisher

Winner of the 2014 Scotiabank Giller PrizeA 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 h...

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.

other books by Sean Michaels

Secrets Of The Ninja: The Shinobi Teachings Of Hattori Hanzo
Secrets Of The Ninja: The Shinobi Teachings Of Hattori ...

Paperback|Jul 7 2015

$18.80 online$20.95list price(save 10%)
The Book Of Five Rings: A Graphic Novel
The Book Of Five Rings: A Graphic Novel

Paperback|Nov 13 2012

$14.10 online$17.95list price(save 21%)
Goodbye God?: An Illustrated Exploration Of Science Vs. Religion
Goodbye God?: An Illustrated Exploration Of Science Vs....

Paperback|May 12 2015

$19.32 online$21.95list price(save 11%)
see all books by Sean Michaels
Format:PaperbackDimensions:368 pages, 9.15 × 6.26 × 0.96 inPublished:April 8, 2014Publisher:Random House of CanadaLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:0345813324

ISBN - 13:9780345813329

Look for similar items by category:

Reviews

Rated 5 out of 5 by from Gatsby plus spies plus real-life mad science This fictionalized account of the inventor of the theremin has only one problem: there isn't more of it. I finished the book not wanting to part ways with Lev and his adventures, hoping to hear more about what happened next. If you read this book, expect a riveting tale of invention, romance, dancing, kung-fu, Western opportunity, and Soviet cruelty. Highly recommended. Also, take the chance to find and listen to some theremin music.
Date published: 2015-08-25
Rated 2 out of 5 by from A lot of smoke and mirrors Most of the reviews allude to the "spell" cast upon readers and theremin listeners alike. The "ghostly" sound, "haunting" love story ... um, no. I found the book to be overwrought. The writing was repetitive, self-conscious, and heavy-handed. What Michaels did accomplish, however, was to make me interested in finding out more about the true story of Leon Theremin. THAT is a story I would like to read. The strange lamentations voiced in this fictionalized work grew to become an irritant rather than intrigue. I didn't believe in the unrequited love that was supposed to compel us through and, as a result, the story fell flat. The name-dropping throughout the New York section felt gratuitous. If Theremin, had, in fact, spent this time with these amazing people, it would have served us better to have read a more fleshed-out telling of one or two of these relationships, instead of a cataloging of names, with no insight into who they were and what they meant to him and to us. Overall, I felt as if this book was self-indulgent on the part of the author. An unsuccessful attempt at having F. Scott Fitzgerald meet Solzhenitsyn. Giller disappoints.
Date published: 2015-06-22
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A CAPTIVATING STORY Us Conductors is a masterfully told story that safely allows you to experience every raw emotion the Protagonist endures. Powerful, skilfully unfolded, so deserving of the Giller Prize. Can't wait for more from Sean Michaels.
Date published: 2015-05-21
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Worthy of the Giller Interesting and well written and the author has not become so enamoured of his sentences that he forgot about plot. Good read.
Date published: 2015-03-16
Rated 5 out of 5 by from This book will stay with you! This is a pretty great book. To fictionalize an already unique & fascinating real life person was both brave and brilliant. The research needed – New York in the 20’s, Stalin's Russia, the extensive scientific references… very impressive. This book will stay with me for a very long time. The overriding factor on top of all the many well done facets of this book is that Sean Michaels is a terrific writer.
Date published: 2015-01-28
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Beautifully written The language is beautifully poetic. The blending of fact and fiction is wonderful. Especially insightful and meaningful if you are musician!
Date published: 2015-01-22
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Outstanding i was not expecting to enjoy this book as much as i did. Well written ...great read.
Date published: 2015-01-19
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Exceptional For a number of years I steered away from any of the Giller Prize short-listed books because I was finding I was disappointed with the books chosen. However, this year's short-list seemed different and intriguing to me, so much that I bought most of them. I read Us Conductors and at once, I was amazed, spell-bound and truly appreciative of the high-level writing, research and compelling story-line.
Date published: 2015-01-12
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Us conductors Another Giller disappointment. I initially gave up after about 75 pages, after the award i tried another50 still didn,t like it- local bookstore said I was not alone
Date published: 2015-01-06
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Us Conductors Astonishing in scope, depth and level of engagement. Highly entertaining and moving especially the Russian period, Termen multiple lives, brlliance and flaws cannot but endure as he did.
Date published: 2014-12-31
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent novel This is a wonderful book based on the life of Lev Termen, inventor of the Theremin and many other devices. It's a good story of certain aspects of the Soviet system as well. I highly recommend it.
Date published: 2014-12-27
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Brilliant Dazzling writing describing the life of an inventor. Richly woven narrative of love, music and espionage.
Date published: 2014-12-19
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Lyrical Writing and Beautiful Story I was initially excited to read this book because it looked like a great combination of a spy novel and The Great Gatsby, with an inventor protagonist and theremins thrown in for good measure. I was surprised by how lyrical Michaels' writing was. My favourite line in the book is “That is the secret of the theremin, after all: your body is a conductor.” I really like the duality of the body as a conductor of music and electricity (doubly important for the theremin) and how the idea of the body as a conductor is returned to throughout the novel. The love story between Lev and Clara isn't sappy, either, which is a plus. A beautiful book.
Date published: 2014-11-06
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
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Lyrical Writing and Beautiful Story A story of how a difficult and even tragic life can be sustained by a remembered love. There is hope at the darkest of times!
Date published: 2014-04-20

Extra Content