- File Size: 1113 KB
- Print Length: 464 pages
- Page Numbers Source ISBN: 1935639811
- Publisher: Tin House Books (June 10, 2014)
- Publication Date: May 19, 2014
- Sold by: Amazon.com Services LLC
- Language: English
- ASIN: B00YTVPWQI
- Text-to-Speech: Enabled
- Word Wise: Enabled
- Lending: Not Enabled
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #641,867 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
|Digital List Price:||$15.95|
|Print List Price:||$15.95|
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Us Conductors: A Novel Kindle Edition
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“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 Slate.com and author of the acclaimed Let’s Talk About Love: Why Other People Have Such Bad Taste
From the Trade Paperback edition. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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.--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Success and fame comes to Theremin after the First World War. A young physicist, he worked in St. Petersburg on multiple devices, and then created an unusual and original musical instrument theremin, a complex design that responds to human movement and make sounds. After some practice you can perform classical music on this instrument. The instrument makes a huge impression on everyone, Theremin is even invited to Lenin, where he performs several musical pieces. The scientist and inventor begins to tour within the Soviet Union, gradually perfecting the instrument and doing other developments (including the prototype of a modern TV). In 1928 the scientist moves to the USA to continue his work there, reinforcing his glory and bringing money to the Soviet Union.
Very strange thing this novel is. If you do not pay attention to the writer's name, you can assume that the book was written by a scientist-ex-Gular prisoner, who after the Gulag escaped to the United States, there kearned the language, and wrote this brilliant novel based on other people's stories and the official biography of Theremin. But this novel, who would have though, was written by an American journalist, and not just a journalist, but that man of almost nonexistent profession – a music critic. For a non-immigrant from the USSR, Sean Michaels has a phenomenal eye for detail. Typically, an aspiring author (and for Michaels this is the debut novel) feels very shaky on unfamiliar territory. The book covers very different societies: the birth of the USSR, and jazzy New York, and Kolyma, and closed scientific bureau. And there was a good chance that the American author could slip somewhere. But Michaels hasn’t lost a step.
Of course, someone will be outraged, saying that there are many assumptions in the book. Theremin didn’t know Kung Fu, and he didn’t kill an FBI agent, and much more other things here are distorted and added. However, the reader should understand that Us Conductors is, in the first place, a novel, an invention, as it is called by Michaels, only based on the life of the scientist and inventor. Facts can be distorted, but overall details - there is no falsehood.
There are small mistakes, though. For example, back in the early 30's one of the scientist’s friends calls him «rocket scientist», although the term had not yet appeared at that time. "Black Marusyas" here are called "Black Marias." Michaels politely calls prison snitches informers. Growing up in Russia, Theremin doesn’t yet know what “brusnika” is. In a conversation with the prison authorities Theremin uses as a measure of the length a mile and his superiors don’t correct him.
But all this is stuff that English-speaking readers will not notice. Though the story underlying the novel hardly will leave anyone indifferent. From the outset, the narrator chooses detached tone to his narrative. Yes, he is also the main protagonist, but he seemed to flow through life. He is a talented, successful, sociable, honest, but at the same time gutless and too naive. Having found his love, Theremin doesn’t take actions to win Clara. Generally relationships with women scientists put a stain on the inventor. He married Katya by stupidity, he was young, he says, but almost immediately and broke up with her, not even broke up, just forgot. He tried to win Clara, but it was too late (although he has not lost love for her). He married a black dancer for mercenary motives, and left her, though not by choice.
A lack of will power of the protagonist can be traced throughout the entire novel. After losing his main love, Theremin lost interest in life. Perhaps because of that he relatively easy suffered expulsion, arrest, jail, camp, sharashka. He has survived because of love - and his genius. It is impossible not to admire Theremin: he made many inventions, but he was not particularly proud of them and didn’t have patents. In the United States other people had patents, and his inventions in sharashka was kept as top secret.
For all his life the hero of the novel carried loyalty not only to Clara Reisenberg, but also to Lenin. Meeting with the leader left a mark on the mind of the scientist. For the reader the memories of Lenin may seem ridiculous, but in them we can see all sincerity and inner purity of Theremin. Characteristically, in his memoirs Theremin does not condemn the Soviet government, neither Beria or Stalin. Rather, he remains loyal to the Soviet regime, even after Kolyma. For him, the Soviet Union is not Stalin, it’s still Lenin.
Michaels writes equally captivating about music, camp labor, dancing under the jukebox, testing of new inventions. Us Conductors captures the essence of the XX century through the tragic fate of one scientist. Not every year we read debut novels of such power and brilliancy.
The story is narrated by Termin as we go back and forth in time, following his early life in Russia just before the revolution as he is surrounded by fellow intellectual students interested in science and mathematics. He has a particular interest in vacuum tubes. When he comes up with the idea of the theremin, it takes Russia and then the United States by storm. He becomes a popular public figure and finds himself in the United States, where he is funded by the Russian government to work as a reluctant spy.
Termin finds himself torn between the glamour and freedom of the United States and it's capitalism and his devotion to Mother Russia. He lives a life of great notoriety and excitement as he experiences the Manhattan social and musical scene in the 1920's and 30's.
But then we know that Termin is narrating his story while on a boat, seemingly locked in a cabin, alone. We also - and these are some of the most difficult scenes to read - experience what it is like to be in held in a Russian prison in the heart of Siberia.
The story is beautifully written and you really feel transported both in time and place between the bleakness of Russia and the excitement of Manhattan. It's really a wonderful history lesson as well - where we find out what life was like in Russia and especially for the intellectually elite during the brutal reign of Stalin.
Highly recommended. Be sure to read the Afterward by the author.
Top international reviews
Lev Termen invented the therimen around 1920 in Russia where he lived. It has been called the strangest musical instrument. The player does not touch this unique and eerie instrument but moves their hands through an electric current to produce music which seems to come out of the ether.
Us Conductors is the first novel by Sean Michaels, and is a fictionalized, award winning take on Termen's life and times. In reading history of Termen many of the major facts in this book actually happened,but his thoughts and conversations depend on the author's imagination. Termen married three times. I was unable to find evidence of his lifelong obsession and love of Clara Blackmore, a much younger American girl who becomes idolized as the world's greatest theremin player. However, he does return to America from Russia at age 95 and visits with her, so she had clearly been on his mind all those years.
While living in St. Petersburg in the 1920's , he not only invented the theremin to great acclaim and to which Lenin was a great fan, but also invented an early metal detector, a motion detector and a listening device used for spying. He was called the Thomas Edison of Russia.
He travels through Europe and then to America in hopes of popularizing the theremin and having it mass produced. He meets the teenaged Clara and the author describes a joyous time dancing with her in the Harlem jazz clubs. He meets and socializes with famous musicians, leaders of industry and members of the social elite. Clara marries someone else, and he marries an Afro-American ballerina. He is pressured into becoming a spy for the Russians.
We see him locked in a room in a ship, forced to return to Russia. He thinks he will get a good job in science, but is instead sent to the Siberian Gulag for years of hard labor. Then he is transferred to a prison for top scientists who have been labeled enemies of Communism. While at this prison near Moscow he is forced by Beria to make listening devices to be secretly installed at the American embassy and also to spy on Stalin.
This is a book which vividly describes the Jazz age in New York and the dance halls and speakeasies, and also the horrible suffering in the frozen prison camps of Siberia. It makes me want to learn more about the history of the times, the inventor and his music.
New York in the 1920’s is, of course, a time of prohibition and looseness. Termen is very unaware. Termen’s attention is taken by a girl, Clara Reisenburg who he falls in love with. Because of this bubble, he fails to notice the 1929 crash, fails to take care of business and is not aware of the tensions building around him. This fabulous debut novel takes us from science institutes, through fame and back to Russia, where – as expected – the knock comes in the middle of the night. Through gulags and prisons, Termen pours his heart onto the page and at the centre of everything, is his love for Clara. This is a moving and enjoyable read.