Gateway Gazette

From My Bookshelf ~ Featuring Sean Michaels and Lily King

 

By Lynn Willoughby

Us Conductors ~ Sean Michaels

This novel by Canadian Sean Michaels won the 2014 Giller Prize. However, this doesn’t always mean it is a great read for me. Often the prose is excellent but the story is very esoteric. This one is a living history of the jazz age in New York to the gulags and science prisons in the Soviet Union under Stalin. I could not put it down.

This novel is a fictionalized account of the life of Leon Termen, the Russian engineer who invented the theremin – an electronic musical instrument controlled without physical contact. There are two metal antennas that sense the position of the hands. One antenna controls occillations for frequency, one for volume. While Termen is in the US giving concerts, teaching students and selling theremins, he is also enjoying jazz, hobnobbing with the great musicians of the day and dancing and falling in love in various clubs and speakeasies.

Eventually his handlers inform him he is about to be arrested for tax evasion and spying. He leaves abruptly and is now held prisoner on a boat bound for Russia. He worries constantly about his equipment, his tubes and wires, his new inventions. He doesn’t ever realize he will be sent to a gulag in Siberia, in a cattle car, for treason.

This part of the book is difficult to read. The descriptions of the cold, the work, the starvation, the living conditions and the deaths among the prisoners is hard going. What keeps Termen going is a never ending inner dialogue with Clara, a woman from New York he is deeply in love with. This dialogue continues for years and is especially important in Siberia. Eventually someone realizes who they have here as a prisoner and he is taken to Moscow to become a scientific prisoner. Make no mistake, he is still a prisoner but has unlimited equipment to work with, better food and it is certainly warmer.

The prose in this novel is so descriptive and gut wrenching I often felt part of the story. When Termen describes his first time in the sunshine after years spent in gulags, jail or labs, you could almost smell the green!

The music is always a part of this book, but so is Termen’s brilliance in his many, many commercial inventions – for submarines, airplanes, the first bugging device, motion sensors. These become increasingly important as WWII drags on.

This is a wonderful story. Read this book!

Euphoria ~ Lily King

I have linked these two books as they are both fictionalized novels of real people. This one deals with a love triangle for three anthropologists in the jungles of New Guinea. Having read about Margaret Mead for years, there is no doubt that Nell in this book is based heavily on this wonderful woman.

It is the 1930s and Andrew Bankson has been alone for several years. He has heard from his mother about the deaths of his two brothers in the war and is on the verge of suicide when a chance encounter with the controversial Nell Stone and her charismatic Australian husband Fen, pulls him back from the brink. The three colleagues become friends and decide to collaborate and investigate a nearby tribe, the Tam, that Bankson has heard about.

The Tam are artistic, are female dominated and ignite passions – both intellectual and personal, among the three anthropologists. This makes for tense and interesting reading.

This is a brief period in the life of Margaret Mead along the Sepik river in New Guinea. I learned a lot about the area, the flora and fauna and about the primitive inhabitants. It made for a good read.

“In one frenzied night the trio put it all down on paper: an exhilarating scene of creative and intellectual gestation that captures all the excitement of discovery and the promise that we might find a way to better understand humankind. Here is the euphoria of the title…”

There are a lot of clues, a lot of foreshadowing after this night of three competitive egos in the remote jungles of New Guinea. Something is bound to go wrong! It is a satisfying conclusion of three charismatic alpha creatures. King’s pain staking research makes us believe “…the savageness beneath the veneer of society. It is now very far beneath the surface, no matter where you go…”

  • Father of the Rain
  • The Pleasing Hours

…………and several others

Who Knew?

Margaret Mead, arguably the most renowned anthropologist of all time, was an amazing women and a prolific writer. She is one of my heroes. One quote strikes me as her essence. “Life in the twentieth century is like a parachute jump – you have to get it right the first time.”

Related Articles

Leave a Reply