Welcome to The Word On The Street Book Club!

The Word On The Street has selected four great Canadian reads by authors appearing at the 2014 festival as part of our first summer book club.

We’ll be discussing the books each week throughout the summer, and on September 21st, everyone will have the chance to meet the authors in person at Queen’s Park Circle. ‘Tis the season for beach and park reading, so let’s get the conversation started!

If you aren’t an ‘official’ member of the book club, that shouldn’t stop you from joining in with your thoughts in the comments of the blog.

Click on the tabs above to check out the discussion questions our intrepid Book Club Leaders have come up with!


978-0-345-81332-9Us Conductors
Sean Michaels

Book Club Leader: Sara Saddington

Sara Saddington is a writer and publishing professional in Toronto. It is her life’s ambition to read all the books, but she will settle for reading many of the best ones. You can find her on Twitter @SaraSaddington

Take it away, Sara!


Section 1 Questions: Chapters 1-4, (page 1-96)

Section 2: Chapter 5-9 (page 97-188)

Section 3: Chapter 10-Part 2 Chapter 4 (page 189-267)

Section 4: the rest (page 268-347)


Part 1:

  1. How did you feel after you finished the first chapter? Do you have a clear understanding of Leon and his situation? Do you find the story compelling? Could you picture the theremin? (Bonus question: have you ever seen or played a theremin?)
  2. On page 45, Pash tells Leon, “You are more unwitting than you think.” Do you trust Leon as a narrator? Do you like or sympathize with him?  So far, do you enjoy the tone and style of Leon’s voice? Why or why not?
  3. Us Conductors walks an interesting line between fact and fiction. How does your understanding of the references the author makes to the composers, inventors, and political figures of the era affect your engagement with the novel? Does knowing that the novel is “inspired by the true life and loves of the famed Russian scientist, inventor and spy” (cover copy) change your experience of the book as work of fiction? (Further, where is the line between fiction and non-fiction? Does defining that line matter?)

6 thoughts on “Welcome to The Word On The Street Book Club!

  1. I am so glad the book clubs have started and I can discuss Us Conductors with others! Sara, I also found myself wondering about Leon. I don’t think I have a clear understanding of him at all. He seems so naïve at first, which made me not like him. He is growing on me now.

    I am really enjoying Sean Michaels’ writing style overall. I picked this book because of the setting. I love this time period, and as you noted, Michaels does weave the narrative into history. Identifying the historical occurrences helps to draw me into the story.

    As for the theremin…I have to confess I looked it up on YouTube.

  2. I have never heard of a theremin until coming across this book. I am resisting the urge to google it as I want to learn about it from the writer’s perspective.
    I’m still easing in to the book. It hasn’t yet grabbed me. I must say that the references to composers etc is compelling as it gives me a frame of reference to the time period the book is set in.
    I like Leon’s voice so far. He seems very mellow with a bit of a cynic in him.

  3. Catherine, I completely agree with you. Leon seems quite naive, and it’s hard to tell if that’s an act or not. Since he’s the one telling the story, he has the power to shape our perception of him. I find him very interesting, but certainly not trustworthy. But then, can you ever trust a spy?
    Mongupp, (Can I call you that?) I also found easing into the book a bit slow. I think that Michaels’ style takes a bit of time to adjust to. There is a dreamy poeticism to the prose that sets the pace, and the back and forth from the past to the present kept the rhythm of the story fairly slow at first. I’m interested to see how reactions change as the novel goes on.
    As for the theremin itself, I forced myself to finish the novel before giving in to the temptation to google it. I must confess, at the time my reaction to seeing it played on Youtube was tepid at best. I struggled to understand what was so compelling about it. But then, in the middle of the Jack White concert a few weeks ago, one of the musicians played an insane theremin solo that blew my mind apart. The tone was so otherworldly and compelling, and the visual of him playing was just gorgeous. The next day I revisited the passages in Us Conductors that describe the theremin and reactions to it, and found that Michaels really nailed it. It helped me to realize what a difficult task Michaels set up for himself: is it ever possible to describe music in words? Sure, we can get a sense of tone and style and cultural importance, but describing how a piece of music really feels is something else entirely.

    • Clara Venice will be playing the theremin at The Word On The Street festival to accompany Sean Michaels’ reading! I might sneak away from my post to see that.

  4. I was actually really excited to read this novel because it was about the theremin (I have been interested in them for a while; also, in an interesting turn, Hannibal Lecter plays the theremin in the most recent season of NBC Hannibal, so the instrument is also a bit more in the public eye right now. Also also! There are videos on youtube of both Leon and Clara playing the theremin which is kind of amazing).

    I really enjoy Sean Micheal’s (appropriately lyrical) writing style and Sara, I agree with you on having trouble figuring out if Leon’s apparent naivete (especially about Pash) was an act or not.

    My favourite line in the book is “That is the secret of the theremin, after all: your body is a conductor” (p16). I really like the duality of the body as a conductor of music and electricity (doubly important for the theremin) and how the idea of the body as a conductor is returned to throughout the novel.

  5. While, as others have said, it took some time for me to get into the tone of ‘Us Conductors’ – I am now happily and thoroughly engrossed. It contains, too, so many instances of apt and poetic observances, such beautiful prose (eg when Leon likens Clara’s laughter to a tumbling kite; when having the right screwdriver in hand for a task allows Leon to feel “a bloom” of deep satisfaction).

    Micheals clearly did a lot of research for this book and applies it rigorously, such that the smallest details of Leon’s thoughts feel uniquely appropriate to his time – an impressive feat and one that is so rewarding to the reader. Personally, I have less need for all of the references to the famous people of the time – wholly fictional standins would suit me just as well, and –perhaps I’m being testy here– strike me as on the whole more creative. While Micheals is so far very subdued in his incorporation of them, in the broader entertainment world (including ‘original’ plays) I am dismayed with how frequently writers today are recycling other people’s characters or celebrities (from the past) as characters in their works.

    As far as Leon’s trustworthiness as a narrator goes… Well it simply seems that he has chosen not to look too closely at what he was allowing himself and his work to be used for and that this willful blindness will soon catch up to him. One thing that seems more self-indulgent, possibly more dishonest, however is his relationship with Katia… what could be going on there?

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