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Us Conductors

3.67  ·  Rating details ·  3,075 ratings  ·  442 reviews
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 Te
Hardcover, 368 pages
Published November 17th 2014 by Random House Canada (first published January 1st 2014)
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3.67  · 
Rating details
 ·  3,075 ratings  ·  442 reviews

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Jenny (Reading Envy)
"As the music rose up, it also vanished. Sometimes it is like this, listening to music: the steady bars let you separate from your body, slip your skin, and you are standing before the shuttering slides of memory."

I loved this book! I came across it by accident but was surprised I hadn't heard of it, seeing as it won the Giller Prize in 2014. I'm always a sucker for novels with music in them in some way. In Us Conductors, Sean Michaels takes the basic story of the inventor of the theremin and tu
Chuck Erion
Feb 04, 2015 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: canlit
When the winner of this year's Scotiabank Giller Prize was announced Nov. 10, I wasn't alone in my surprise.

Sean Michaels, a first-time novelist and music blogger, took home a cheque for $100,000 for "Us Conductors" (Random House Canada, 347 pages, $26 hardcover).

Michaels was up against seasoned writers: Miriam Toews, Frances Itani, Heather O'Neill, David Bezmogis and Padma Viswanathan. The Giller remains Canada's premiere fiction prize — not least because of its increased purse — but seems more
Jun 27, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This novel won the prestigious Scotiabank Giller Prize, the Canadian version of the Booker, in 2014 and weaves fact and fiction to tell the life story of Lev Sergeyvich Termen, otherwise known as Leon Termen or Dr Theremin; scientist, inventor, spy and prisoner. The book begins in Russia, where Termen invents the theremin – a kind of electrical instrument, played by moving your arms around in the air and disturbing the current. It is a time of revolution and Termen is a success. He begins to tou ...more
Andrea Arbit
**I received an Advanced Reader's Edition of this book free through a Goodreads First Reads giveaway in exchange for an honest review.** :)

The narrator of this 1920s tale is Lev Termen, real-life Russian scientist and inventor of the theremin, a novel and eerie musical instrument that relies on the subtle movement of one's hands through an electric current to produce music. Perhaps anyone can intuit or learn how to play a note or a song on the theremin, but only a select few understand the scien
Shirley Schwartz
This is an absolutely brilliant book! I don't know what to say about this book. It was so complex and so believable with wonderful characters that I can't believe this is a first novel for Sean Michaels. The best compliment that I can give the book is it totally deserved to win the coveted Giller Prize this year. Rarely do I happen to stumble upon a book that reaches me so totally. I was so engrossed in Lev Termen's life that I hated to have to put the book down and come back to reality. The sto ...more
Nov 10, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: best-books
There are three solid storylines at play in this novel. There is the biographical story of the inventor, Termen, and his relationship with one of the most distinct sounding instruments ever to be listened to. There is the political story of two nations, both post-war giants, and Termen's relationship to their overlapping circles of spying and espionage. And then there is the love story between Termen and the beautiful, considerably younger socialite that he meets in New York City while peddling ...more
Based on the subtitle — “In which I seek the heart of Clara Rockmore, my one true love, finest theremin player the world will ever know” — alone, I expected to read a novel feature a so-called “nice guy” who engages in the rather hipster pastime of listening to the music of an obscure instrument. Imagine my surprise when I reached the fifteenth page and learned the novel is, in fact, based on the life of the inventor of the theremin, Lev Sergeyevich Termen (also known as Léon Theremin).

During th
I bought this book in 2014 after it won Canada's Giller prize, without knowing what it was about. Then the book languished on my TBR shelf until now. I had no idea what it was about when I bought it. I had never heard of a "theremin" or of Lev Termin. As I read I resolved when finished to see if either the device or the man ever existed, but I found my answer in the Author's Note at the end of the book! And thanks to the links in Krista's review, I was able to hear Termin and his love Clara play ...more
Beverly Akerman
Nov 13, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
An extremely accomplished (first!!) novel that imagines, in exquisite detail, the lives of historical figures. Lev Termen was clearly a genius to whom we owe many diverse electronic inventions. I enjoyed this book...but:

--The choppy short sentences, especially prominent in the first half of the book, got on my nerves. Also, the detail was a bit too exquisite (50-100 pages-worth)

--Turns out I find the sound of the theremin quite repellant (though that's hardly Mr. Michael's fault)

--The story was
Jan 02, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This was a very complex and cleverly tied together fictionalized account of the life and career of Lev Thermen, the inventor and celebrated player of a fascinating musical instrument, the theremin. His story is presented through a series of flashbacks and forwards and is intricately set in both New York's Jazz Age and the Soviet Union's reign of terror.

How Sean Michaels combines physics, politics, romance and music is a terrific creative accomplishment. I found Part One a little bit difficult to
Really need 1/2 stars on Goodreads as this would be 3.5 stars. Enjoyed the historical aspect but felt no empathy for the narrator.
Sep 29, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: can-con, 2014, favourites
I had put off reading Sean Michaels' Us Conductors because when I heard it was about Lev Sergeyevich Termen and his invention of the theremin, the eerie electronic instrument, I couldn't generate any enthusiasm for the topic (and not least of all because I found the proto-synth sounds the theremin produced -- in my memory anyway -- annoying and unmusical). I thought the book would be dull and I was completely wrong. In Michaels' imagination, Termen was a genius with electricity -- both pioneer a ...more
Tom Shannon
Dec 22, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
The story was able to weave a romance, a political thriller, and musical theory into a captivating story.
I found the second half of the book much better than the first as it took a more kafkaesque turn in the later chapters.

He was able to weave history with a bunch of stuff he just made up to make a compelling plot that I enjoyed. A solid book.
Roger Brunyate
The Return Voyage

In 1927, the Russian physicist Lev Sergeyevich Termen (known in the West as Léon Theremin) travels to America on board the SS Majestic, in order to demonstrate the electronic musical instrument that bears his name. Already a work-famous figure, he travels first class, with license to wander all over the ship. Eleven years later, when this book begins, he is returning to Russia aboard the Stary Bolshevik, locked in his cabin, a prisoner of the state. Sean Michaels' Giller prizewi
4.5 stars, and I’ve rounded it up to five.

A few years ago, I went to a musical instrument museum, and took a tour that included everything from beautifully constructed, centuries old harpsichords to an enormous organ constructed for a silent movie theatre, that could produce all kinds of amazing sound effects. It was also my first introduction to the Theremin, where a tour guide played the Canadian national anthem for us.

It’s truly eerie watching someone play a Theremin, seeing someone pull note
Steven Langdon
Nov 07, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: super
This interesting novel by Sean Michaels is one of six nominees for Canada's 2014 Giller Prize. There is a combination of emotional intensity, deep character probing and skilled writing in all these novels. And the social and political relevance of the books is powerful in every case, with insights into mental illness, the abuse of human rights, the devastations of war and terrorism, and the realities of poverty.

"Us Conductors" finds its music amid the grim oppression of Stalin's labour camps as
Nikki Stafford
Mar 05, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I've been fascinated by the theremin for many years: it's that ethereal, otherworldly instrument that became a mainstay of 1960s sci-fi shows, and was the subject of a great documentary in the early 90s, a sound very much like the one used in Good Vibrations and the Doctor Who theme song, even though both used fake versions of what the theremin instrument actually was. I remember going to see that movie and instantly being drawn to the story. Now Sean Michaels takes it and draws so much more fro ...more
Sarah Sammis
I just can't go on with this dull book any more. It's monotone.
Joseph Travers
Dec 06, 2014 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I *loved* this book. No wonder it won the Giller.

I read this book in every spare moment I had.

I'm going to immediately look up what else Michaels has written because this was frankly fantastic.

The style of his writing is minimalistic. What I mean is that he doesn't describe absolutely everything in a scene... just the really important bits, and lets your mind fill in the rest as you read. It reminded me of early Murakami in that regard... he describes things juuuust a bit, but in such unusual an
Apr 07, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: first-reads
-This was a Good Reads first reads win!-


To cut to the chase I really loved this book. I loved pausing after reading something so beautifully written by Sean Michaels to soak it in. I loved imagining George Gershwin and Glen Miller jamming at Dr Theremin's house. I especially loved the tragic second half of the book.

But the thing I did not like, or rather, found the least compelling was Termen's love for Clara. It's strange though, I feel like it worked for the story, and Termen needed
Nov 19, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This author's ability to write a book that ranges in theme from music (including Jazz Age New York City) to the Soviet gulag is amazing. The theme of music and, in this novel, its relationship to science, run throughout settings from Leningrad to New York to Kolyma Labor Camp and to Moscow and activities from scientific experimentation to dancing in Harlem to working in the gulag to spying (both in the US and in Russia). What a strange and wonderful combination! The writing is beautiful. I will ...more
Apr 10, 2014 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: favorites

This novel has so much to offer -- otherworldly music, inventions, science, history, glamour, espionage, gulags, prison deprivations and dancing so hard your shoes come undone. But the electricity that powers the entire tale is the love Leon has for Clara.

Brilliantly written and imagined, Us Conductors transported me to times and places I have never been.

A worthy Giller Prize winner!
Christopher Farrell
I was recommended this book by a friend, and whileI loved the story and the "characters", I felt that it just ended up being a sad story. I was hoping for something a little more upbeat, and while I understand that life isn't like that, it's hard to leave this book as a letdown.

Michaels does write wonderfully, however, and manages to make stark and brutal scenes almost hauntingly beautiful.
Julie Campbell
Aug 05, 2015 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Oh wow, did I love this book. The story is great, and I was very interested in the characters and to find out how things would unfold but mostly I just loved how it was written. Like, I LOVED how it was written. The style and structure of his sentences was just beautiful and so perfectly captured the love story. Definitely one that I'll need to pick up in paperback for a re-read.
Debra Komar
Continuing on my streak of not necessarily agreeing with the Giller jury. This is a competent first book and the subject matter is interesting but I just never got that engrossed by it. It began to feel like a chore to read, rather than something compelling. The writer has skill but there is a distance in it that I could never overcome.
Joan B
Mar 05, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I really loved this book... I wasn't sure at first, but heard an interview on CBC, and thought this sounds more than interesting! Giller Panel made an excellent choice.
Ben Babcock
Us Conductors notably plays fast and loose with its label as historical fiction. Michaels freely admits in his Author’s Note that the Termen he depicts is highly fictionalized—no kung fu or murder is on record, as far as we know—and points the reader in the direction of a more vanilla accounting of Termen’s real life. It seems, sometimes, like authors of historical fiction can’t win. No matter how close one adheres to historical fact, one invariably becomes the target of a pedant who wants to no ...more
Feb 16, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
The story of the russian inventor of the theremin, his life-long love Clara Rockwell and his many adventures in Soviet Russia, including work in a gulag. Chilling stuff at times but it was incredibly sweet to see a picture of the real Leon and Clara after I was done reading this.
Jan 13, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Was a tad slow at the start but eventually became immersed in this lyrically thrilling and constantly surprising narrative set in both America and Russia from the 1920s to the late 1940s.
Apr 23, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
An engaging spy story and a beautiful love story combined, written from the heart of a poet.
Enjoyed this even more than I thought I would, especially the quality of the writing.
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Born in Stirling, Scotland in 1982, Sean Michaels grew up in Ottawa, Canada. Apart from stints in Edinburgh and Kraków, he has lived in Montreal since 2000.

Sean founded the music blog Said the Gramophone in 2003.

Working mainly as a music critic, Sean's non-fiction has been published by McSweeney's, the Guardian, Pitchfork, the Globe & Mail, the Walrus, Reader's Digest, Rolling Stone, the Belie
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“Love is strengthened by distance. Dreams have weight and velocity. They are signals, promises. They have a destination. One night we will know no doubts, feel no foreign forces, and our particles will come to rest.” 2 likes
“I said : "There is a formula for beauty?"
He answered : "More than one.”
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