Us Conductors by Sean MichaelsUs Conductors by Sean Michaels

Us Conductors

bySean Michaels

Paperback | October 6, 2015

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Winner of the 2014 Scotiabank Giller Prize

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. 

SEAN MICHAELS is a novelist, short-story writer and critic. Born in Stirling, Scotland, and raised in Ottawa, he eventually settled in Montreal, where he founded the pioneering music blog Said the Gramophone. His award-winning writing has also appeared in The Observer, McSweeney's, The Guardian, Pitchfork, Maisonneuve, and The Globe an...
Title:Us ConductorsFormat:PaperbackProduct dimensions:368 pages, 8 × 5.2 × 1 inShipping dimensions:8 × 5.2 × 1 inPublished:October 6, 2015Publisher:Random House of CanadaLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:0345813332

ISBN - 13:9780345813336


Rated 4 out of 5 by from Interesting but a little slow It took me awhile to finish this book because the first half was quite slow. However, it was overall a pretty good read - I enjoyed the mix of classical music/composers, science, swing dancing, and Russian spies. It encouraged me to research the "real" Lev Theremin.
Date published: 2018-08-19
Rated 2 out of 5 by from alright This is a book where Lev Theremin will very matter-of-factly tell you what happened, then what happened next, then what happened after that. It's just very difficult to care about anything happening to such an indifferent narrator (Lev seems ambivalent toward Mother Russia, his ex-wife, his current wife, and his sister...who is the only blood relative mentioned even in passing after 250 pages). His obsession with Clara is therefore unconvincing (can automatons really obsess?), and the book doesn't gain anything from being framed as a verbose love letter. I'm 275 pages in now and throwing in the towel, but I'll give it two stars for the punny title.
Date published: 2017-09-12
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Great 1st Novel This was a great first novel. The timeline in the story was easy to follow and added to some of the intrigue of the novel. I had to watch a YouTube video to figure out the sound of the instrument, which intern help me imagine the concerts and the wonder behind all the inventions. Some parts are a bit slow. This is not a book to rush threw! It's one to savour. #plumreview
Date published: 2017-05-23
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great! It is just a great book to read!
Date published: 2017-05-16
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Messy but worth reading Confession: I had never heard of a theremin before reading this, so I thought that was something the author had invented. But starting from a "Popular Science adventure" that seemed based in fantasy, it soon got brutally real. The book seemed like several different stories stitched together, although some beautiful writing compensated for the messy seams.
Date published: 2017-02-11
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Take it or leave it This book was too long a read for me, overwrought with too much detail. I think the author was trying to write a epic which spanned continents, decades, and the depth of human emotions. The story about the theremin is interesting and like one other reviewer stated the novel did inspire me to research the true invention of this instrument. It's a pretty good novel but did not really grab me. I felt compelled to finish it because I'd paid full price. I should have waited until now for it to be remaindered.
Date published: 2016-12-20
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Beautiful An incredible piece of historical fiction.
Date published: 2016-11-14
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

Editorial Reviews

WINNER 2014 - The Scotiabank Giller PrizeFINALIST 2014 – Paragraphe Hugh MacLennan Prize for FictionFINALIST 2014 – Concordia University First Book PrizeLONGLISTED 2015 – International DUBLIN Literary Award “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 parabola through the Roaring Twenties and down into the Cold War. An amazing, addictive novel, written with a sharp sense of rhythm.” —Nicolas Dickner, author of Nikolski and Apocalypse for Beginners “DZEEEEOOOoo! Just as hard as it is to make a theremin sing so it is hard to pull off a novel like this. But Sean Michaels does it. Us Conductors bridges body and soul, science and art, and like theremin music, it’s of this world and magical at the same time.” —Ismet Prcic, author of Shards“Michaels does an excellent job delving into Termen’s one true obsession, Clara, reflecting his never-ending inner dialogue with her that continues for days, months, years. . . . Whatever picture Michaels is trying to paint, he does so with great accuracy and potency. . . . Us Conductors is a novel of epic proportions and as we jump back and forth through time, Michaels engrosses the reader with well-thought-out imagery that paints pictures of vastly different scenes. . . . To come totally clean here, I forgot I wasn’t reading an autobiography and took in the story as if it were historical fact. . . . Michaels has a natural gift for bringing us to a time and place which allows the suspension of belief and lets you walk every step of the way with him.” —Brendan Canning, The Globe and Mail “I’ve been awaiting a book by Sean Michaels for a decade, ever since he helped create not only the online MP3 blog but his own form of criticism—imaginative, bird-like devices of prose that soar in and out of the paths of songs. In his novel, Us Conductors, Michaels finds his ideal subject in another inventor, the enigmatic Leon Termen, who with softly lit-up wisdom calls himself ‘a sound being sounded, music being made,’ amid the noise of history. Michaels’ voice will pass through you like live current and conduct you to parts unknown.” —Carl Wilson, music critic for and author of the acclaimed Let’s Talk About Love: Why Other People Have Such Bad Taste