Said the Gramophone’s Sean Michaels: Us Conductors

For over a decade, Said the Gramophone has been one of the seminal music blogs and the most well written thanks to the distinctively eloquent prose of founder Sean Michaels. Though I’d been sharing music on Muruch a few years before Said the Gramophone was created, its literary presence in the then burgeoning mp3 blog scene certainly influenced my own approach to writing about music. Subsequently, I’ve rarely felt such excitement, sisterly pride and faith-like confidence in a book’s potential to entertain and inspire as I did turning the first page of Sean’s debut novel, Us Conductors.

“The sound of the theremin is simply pure electric current. It is the chanting of lightning as it hides in its cloud. The song never strains or falters; it persists, stays, keeps, lasts, lingers. It will never abandon you.

In that regard, it is better than any of us.”

Us Conductors is an extraordinary work of historical fiction that is equal parts love story and spy novel – and all about the theremin. The tale encompasses the unusual life story of the instrument’s Russian inventor, Léon Theremin, particularly his romance with the theremin’s most famous player, Clara Rockmore, as well as a whole lotta Stalin-era international intrigue.

Sean portrays Léon Theremin as the Steve Jobs of the early 20th century with his innovative inventions, motivational speeches about bringing cutting edge technology to the common man and his ongoing battle to maintain creative control amidst greedy corporations and sinister political agencies, both American and Soviet.

Yes, I imagined a theremin in every home; not just the billions of new songs that would sing out, but the realization of millions of Americans, Englishmen, Spaniards, Siamese: If we can do this, what else can we free people accomplish?”

I read the first half of the book during a recent vacation, happy to discover it was the perfect book for a perfect beach day. I fell into the novel’s poetic description of Léon and Clara’s budding romance with seagulls flying elegant circles in the clear blue sky above me, the sun glistening gold on the sea beside me and Allison Crowe singing “Hallelujah” into my ears.

The sweet, old-fashioned courtship of the protagonist scientist and his beloved muse often brought to my mind one of my favorite poems, “Recuerdo” by Edna St. Vincent Milay.

For dessert you ordered a chocolate parfait. I ordered a cup of coffee. I drank it sweet, with two small spoonfuls of sugar. Someone was playing records, one after another. They all sounded like love songs. You hid your grin as you scraped mousse from the bottom of the parfait glass.”

Unfortunately, my return home was accompanied by the novel’s Kafkaesque second half. It was a drastic change in tone, though the quality of Sean’s writing remained steady throughout. I suppose history left Sean little room for creative license. The sorrow and disillusionment that plagued the novel’s final pages ultimately overshadowed the pure joy of its exquisite beginning. Nevertheless, I hope this was just the first of many Sean Michaels novels to come.

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You can hear music, both classic and modern, that inspired the novel at Sean’s Official Site and here’s a video of an aged Clara Rockmore herself playing theremin on Saint-Saëns’ “The Swan,” a piece frequently mentioned in the book…

Scott Alarick: Revival

Scott Alarick’s Revival is a beautifully crafted, eloquent, heartfelt novel about folk music, the enduring bonds of love and friendship, and the equally heavy burdens of doubtful youth and regret-filled age.

There are undeniable elements of Crazy Heart in the romance between the novel’s washed up, alcoholic, folk curmudgeon and his feisty, young, female protégé. There are also parallels to the tv show Nashville in its juxtaposition of the country music industry’s dark, greedy, business side with the ragtag group of struggling unknowns at a local open mic night. Though the publication date indicates the book predates the tv show.

Beyond those plot threads lies a rich tapestry of folk music history, a sincere and delightfully gushing love for the art and struggle of making music, and a championing of folk artists both classic and current. Alarik delves back into the origins and traditions of folk music, its evolutions and international travels and transformations, and philosophizes on the pros and cons of songwriting techniques and credits.

There’s also a very passionate, somewhat crusty folk critic character I found myself relating to a bit. Considering Alarik’s past as a folk critic for The Boston Globe, I wonder how much of the character is autobiographical. Alarik was the first Boston critic to write about Ani DiFranco, Alison Krauss, Dar Williams, Kate Rusby, Shemekia Copeland,and Crooked Still. He’s also a coffeehouse-frequenting folk musician, so I’m also curious about what else in the novel may have been taken from his own life.

The novel references several well known names in the folk community – everyone from Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger to Emmylou Harris and Dar Williams to Utah Phillips and Ani DiFranco. Alarik even incorporated Dar Williams’ song, “February,” into the story by changing the title and making it a song written by one of the protagonists.

Yet all the folk music namedropping, like everything else about this exquisite novel, is completely organic in placement and pace. The characters are at times overly starry eyed and sentimental, but it fits with the novel’s overall hopeful, jubilant mood. It’s very much a love story, but it’s also very much a story about loving music.

It’s also a lovely book in the literal, physical sense. The paperback is as large as a hardback, but not heavy. The gorgeous cover art shows the intertwined bodies of a fiddle and guitar.

Revival is a beautiful book inside and out.

I actually hugged the book when I finished it, happily sighed “Now that’s a book!” and handed it to Brendan, who is reading it as I type this review. He just said: “This book is awesome! How does someone create such lovable characters within a few pages?”

So there you go, two very enthusiastic endorsements from the Muruch household. Oh, and we did not get a free review copy if that matters. It was worth every penny we paid. Revival is now one of my new favorite books of all time, and possibly my favorite book about music.

You can sample the first pages of the novel at Amazon and if you like them, you’ll probably love the book as much as we do. You can also hear free audio readings from the book by the author himself here.

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Scott Alarik Official Site

Hallie Ephron: There Was An Old Woman

A daughter discovers her aging alcoholic mother has become a hoarder. Next door, a nephew tries to convince his elderly aunt to move into an assisted living facility.

These are the seemingly innocuous elements which begin Hallie Ephron’s novel, There Was An Old Woman, but there’s many a twist and turn before the true mystery is revealed.

Who’s losing their mind? Who’s hiding ulterior motives? And where are all the little old ladies (and their houses) in the neighborhood going?

I can’t say more without spoiling the ending. I was pleasantly surprised by this slow building but satisfying suspense novel. Author Hallie Ephron is the sister of late writer/director Nora Ephron and There Was an Old Woman was inspired by several real events, which you can read about on her official site.

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Jennifer E. Smith: This Is What Happy Looks Like

Jennifer E. Smith’s novel, This Is What Happy Looks Like, is a sweet little (well, big) story about two teenagers who randomly connect online, fall in love and then meet in person.

The twist, which is revealed at the beginning, is he’s a famous movie star and she’s harboring a secret past.

I would’ve liked it better without the extra celebrity melodrama. Far more interesting and charming were the emails that open the first few chapters and the awkward transition the two lovebirds experience when they finally meet face to face.

Still, it was a refreshingly light, romantic and happy read.

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Jami Attenberg: The Middlesteins

Guest Post By: Brendan

Jami Attenberg has captured the zeitgeist in her heartbreaking and life-affirming novel, The Middlesteins.

Edie Middlestein is eating herself to death and Attenberg shows us her sometimes sad life, and the ramifications of her decisions for herself and her family.

Deftly hopping through time, we are situated not with the date but with Edie’s weight at the time. It’s a surprisingly effective device.

The story is told from a variety of perspectives – in one memorable chapter, the Cohns, Goldsteins, Weinmans and Frankens describe the Middlestein b’nai mitzvah.

Full of life and flawed humanity, The Middlesteins reminds me of some favorite novels of the past decade – Next, Last Night at the Lobster, Paula Spencer and Olive Kitteridge.

Attenberg was the subject of a recent interview at Other People with Brad Listi (mp3).

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