Us Conductors by Sean Michaels

Facts that might be useful to be aware of or find out about before you read this book:Us Conductors

1. On the title page written below the title is the following:


the heart of Clara Rockmore,


finest theramin player the world will ever know”;

2. This novel was awarded the 2014 Scotia Bank Giller Prize in 2014;

3. On the page prior to PART ONE and its epigraph, are these words: THIS BOOK IS MOSTLY INVENTIONS;

4. Investigate what a theramin is and perhaps find a site on the internet where you can hear one.

Numbers 1 and 4 above are probably the most important.

The novel opens this way:

“I was Leon Termen before I was Dr. Theremin, and before I was Leon, I was Lev Sergeyvich. The instrument that is now known as a theramin could as easily have been called a leon, a lyova, a sergeyvich. It could have been called a clara, after its greatest player.”

It all began when Lev was fourteen years old and one of his teachers introduced the class to glass cylinders also called vacuum tubes. These came in wooden crates and were “wrapped individually like wine glasses”. One holiday the professor allowed Lev to take a vacuum tube home with him and he experimented while his parents thought he was practising piano and violin. When he returned to school and sent a letter to his professor in which he proposed doing a demonstration at a Family Day which was approaching. He had arranged to have vacuum tubes distributed to the audience of parents and he had strung up fourteen lines of criss-crossing copper wires on the ceiling of the gymnasium. The induction coils had been hidden in a broom closet. The professor instructed the audience to lift their vacuum tubes and they did so one after another.

This was Lev’s reaction: “The feeling I had was the feeling you get as you pass through a gate and into a walled garden. As each vacuum tube entered the electrical field of my lacework of wires, one by one, the Geisslers [vacuum tube] began to glow.

I felt then what I have felt many times since. It is the moment you forget the electricity…and for a hot, proud instant you think it is you who did this, who made the tubes glow, you clever mouse.”

“This is the hubris of the inventor. It is a monster that has devoured many scientists. I have strived to keep it at bay. Even in America, among ten thousand flatterers, I tried to concentrate on my machines, not their maker.”

Lev was born in 1896 (see bio here) and in his student years at Petrograd University invented something he called the radio watchman which was a “magical box” that set up an invisible electro-magnetic field and, if a human body passed inside that field, the circuit would close and an alarm would go off. You might imagine how this invention is applied in our modern world.

Lev worked at the Physico-Technical Institute on the outskirts of Leningrad where a number of chemists, mathematicians and physicists were employed doing research. In the book, Lev describes himself at this time: “I was not like the other physicists. My bicycle was ordinary, with a bell that played middle C.”

It was during his time at the Physico-Technical Institute that he had the idea for the theramin. He describes it as “more or less a combination of its precedents: the soundless watchman, the hissing gas monitor. I was monitoring human movements as if they were the fluctuations of a gas, and adding sound.”

“In November 1921, I was invited to demonstrate the theramin before the institute’s mechanical engineers and physicists, my first formal audience. ”

“I named and indicated the transformer, the oscillator, the unlit vacuum tubes. I closed the cabinet, concealing the components. I cleared my throat. “And so,” I said, and I turned the theramin on.”  See/hear him play it here.

Late in 1927, Lev went to New York and he was met by harpists hired by Rudolph Wurlitzer who wanted to license the theramin on the spot. Wurlitzer envisioned a theramin in every home in America. Lev did not sign the papers Wurlitzer had brought.

He had his debut in the Plaza Hotel’s ballroom and those present included Edsel Ford, Charles S. Guggenheimer and Vincent Astor as well as Sergei V. Rachmaninoff and Arturo Toscanini whom Lev met after the performance of Schubert and Offenbach.

In his studio on West 59th Street, Lev worked on building the commercial potential of the theramin and on prototyping new devices. He gave concerts to large numbers and met with marketing people for companies like RCA and Wurlitzer and he trained students. Among the latter was Clara Rockmore mentioned above. And so begins another chapter in Lev’s life in New York.

The author pulls the reader in effortlessly and the reader is compelled to continue. The glitzy New York world is juxtaposed with the darker Russian world of  Thermin’s early and later life. As a reader, I experienced the entire story almost seamlessly and simply soaked it up one page at a time.

The Giller was well deserved and I recommend the book wholeheartedly.


Celia’s Song by Lee Maracle

Celia's SongI read the first chapter of this book three times before I continued into the actual story. It had a very powerful effect upon me although I was at a loss for words to explain what effect that was. I think it had much to do with the very first sentence:

“There is something helpless in being a witness.”

This particular witness is not identified for another three or four pages but that is almost irrelevant as far as it relates to what the witness says or experiences. I think I identified totally with the witness.

“No one comes here anymore, just me. I can’t seem to resist coming to the place where everyone died.  Some kind of illness overtook them, burned them with its heat; the monster illness disfigured them before taking their lives. It’s so quiet. ”

Up to this point, any variety of catastrophe might be being described. Given the state of our planet it doesn’t take a super imagination to empathize with the narrator.

The place actually referred to is the site of the last  longhouse in a particular village and “the bones fret inside the decrepit structure. The people were here one day, then gone. Some small part of me resents their departure nonetheless. …Still, I empathize with the petulance that simmers inside the angry bones. The intensity of their rage grows with time. The bones wait; wait for burial, for ceremony, for their final resting place. They shift and rattle their discontent.

“I breathe deep. There is not much I can do but visit and witness for them.”

The witness tells of a two-headed serpent that used to guard the longhouse and was mounted on the front but is now hanging by a thread because no one has fed or acknowledged him in a very long time.

“The humans broke their contact with the serpent when they stopped feasting and singing for him. This breach granted permission to the serpent to slide from the house front and return to sea, but both heads did not want to leave – just one did, the restless head, the one that preferred shadowland. Current living humans did not seem worried about this breach with the serpent. In any agreement, both parties must hold up their end in a timely manner for the deal to be secure. I guess in these days of cars and electric fires, it may not appear all that rational to restore old practices.”

I felt like the words were addressed to me directly, not in the sense that I was responsible for any of the destruction but, in the sense that I too felt and continue to feel like a witness as I learn more and more about the destruction that is being perpetrated upon this planet and upon its people.

I think about all we have lost and have yet to lose and I understand the “intensity of their rage” and I know why they “shift and rattle their discontent”.

Celia is also a witness. Our narrator thinks: “I need to witness this. There is no one else. The screaming wind, the flying debris, and the pelting rain are too much for me.” Celia hears the narrator. She is watching a severe storm. She hears the narrator say” “This is how it is to die in a war, nothing heroic about it.” Celia knows this to be true.

The narrator repeats: “I am a witness. I am obligated to watch the destruction.”  Don’t many of us feel this far too often these days? I had never quite figured out what it was I felt as I learned more and more about the devastation of our world. Witness is the perfect word to describe what I felt and continue to feel: witnessing is what we do and what we witness is a source of pain and deep disappointment and/or sadness.

Celia thinks she hears the bones in the longhouse talking: “Someone has to pay for the decades of neglect. Someone has to appease our need for respect.” “This is the first time she’s heard bones talk.”

Celia is a seer; the narrator is a shape-shifter who most commonly appears as a mink. Celia’s homeRavensong is in southwestern British Columbia. She has a large family, all of whom this reader enjoyed meeting and recognizing their uniqueness and their simultaneous universality. Many of them appear in Ravensong, Maracle’s 1993 novel, which I have now started to read. I am so glad to have this novel and to learn more about the characters in Celia’s Song. This will expand the world I have been immersed in in Celia’s Song and which I know I will have to return to after I read Ravensong. Opening Ravensong was  rather like finding an old family album that one didn’t know was still around or meeting a person who knew all the people you had met in a town you used to live in but haven’t seen for decades.

In Celia’s Song, the intimacy established by Maracle’s voice is  something I have not come across very often. An interviewer recently stated in Quill & Quire that she was aware of “the response of my  body and my emotions” and of the high degree to which she trusted the author. She also believed, as I did,  that her response had something to do with the opening sentence cited above: “There’s something helpless about being a witness.”

The interviewer (Leanne Simpson) is an indigenous woman and she wrote that she knew the novel was going to take her “to some dark places” and that she would have “to witness what was there and face” herself and “things that happened” in her own life. I am not an indigenous woman but I had the same experience. Maracle said that she “was looking for the everyday language that is so beautiful when we’re talking about difficult subjects.” She says that she “wanted the person reading it to be totally relaxed, so the language is quite soft all the way through. It’s as beautiful as I could make it. It’s as true and honest and deep as it needs to be so we can swim in it and come out with understanding.” In my reading experience, Maracle succeeded in all those things.

For me…probably my top read for 2014.

Also reviewed in 2014: Daughters Are Forever which will probably tie with Celia’s Song for the position of my top read this year!

The Ghost Riders of Ordebec by Fred Vargas

“A trail of tiny breadcrumbs led from the kitchen into the bedroom, as far as the spotless sheets where the old woman lay dead, her mouth open. Commissaire Adamsberg looked down at the crumbs in silence, pacing slowly to and fro. and wondering what kind of Tom Thumb – or what ogre in this case – might have dropped them there. He was in a small, dark, ground-floor apartment, with just three rooms, in the eighteenth arrondissement, in northern Paris.

“The old woman was lying in the bedroom. Her husband was in the dining room. He showed neither impatience nor emotion as he waited, just looked longingly at his newspaper, folded open at the page with crossword puzzle, which he didn’t dare try to solve while the police were there. He had told them his brie life story. He and his wife had met at work, in an insurance company: she was a secretary, he an accountant. They had married in their careless youth, not knowing it was destined to last fifty-nine years. Then his wife had died in the night. Heart attack, according to the local commissaire, who was ill in bed and had called on Adamsberg to replace him. Just do me a favour, it won’t take more than an hour, a routine morning call.”

“One more time, Adamsberg walked the trail of crumbs. The flat was impeccably kept: the armchairs had antimacassars, the Formica surfaces were gleaming, the windows were spotless and the dishes washed. He went over to the bread bin, which contained part of a baguette, and a large half-loaf, wrapped in a clean towel and hollowed out in the middle. He returned to the husband siting in his armchair, and pulled up another chair alongside.”

The two men talk about the breadcrumbs and Adamsberg tries to get at the explanation for a hollowed out loaf of bread. The husband, Julien Tuilot tells Adamsberg he will claim it was a mercy killing and that he will be back home in a couple of months. He even tells Adamsberg that he is cunning . The Commissaire replies “That’s very true, Monsieur Tuilot.”

If you have read any of the eight previous titles in this series you will know right away that Commissaire Adamsberg is far more cunning than Monsieur Tuilot.

Ghost Riders of OrdebedAnd, although the breadcrumb tale is intriguing the main case in this volume concerns another trail, the Chemin de Bonneval which dates back to before the First Crusade and was ridden by the Furious Army also known as Hellequin’s Horde. The Furious Army rides near Odebec and , when Adamsberg returns to his office he finds waiting outside a woman from Ordebec who has come to report a missing man, Michel Herbier. The woman’s name is Valentine Vendermot and she explains to Adamsberg that she has come to him on the recommendation of her priest. It takes him some time to establish Madame Vendermot’s concern as she makes it very clear that the missing man is of no personal concern to her and that he was, in fact, a horrible person. As it turns out, the woman’s concern is for her daughter who has foreseen the death of the missing man and some other men as well.

Enough said. The historical background about the Furious Army and Hellequin’s Horde, the Ghost Riders of the book’s title, makes for a marvellous sleuthing adventure and one that Adamsberg is especially suited to tackle.

There is another delightful subplot in the story which involves tracking down a petty criminal who has tied together the feet of a pigeon in the park near Adamsberg’s office building and that he brings home to nurse to recovery, a task which his recently discovered son in his twenties takes over with complete dedication. The intention is to use the string tied on the bird’s feet to track the miscreant who abused the bird and others in the park. This subplot is interwoven cleverly through the adventure in Ordebec.

One of Adamsberg’s team, Commandant Danglard, is a history buff and provides background on the Furious Army. He explains that when the army of Ghost Riders rides the Chemin de Bonneval it always carries “along living men men or women, who are heard shreiking and lamenting in suffering and flames. They’re the ones the witness recognizes.” Madame Vendermot’s daughter did just that.

As with all Adamsberg mysteries, there is a stellar cast of characters both in Paris and in Ordebec. Among the latter is a woman he meets on his first walk along the Chemin de Bonneval and who tells him straight off that he took his time getting there from the station. Her sharp wit and forthright speech continue throughout the novel. Her name is Léone (Léo) and Adamsberg ends up staying in her home because there really is no hotel. Léo has a dog named Fleg (short for flegmatic) who eats sugar cubes which will play a role in solving the Ordebec mysteries.

If you have not yet read an Adamsberg book I would highly recommend starting at the beginning which is The Three Evangelists from 2006 unless you are not perturbed about gaps in where things began. I have not read one that I did not enjoy immensely but Adamsberg is unusual and definitely a cerebral character as are some of his investigating officers so if you prefer another type of detective you could be disappointed.

There is a reference in this book to the butterfly effect which is part of chaos theory and I found this particularly interesting as it relates to crimes and mysteries and the solving of same. If you are interested you might want to take a look at Wikipedia here.

Vargas is an historian and archeologist by profession. In her note at the end of this book she writes”Many references to the story of Gauchelin, the priest of Bonneval who encountered Hellequin and his ghostly cavalcade, can be found on the internet. The ancient texts cited in this novel are taken from Claude Lecouteaux,  Fantômes et revenants au Moyen Age, Image editions, Paris, 1986.