Tag Archives: Sean Michaels

Six Degrees of Separation – from A Christmas Carol to The Bird Artist

Six Degrees of Separation is a meme hosted by Kate over at Books Are My Favourite and Best. It works like this: each month, a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six other books to form a chain. A book doesn’t need to be connected to all the others on the list, only to the one next to it in the chain.

 

This month we’re starting, appropriately enough, with Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol which is about generosity of spirit. I’m all for that but I’m still a bit bah humbug about Christmas after so many years in bookselling which left me a wee bit cynical about the whole thing.

Patricia Highsmith’s Carol was first published with the title The Price of Salt and renamed for the film starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara. It’s the semi-autobiographical story of a tragic love affair. I’ve yet to read the book but the film was superb.

Jill Dawson’s The Crime Writer is an homage to Highsmith, a brilliant piece of literary fan fiction. She takes the writer’s time at Bridge Cottage in Suffolk and weaves it into a story which constantly pulls the rug from under her readers’ feet.

Dawson often tells the stories of real people in her fiction. Sean Michaels takes the same tack in Us, Conductors, his fictionalised story of the inventor of the theremin, a weird and wonderful musical instrument. If you want to hear it, pop over to YouTube where you’ll find a demonstration by Leon Theremin the subject of Michaels’ book.

Much to my surprise I read another novel about the theremin, shortly after Us, Conductors. Tracy Farr’s The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt tells the story of a fictional virtuoso theremin player and has a cameo from its inventor.

Continuing the musical instrument theme, Annie Proulx’ Accordion Crimes tells the story of immigration through the accordion, an instrument dear to many nations’ hearts so it seems. I like the idea of this very much but learned – and have since forgotten – far more about accordions than I ever wanted to know.

Annie Proulx’ The Shipping News is set on Newfoundland as is Howard Norman’s The Bird Artist which was published around the same time as Proulx’ bestseller in the UK. I enjoyed The Shipping News but much preferred Howard’s lyrical, poetic novel, stuffed full of eccentric characters

This month’s Six Degrees of Separation has taken me from a nineteenth-century tale of Christmas cheer (eventually) set in London to a tale of betrayal and revenge in Newfoundland. Part of the fun of this meme is comparing the very different routes other bloggers take from each month’s starting point. If you’re interested, you can follow it on Twitter with the hashtag #6Degrees, check out the links over at Kate’s blog or perhaps even join in.

The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt by Tracy Farr: A theremin reprise

Cover imageBack in what passed for a summer here in the UK, I read Sean Michaels’ Us, Conductors which told the story of Leon Theremin, inventor of the strange musical instrument that bears his name. Thoroughly enjoyable, it has what remains one of the best lines I’ve read in fiction for some time: ‘I had never been so hopeful as when Lenin played the theremin’. Much to my surprise, barely six months later, another novel featuring the theremin popped up: Tracy Farr’s The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt which tells the story of the eponymous virtuoso theremin player. Leon Theremin makes a cameo appearance but other than that, as far as I can tell, it’s entirely a work of fiction.

Invited to play at an electronic music festival, eighty-year-old Lena cuts an elegant figure on stage,  holding the audience spellbound with the ethereal sounds her instrument produces as she moves her hands over it. Lena plays rarely these days and is more than a little irked by a poor review after the concert, so much so that against her better judgement she decides to co-operate with the woman who has asked if she can make a documentary telling the story of Lena’s life. Rather than a conventional retelling, Maureen wants an extemporised version, an improvisation, and that is what Lena gives her, picking up the manuscript she began many years ago. Hers has been an eventful life. Her first four years were spent in Singapore until the diagnosis of a leaky heart resulted in her parents sending her ‘home’ to Australia where she’s met by her delightful Uncle Valentine who heads off to war for four years leaving her at boarding school. It’s Valentine who later encourages her musical talent, presenting her with an aluminium cello when she’s summoned to join her parents in Malacca, aged sixteen; Valentine who teaches her to swim, a lifelong habit and solace in times of trouble; and Valentine who opens her mind to modernity and all its exciting new inventions, paving the way to her theremin playing. After a stultifying year in Malacca, Lena makes her escape, taking herself off to Sydney where she’s introduced to the instrument that will make her name and meets the love of her life. Music, swimming, walking and solitude – these are the constants in a life that will encompass love, tragedy and a great deal of opium.

Lena neatly unfolds her story, punctuated by visits from Maureen who gently prompts her subject, opening her up with details of her own life so that Lena divulges far more than she ever intended. Farr has a sharp eye for location. Bali, which Lena visits on her way to Malacca, is particularly strikingly described – colourful and vibrant – as is the construction of the new Sydney Bridge which Lena loves to watch, seeing it as the embodiment of modernity. Grief – of which there is much – is handled with a light touch, poignant but never cloyingly so. Lena’s voice is a strong one, carrying her story through her eventful life convincingly and engrossingly. So convinced was I that I spent some time googling her but the only thing I came up with was Farr’s novel. Not the equal of Us, Conductors for me but it’s an absorbing and enjoyable novel nevertheless. And if you want to know what Lena’s extraordinary instrument sounds like, pop on over to YouTube where you’ll find a demonstration by its inventor. Once heard never forgotten!.

Paperbacks to Look Out For in January 2016: Part 1

Cover imageJanuary gets off to a stonking start with enough paperbacks to keep you oblivious to the dismal British winter. Pride of place has to go to Kate Atkinson’s fabulous A God in Ruins. By now, anyone who’s interested knows that this is the story of Teddy, brother of Ursula Todd whose many lives were lived in Life After Life. In her author’s note Atkinson says she likes ‘to think of it as a “companion” piece rather than a sequel’ and indeed that’s how it reads. I can’t speak highly enough of this novel. Just as with Life after Life, it’s an absolute mystery to me as to why Atkinson hasn’t swept the literary prize board with these two strikingly original books.

Another novel I would have liked to see at least longlisted for the Baileys, if nothing else, is Lucy Wood’s debut, Weathering. Ada and six-year-old Pepper are renovating her estranged mother’s cottage after she drowned. As Ada sets about putting distance between herself and the rest of the village Pepper becomes fascinated by her grandmother and her new surroundings. Put like that, Weathering sounds like a fairly prosaic tale but what singles it out is the vivid word pictures Wood sketches, often poetic but sometimes pithy and very funny. One of my favourite books of 2015.

One book that did make it on to a shortlist is Sean Michael’s Us Conductors which was already up for the Giller Prize when it was published here in the UK. It’s about, Leon Theremin, a Russian inventor born in 1896, and if that name seems familiar you may have come across the musical instrument he devised. Once heard its strange haunting sound is hard to forget. The bare bones of the novel are based on Theremin’s life but as Michaels is careful to point out at the very beginning ‘This book is mostly inventions’, a nice little pun on Leon’s activities which gives you a flavour of Michaels’ writing. Those inventions are spun out into an absorbing story, beautifully told.Cover image

I’m particularly eager to read the first of the three novels I haven’t reviewed: Lena Andersson’s Wilful Disregard. It’s about a coup de foudre that strikes Ester Nilsson when she meets artist Hugo Rask. She turns her back on her settled life, heedless of what anyone else says or thinks about her uncharacteristic behaviour. ‘A story of the heart written with bracing intellectual vigour’ says Alice Sebold. That title sounds particularly promising, I think.

Elyria in Catherine Lacey’s Nobody is Ever Missing seems to show a similar disregard when she abruptly leaves Manhattan on a one-way flight to New Zealand abandoning her career and loving husband. Elyria hitchhikes her way around the country, regardless of the risk.  ‘Full of mordant humour and uncanny insights, Nobody Is Ever Missing is a startling tale of love, loss, and the dangers encountered in the search for self-knowledge’ say the publishers. Sounds well worth investigating.

Cover imageThis first selection ends with Noah Hawley’s The Punch. Scott spends his time in seedy San Francisco joints when not at his dull job while David is a successful salesman with two families, one on each coast. These two are brought together when their father dies and their mother lets out a long-held secret as they travel across the country to New York. I like the idea of an American road trip and deep dark secrets are always a winner if well-handled. We’ll see.

That’s it for the first batch. If you’d like a fuller synopsis a click on a link will take you to my reviews for the first three titles and to Waterstones website for the others. And if you’d like to catch up with January hardbacks, they’re here and here. More shortly.

Us, Conductors by Sean Michaels: The life and times of Leon Theremin

Cover imageI first heard about Sean Michaels’ novel from Tanya at 52 Books or Bust earlier this year. She’d read the Canadian edition and was raving about it, hoping to convert North Americans south of the border. Picking up the link for her review I checked my own comment which begins ’Sold!’ I hope that some of you will have the same reaction but if neither Tanya nor I can persuade you perhaps the judges of the Giller Prize – Canada’s equivalent of the Man Booker – can: they made it last year’s winner. It’s about, Leon Theremin, a Russian inventor born in 1896, and if that name seems familiar you may have come across the musical instrument he devised. Once heard its strange haunting sound is hard to forget.

Leon is a bright child with a keen ear for music, always devising strange contraptions. He wins a place at Leningrad’s Physico-Technical Institute where he invents an electrical musical instrument for which the player’s body acts as the device’s conductor. Notes are produced by waving an arm in front of its antenna. Leon’s invention goes down a storm, catching the attention of Lenin, no less, who sees an opportunity. Leon is packed off to the United States where he acquires a handler in the form of Pash who wheels, deals and finesses their way around the rapturous audiences attending Leon’s concerts. Rubbing shoulders with the likes of Glen Miller and George Gershwin, Leon makes a splash in American society where he meets his beloved Clara. The years roll by: Leon continues to enjoy the theremin’s success, inventing new devices to catch Americans’ attention; Pash disappears when the Crash of ’29 hits but Leon’s adoring coterie rescues him. When the two Karls appear, Leon must spill what few beans he has every fortnight in order to stay in the US. Life becomes murkier and murkier, taxes accrue as do debts – it eventually becomes clear that returning to the motherland is the only option but things are not as they were: Lenin is dead and Stalin is in power. Leon finds himself convicted of spying, shipped off to a gulag until his inventive mind finds a way out albeit into another kind of imprisonment. Throughout it all, he remains hopelessly in love with Clara to whom the book is addressed in the form of two letters: the first written in the locked cabin of the ship taking him back to Russia tells the story of his American adventures; the second is about the gulag, written from his ‘scientists’ prison’ in the midst of the most secret of missions.

The bare bones of Us, Conductors are based on Leon Theremin’s life but as Michaels is careful to point out at the very beginning ‘This book is mostly inventions’, a nice little pun on Leon’s activities which gives you a flavour of Michaels’ writing. Those inventions are spun out into an absorbing story, beautifully told. Michaels has an eye for the succinct yet striking phrase – Leon is ‘baffled by comfort’ when the depravity of the gulag is swapped for what feels like house arrest, Pash’s eyes have ‘the glint of safety deposit boxes’ when making his many deals. The American chapters are as vividly exciting as the gulag sections are gut-churning. Leon is a cleverly drawn character, disarming in his naïveté yet entirely believable. It also has one of the best lines I’ve come across in fiction for some time: ‘I had never been so hopeful as when Lenin played the theremin’ Beat that! Many thanks to Tanya for alerting me to Us, Conductors, and if you want to hear the theremin pop over to YouTube where you’ll find a demonstration by its inventor.