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Us Conductors: A Novel by Sean Michaels
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Us Conductors: A Novel

by Sean Michaels

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Showing 1-5 of 9 (next | show all)
I do not have much musical talent but the concept of an electronic musical instrument (the theremin) that can be played/controlled without ever coming into physical contact with the instrument, fascinates me and appeals to my science geeky side. The fact that the instrument was developed by Russian scientist/inventor, Lev Sergeyvich Termen, back in the early 1920’s (it was patented in 1928), just added to my intrigue to read Michaels debut novel. Us Conductors is very much a historical fiction novel. While Michaels takes some basic events from Termen’s life, this story – in particular, the kung fu training, the espionage and his one-side romance for a young violinist, Clara, he meets in New York – are best to be viewed as fictions of Michaels imagination. Even so, Michaels vividly brings to life the Jazz age of New York City, filled with dance halls, speakeasies and a swirling of famous celebrities. The story is not all glitz, glamor and hob-nobbling with the famous. Michaels Termen is an ambivalent spy for his homeland while in America and it is only when he returns to a very changed Russia that he starts to realize how precarious his situation really is.

As with any historical fiction, the author has taken liberties to write, what for me, is a wonderful blended story – part music, part romance, part espionage, part science – narrated by a character who tries to comes to terms with the strange shifts his life has taken: from celebrated scientist/inventor under Lenin to being labelled an enemy of Communism under Stalin, all while trying to be seen by his Russian leaders as being a good Russian patriot. ( )
1 vote lkernagh | Jun 14, 2018 |
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  buriedinprint | Jun 14, 2017 |
Fantastic novel, esp the second half which I would give 5 stars to if I could. Thermins, spies, the Gulag, and a beautiful and enduring love story to boot, much of it factual.

Just wonderful and everyone should read it. ( )
  laurenbufferd | Nov 14, 2016 |
Loved this. Low-key, lyrical, with a gentle touch even when it's brutal. As is appropriate to the inventor of the theremin—and to an unintentional, unresisting cog in the Soviet machinery—there's a slightly otherworldly tinge to the narrator, Lev Termin, even (especially) at his most passionate. Michaels gets the bemused scientist voice just right, and this was just lovely throughout. ( )
  lisapeet | Feb 11, 2016 |
Not being knowledgeable about physics and not being a lover of electronic music, I did not find this book’s subject matter appealing and so read it only after it won the 2014 Scotiabank Giller Prize. Though I have not yet read the other books on the award’s shortlist, I must admit that this novel did not strike me as being of the quality I would expect for one of Canada’s foremost literary awards.

The book is very loosely based on the life of Lev Sergeyvich Termen, the Russian inventor of the theremin. He is sent to the U.S. to showcase his musical instrument and, by extension, the greatness of Mother Russia. As he meets with famous and influential Americans, he gathers contacts and intelligence for his homeland and falls in love with Clara Reisenberg, a theremin virtuoso. The novel is written as a long letter from Termen to Clara, “a letter that will never be read” (218) because he is a political prisoner.

My objection to the novel is what lies at the heart of the book: Lev’s love for Clara. He becomes obsessed with a girl who at eighteen is fifteen years younger. She periodically spends time with him, but there is no evidence of romantic feelings on her part. She seems to see Lev as a “dance partner . . . a diversion” (83) though Clara herself remains opaque and elusive; perhaps she could best be described as ethereal, like the music of a theremin. In fact, Lev’s love seems ethereal, in the sense of “tenuous” as opposed to “celestial.”

Lev remains emotionally distant with and ambivalent about other significant women in his life (Katia, Lavinia, his sister), yet we are to believe that he is capable of such an undying love for someone who does not return his love and even rejects him? Besides not being consistent with his detached personality, his constant mooning over the much younger Clara becomes annoying and is unbecoming if not a tad unsavoury. The novel may have been intended as a paean to love; its message seems to be that even unrequited love can help one survive. Unfortunately, Lev’s love seems more like obsessive infatuation, not genuine love, and a middle-aged man who is such a slave to an unrequited love is just pathetic. And after Lev’s last conversation with Clara, which we learn about only at the end, I could only shake my head in disbelief.

For an intelligent scientist and inventor, Lev seems very naïve, if not delusional. He thinks the theremin, because of its simplicity, is an instrument of public good: “Because it trusts the worker’s own senses, not the knowledge locked away in the lessons and textbooks of the elites, the theremin becomes a revolutionary device – a levelling of the means of musical production” (28). After being held as a prisoner on board a ship forcibly bringing him back to Russia, he still believes the Stalinist government will allow him to “build new wonders” (214)?!

The first part of the book, 214 pages, I found rather tedious. It reads like a dull journal: I did this and then I did that and then I met so and so. Events like marriages which should receive more detail are glossed over. Given the intended audience of Lev’s letter, one would expect more honesty if the depth of his love is to be convincing. He is certainly not given to self-examination and only in the end seems to fully realize that he has been a useful instrument of the state and admits, “What did I know of conducting” (293). He concludes, “I was in play. I was Lev Sergevich Termen, conducted” (301).

All this is not to say that the book has no merits. Its depiction of life in New York City in the 1920s and 1930s is marvelous. Likewise, life in a Siberian gulag is described in vivid if disturbing detail. And the writing is beautiful; lyricism is found throughout.

I will conclude by stating that perhaps the fault is not in the book but in my cynicism. Surely all those who have found the book to be a literary masterpiece, including the judges of the Scotiabank Giller Prize, could not be wrong. ( )
1 vote Schatje | Jan 1, 2015 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0345813324, Paperback)

The New Face of Fiction for 2014, Us Conductors is a beautiful, haunting, brilliant novel inspired by the true life and loves of the Russian scientist, inventor and spy Lev Termen--creator of the theremin.
     In a finely woven series of flashbacks and correspondence, Us Conductors takes us from the glitz and glam of New York in the 1930s to the gulags and scientific camps of the Soviet Union. Lev Termen is imprisoned on a ship steaming its way from New York City to the Soviet Union. He is writing a letter to his "one true love," Clara Rockmore, the finest theremin player in the world. From there we learn Termen's story: his early days as a scientist in Leningrad, and the acclaim he received as the inventor of the theremin, eventually coming to New York under the aegis of the Russian state. There he stays, teaching eager music students, making his name, and swiftly falling in love with Clara. But it isn't long until he has fallen in with Russian spooks, slipping through the shadows of a budding Cold War, with cold-blooded results. The novel builds to a crescendo as Termen returns to Russia, where he is imprisoned in a Siberian gulag and later brought to Moscow, tasked with eavesdropping on Stalin himself. 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?

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:10:35 -0400)

"In a finely woven series of flashbacks and correspondence, Lev Termen, the Russian scientist, inventor, and spy, tells the story of his life to his "one true love," Clara Rockmore, the finest theremin player in the world. In the first half of the book, we learn of Termen's early days as a scientist in Leningrad during the Bolshevik Revolution, the acclaim he receives as the inventor of the theremin, and his arrival in 1930s New York under the aegis of the Russian state. In the United States he makes a name for himself teaching the theremin to eager music students and marketing his inventions to American companies. In the second half, the novel builds to a crescendo as Termen returns to Russia, where he is imprisoned in a Siberian gulag and later brought to Moscow, tasked with eavesdropping on Stalin himself. Throughout all this, his love for Clara remains constant and unflagging, traveling through the ether much like a theremin's notes. Us Conductors is steeped in beauty, wonder, and looping heartbreak, a sublime debut that inhabits the idea of invention on every level. "--… (more)

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