Us Conductors by Sean Michaels; 2014 Scotiabank Giller Prize Winner


OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAUs Conductors is the kind of book that could be recommended to just about anyone. It has everything you might want in a book; history, science, music, travel, espionage, murder, romance, and even Kung Fu.

10 reasons you should read this book:

1. Us Conductors is based on the real life of Lev Termen, inventor of the theremin. And, his life is so interesting that I can’t believe that I had never heard of him before now. What else am I missing?

2. The story is told through Lev himself, as a letter he is writing to the unrequited love of his life. His voice is compelling, and it is the perfect way to tell the story.

I am an instrument. I am a sound being sounded, music being made, blood, salt and water being manipulated in air. I come from Leningrad. With my bare hands I have killed one man. I was born on August 15, 1896, and at that instant I became an object moving through space toward you.

3. You will learn a little about Russia. Lev’s life and story begins in Russia where he thrives as a scientist and inventor. He talks a little bit about his political beliefs and the leaders of Russia at the time. Later, we learn about Russian gulags and labour camps for scientists and political prisoners.

4. You can experience New York in the late 1920s and 30s. These are the years Lev lived and worked in New York. He continued to invent things as he became more and more involved in the music and social scenes of the city.

5. Espionage. Whether Lev likes it or not, he gets tangled up in some international espionage. As a scientist and inventor, he was valuable to Russian officials during WWII.

6. If you are a music lover, you will find a lot to love about this book. Because it is about the inventor of the theremin, there is a lot in here about the music world. Sean Michaels has been writing about music on his blog Said the Gramophone since 2003.

Your right hand was a fist. You opened it one finger at a time, asking and withdrawing. The soloist must play in angles, edges, skirting old melodies. You did not close your eyes until the third section, as if suddenly the music was asking something else of you. Only your hands were in motion. In the heart of that hall, you were utterly solitary. I could not have given myself to you even if I had tried.

7. Science. Lev was a scientist, first and foremost. He was curious and loved nothing more than coming up with new ideas in his home. There is a lot of detail in this book about the types of things Lev was working with and creating.

The sound of the theremin is simply pure electric current. It is the hymn of lightning as it hides in its cloud. The song never strains or falters; it persists, stays, keeps, lasts, lingers. It will never abandon you. In that regard, it is better than any of us.

8. If you love history, then you will like this book. History is infused throughout the entire story; Russian history, American history, musical history, scientific history, social history, political history.

9. For the romantics, there is also a love story. Although, Lev ends up marrying three times in his life, it is never to his true love, Clara Reisenberg. Clara marries Robert Rockmore, and goes on to become a renowned thereminist. The woman Lev marries while in America is Lavinia Williams, an African-American dancer. This is the one character in the book that I wish there had been more about. Luckily, Wikipedia has set my mind at ease that she was able to move on with her life.

Lev’s love for Clara permeates the whole book. It is to her that he writes and tells his story of heartache, betrayal, hardship, and longing. It is because of his love for her that we get to be in on his private thoughts and the story of his life. It is her memory that helps him to get through the dark days of imprisonment and forced labour.

It is difficult to anticipate what will be our worst thing. Our worst things are not all the same. Hunger, thirst, fatigue. Or fear. I used to think that heartbreak was my worst thing. It is not. In a certain way, heartbreak is a reassurance. There is no reassurance in hunger, in thirst, in fatigue. Or in fear. These things are hollow things, un-things. I have learned that there are certain absences you can keep and hold; and other absences, like lost memories, which you cannot.

10. If I haven’t convinced you to read the book yet, then maybe other people can.  Kevin from Canada liked it enough to choose it for the 2014 Shadow Giller Prize winner. Then it became the real 2014 Giller Prize winner. Lindsey liked it. Kim liked it. And, Write Reads picked it for their most recent podcast. So, don’t just take my word for it…

I have to confess that I had no idea what a theremin was before I read this book. If you are in the same boat, here is a link to Lev Termen playing his own instrument. Here is Clara Rockmore playing it.

Now I can give this copy of the book back to my Mom, so she can read it. (Thanks, Mom!)


20 thoughts on “Us Conductors by Sean Michaels; 2014 Scotiabank Giller Prize Winner

  1. tanya (52 books or bust) says:

    I just finished this book. I loved it and it has brought me out of my reading funk. I was fascinated by all of it. I already knew what a theramin was, but all the other stuff he invented was a surprise for me. Great read!

    • Naomi says:

      Oh, good! I’m glad you’re out of you’re reading funk! And, I hope it continues with Girl Runner.
      I loved reading about all his inventions- I had no idea he was behind all that stuff. The science-y part of the book was way up there for me.

  2. kimbofo says:

    Love this review! And thanks so much for linking to mine. I had to convince the Shadow Giller Prize jury this was a winner… and very grateful my arguments won them over 😉

    • Naomi says:

      Your review and Kevin’s got me thinking I should read it, and Lindsey’s was the clincher. When the book first came out, I was really put off by the title for some reason. It just didn’t mean anything to me. That’s what book bloggers are for! 🙂

  3. My Book Strings says:

    I had never heard of the theremin before reading the summary of this book. It’s a strange thing, isn’t it? I found the cover of the book a little off-putting, but I am glad that I looked further into the book, and with all the positive reviews, I definitely plan to read it at some point.

    • Naomi says:

      I was the same way when I first heard of/saw this book. The title especially put me off. It didn’t mean anything to me at the time. But, I am glad that I listened to some of my favourite book bloggers and read it anyway!

  4. ebookclassics says:

    Thanks for a great summary of the book! I probably should have given this book to my father-in-law for Christmas because there are so many elements he would enjoy. But maybe I should read it first? …

    • Naomi says:

      I hate to talk about man books, because I think men can read any book they want, but I will anyway; I think Us Conductors would be a great choice as a gift for man. I know my Dad would like it. I think even my husband would. I say go for it!

      • ebookclassics says:

        Ha ha, I love the term “man books”! It can be a book section like “chick lit”. 🙂

  5. Cecilia says:

    What a great review! I have no idea what a theremin is either, and would not have thought it had anything to do with music 😉 I do love reading about Russia and science so I will definitely look this one up.

    • Naomi says:

      The word ‘theremin’ doesn’t even sound very musical, does it? I loved the science-y stuff, and I loved reading about his time as a prisoner in Russia.

  6. swright9 says:

    Yeah I just picked up a copy of this. I wasn’t expecting this author to win the Giller over Toews. So Wow this must be a good novel. I will have to educate myself in what the theremin is and sounds like. Thanks for all the reasons to read it

    • Naomi says:

      The nice thing about this book is that it has a lot going for it that would appeal to many people. Because of the content of All My Puny Sorrows, it is not for everyone, although I loved it myself. Happy Reading!

  7. Fictionquest says:

    am rpesently reading US CONDUCTORS and have a few comments. It is a wonder to me how this book won the Giller but i am trying to keep an open mind. In the meantime, whoc oud love ther therimin… this is beyond me.

    • Naomi says:

      I’m not so sure what I think of the theremin, either, but I guess it’s a matter of taste, like all instruments. As for winning the Giller, I can’t really judge since I haven’t read any of the other books on the list this year. I have Tell on hold at the library, but that’s it. I’ll be interested in hearing what you think once you’re done!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s