Ethan Canin 1960–-
American novelist, short story and novella writer, and editor.
The following entry presents criticism on Canin's short fiction from 1987 through 2000.
Canin is considered a talented and acclaimed short fiction writer. His short stories and novellas are praised for their technical virtuosity, subtlety, and poignancy. Commentators note his adroit exploration of such universal thematic concerns as aging, identity, and the dynamics of family relationships. Although he has written three novels, he is primarily known as a short fiction writer.
Canin was born on July 19, 1960, in Ann Arbor, Michigan. While a student in a prep high school, Canin received encouragement from his teacher, the popular author Danielle Steel. His first story was published when he was nineteen while he was a student at Stanford University. In 1982 he received his B.A. from Stanford. He was accepted to the prestigious Iowa Writer's Workshop and was awarded a National Endowment for the Arts grant in 1989. After receiving his M.F.A. in 1984, Canin decided to enroll in medical school. When a book editor called to publish a collection of his stories, he put together Emperor of the Air, which appeared in 1988. In 1992 he received his M.D. from Harvard University. Canin continues to write novels and short fiction, has taught creative writing at several universities as a visiting professor, and pursues his medical career.
Major Works of Short Fiction
Canin's reputation as a short fiction writer rests on his two collections: his debut work, Emperor of the Air, which contains nine short stories, and The Palace Thief, which appeared in 1994 and includes four novellas. In Emperor of the Air, Canin introduces themes that will recur throughout his work: marriage, the relationship between fathers and sons, and the impact of familial relationships. In “Emperor of the Air,” an older man refuses the entreaties of his neighbor to cut down an old, majestic elm tree that has become infested with insects. The conflict causes him to reflect on his own life and mortality. “We Are Nighttime Travelers” explores the long marriage of Frank and Francine. When Frank discovers poetry, it allows him to rediscover the love he felt for his wife early in their relationship. “The Year of Getting to Know Us” follows the story of Lenny, who is visiting his father in the hospital. While dealing with his father's death, he reflects on his childhood and how it affected his life. In the title novella from Emperor of the Air, Canin chronicles the life of Mr. Hundert, a respected teacher of classics at an exclusive prep school. As Hundert nears retirement, he is invited to take part in a reenactment of the school's ancient history contest, which is being sponsored by Sedgewick Bell, one of his former students. Now a corporate magnate, Bell cheats during the contest—repeating what he had done as a student. Faced with Sedgewick's cheating and manipulation, Hundert has to face his own limitations as a teacher and as a man. In City of Broken Hearts, an aging father learns something about love and trust from his son. Batorsag and Szerelem investigates the competitive relationship between two brothers, Clive and William. After surmising that his genius older brother's erratic behavior is caused by schizophrenia, William discovers Clive's true secret. When it is accidentally revealed to the rest of the family, the repercussions are far-reaching and unexpected.
Although Canin is regarded as one of the more proficient and noteworthy American short fiction writers today, there are few extensive critical examinations of his short stories and novellas. Reviewers have taken great pains to differentiate Canin from other popular writers of his generation whose works tend to focus on more controversial and trendy themes. They assert that Canin's work is timeless and universal as it concentrates on such issues as aging, the power of love, and the repercussions of family dependency and rivalry. Critics commend Canin's technical expertise, attention to detail, and the maturity of his narrative voice. Some reviewers have derided his short fiction as uneven, predictable, unemotional, and too technically proficient. Commentators have noted the influence of John Cheever on his work and have investigated the impact of his medical knowledge upon his fiction. Canin has also been discussed within the tradition of Jewish American fiction writers.
SOURCE: Goldstein, William. “Houghton Mifflin Publishing Stories by Literary Fellowship Winner.” Publishers Weekly 232, no. 25 (18 December 1987): 19-20.
[In the following essay, Goldstein investigates the influence of the popular writer Danielle Steel on Canin's writing career.]
In February, Houghton Mifflin will publish Emperor of the Air, stories by Ethan Canin, winner of a Houghton Mifflin Literary Fellowship. Canin, 27, is a fourth-year medical student at Harvard, and Emperor of the Air, which includes nine stories, is his first book. All the stories have been published in magazines, including the Atlantic, Esquire, Ploughshares and Redbook. In fact, every story that Canin has written since the age of 19 has been published. Two of his stories were included in Best American Short Stories collections published by Houghton Mifflin in 1985 (edited by Gale Godwin) and 1986 (edited by Raymond Carver).
Houghton Mifflin cited Canin's stories for their plot and characters—“a young boy who can't bring himself to nab a thief in his parents' store, a retired couple discovering each other's love for a second time. He has charted the familiar territory of fathers and sons and the complicated geometry between husbands and wives with compassion beyond his 27 years,” says the publisher. Walker Percy, in an advance comment on Canin's work, called the...
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SOURCE: Steinberg, Sybil. Review of Emperor of the Air, by Ethan Canin. Publishers Weekly 232, no. 26 (25 December 1987): 61.
[In the following laudatory review of Emperor of the Air, Steinberg asserts that Canin “informs a technical expertise with a keen sense of the dynamics of the human psyche.”]
Canin's outstanding debut [Emperor of the Air], winner of a Houghton Mifflin Literary Fellowship, gathers nine stories originally published in the Atlantic, Esquire and Ploughshares, among others; two were selected for the Best American Short Stories 1985 and 1986. At 27, the gifted author, a Harvard Medical School student who was a creative writing instructor and an Iowa Review editor, informs a technical expertise with a keen sense of the dynamics of the human psyche. His far-reaching vision encompasses “The Year of Getting to Know Us,” where the protagonist recognizes in himself aspects of his father's disturbing uncommunicativeness, and “American Beauty,” where a teenager cannot escape his bitter older brother's grim prescription of life's inevitabilities: “You're going to turn into a son of a bitch, just like me.” Several of the marvelous tales showcase love's singular, redemptive powers: an elderly couple revives their comatose relationship in “We Are Nighttime Travelers”; a daughter bribes a guard to release her mother who is...
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SOURCE: Yardley, Jonathan. “Canin's Mature Miracles.” Book World—The Washington Post (20 January 1988): C2.
[In the following review, Yardley considers Emperor of the Air to be an auspicious debut.]
For this slender volume of short stories, Ethan Canin, a 27-year-old student at Harvard Medical School, has been awarded a Houghton Mifflin Literary Fellowship: an honor bestowed irregularly by the Boston publisher to a notable first work of fiction. The prize, which consists of a generous cash award and publication of the work by Houghton Mifflin, has gone to a number of writers who went on to distinguished careers, among them Robert Penn Warren, Elizabeth Bishop, Philip Roth and Ellen Douglas. On the evidence of Emperor of the Air, Canin has the talent to circulate in such company.
The phrase “auspicious debut” has for so long been used so casually and frequently by reviewers that it no longer means anything; this is a pity, for Canin's debut is indeed auspicious. Though the nine stories in Emperor of the Air are uneven, and though their sameness of voice has a somewhat numbing effect, these slight and occasional shortcomings are more than compensated for by the sureness of Canin's prose and the maturity of his intelligence; in a culture that encourages the perpetuation of adolescence well into one's third decade, he is that increasingly rare young person...
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SOURCE: Sokolov, Raymond. “Getting to Know Him.” Wall Street Journal (16 February 1988): E34.
[In the following favorable review of Emperor of the Air, Sokolov notes that Canin's stories center on the dynamics within families.]
Houghton Mifflin, the distinguished Boston publisher, has been pleased to announce the award of a Houghton Mifflin Literary Fellowship to the distinguished young writer Ethan Canin. No doubt, Houghton Mifflin has also been pleased by the generally amorous reaction to the book of stories it has just published by Mr. Canin, Emperor of the Air. Mr. Canin himself is on record that he is pleased with what he and a recent interviewer were pleased to call his “success.”
I for one wish all of these happy people much prosperity and good health to enjoy it in. If, however, his friends at Houghton Mifflin or the lit-hype press should fall ill, Mr. Canin will soon be able to minister to them. Mr. Canin, a senior at the Harvard Medical School, will soon be Dr. Canin, a veritable Red Delicious apple of his parents' eyes. His first story was published eight years ago, when he was only 19. He has been twice anthologized in Best American Short Stories, and he has appeared in many magazines. This season, he read from his work at the Writer Nights Series at Lincoln Center, along with Sue Miller and Robert Stone, himself a winner of the Houghton Mifflin...
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SOURCE: Gurewich, David. “Breaking Away from the Brat Pack.” The New Leader 71, no. 5 (21 March 1988): 21-2.
[In the following positive assessment of Emperors of the Air, Gurewich suggests that Canin's writing is too technically proficient.]
In the title story of this collection [Emperor of the Air], a 69-year-old retired high school teacher, childless and recently recovered from a myocardial infarction, tries to protect a 250-year-old diseased elm from his next-door neighbor's efforts to have it cut down. The tone is calm, deliberate: “… though I have thought otherwise, I now think that hope is the essence of all good men.” The struggle causes him to reflect on his life as it draws to a close: “… all my adventures had a quality about them of safety and planned success. … In my life I have done few things that have frightened me.”
Another story, “We Are Nighttime Travelers,” presents a retired traveling salesman who is afflicted with a plethora of diseases (the stories abound with medical concerns). He despairs over the alienation between him and his wife of 46 years: “I'd be a bamboozler to say that I have loved her for any more than half of these. … We wake at different hours now, sleep in different corners of the bed. We like different foods and different music, keep our clothing in different drawers, and if it can be said that either of us has...
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SOURCE: Birkerts, Sven. “Ethan Canin/Mona Simpson/Brett Easton Ellis/Jill Eisenstadt.” In American Energies, pp. 374-79. New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1992.
[In the following excerpt, Birkerts delineates the defining characteristics of the stories in Canin's short story collection Emperor of the Air.]
According to a recent profile in Publishers Weekly, twenty-seven-year-old Ethan Canin has published every story he's written since the age of nineteen—most of them in prestigious journals like Esquire, Atlantic, and Ploughshares. Yet his debut volume, Emperor of the Air, contains only nine stories. Either Canin refused to republish everything he's written, or else he works very slowly.
I prefer the latter explanation, for it supports my sense that each separate work is an occasion, a rare and happy collaboration between craft and emotional imperative. Perspiration and inspiration, you might say, only not in the drab Protestant proportions of 99/1. These plums have a somewhat less predictable savor.
Canin has a highly honed, if cumulatively predictable, narrative procedure. Most of his stories begin, following Aristotle's advice, in medias res. They plant the hook straightaway with some beguilingly mysterious statement. “Pitch Memory,” for instance, starts: “The day after Thanksgiving my mother was arrested...
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SOURCE: Review of The Palace Thief, by Ethan Canin. Publishers Weekly 240, no. 47 (22 November 1993): 48.
[In the following review, the critic offers a favorable assessment of the novellas comprising The Palace Thief.]
Canin, whose short-story collection Emperor of the Air was justly feted, as his novel Blue River was not, here [in The Palace Thief] offers four brilliant longer stories, each seamlessly structured and with prose and characters to linger over. The book's ostensible theme is Heraclitus's observation that character is fate, which is all well and good until we try to understand the meaning of either term. Take Mr. Hundert, the honorable boys' school teacher who in the title story tries to make sense of a student's rise from a cheating dullard to an industrial and political leader. As for the question of character, hardly does a protagonist gain a slippery hold on the essence of another person's character, when a forced self-evaluation occurs: in City of Broken Hearts a recently divorced man considers his son as alien but in fact, the youth is the one person who sees through—and redeems—his father's bluff boorish exterior. Canin keeps readers so thoroughly engaged that the anticipation of resolution is almost like dread, as in the beautiful and wrenching Batorsag and Szerelem, in which the narrator recalls the gradual revelation of his family's...
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SOURCE: Review of The Palace Thief, by Ethan Canin. Kirkus Reviews 41, no. 24 (15 December 1993): 1539.
[In the following unfavorable review of The Palace Thief, the anonymous critic asserts that the four novellas in the collection are devoid of “the small flashes of humaneness and helpless knowledge” that make Canin's debut collection, Emperor of the Air, outstanding.]
Canin's return to short fiction [The Palace Thief] should be a cause for welcome—yet isn't, disappointingly.
In four adipose, rhetorical, quite forced long stories, he continues—as in his unfortunate last book, the novel Blue River (1991)—to strive for “wise” adult tonalities. But these rich, deep voices all but neglect the small flashes of humaneness and helpless knowledge that made Canin's debut collection, Emperor of the Air (1988), remarkable—turning him into a writer who builds high, fussy, false ceilings without walls to support them. Upon an unstartling theme—that we repeat as adults what we do as children—each story here plays out a variation. In the baldest, the title piece, a powerful captain of industry still is moved to impress his elderly prep-school teacher with his temerity and moral sleaze. In The Accountant, an old friend's later-life success throws a careful man to the edge of his rectitude. In City of Broken Hearts, a...
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SOURCE: Kramer, Peter D. “Riches in the Doctor's Bag.” Book World—The Washington Post (17 February 1994): C2.
[In the following review, Kramer contends that The Palace Thief “constitutes a broadening of literary scope for a writer of enormous talent and charm.”]
Chekhov, Bulgakov, Maugham, Celine, William Carlos Williams, Walker Percy. For the physician-author the question is always whether he will be one more “doctor who writes” or whether he will join the select group of writers who are also doctors.
Ethan Canin, then a medical student, now a resident, made an acclaimed debut in 1988 with the story collection Emperor of the Air. The tone was set by the first line: “Let me tell you who I am.” All but one of the stories were told in the first person; all featured a distinctive, believable voice; all turned on an uncharacteristic transgression that revealed the narrator to himself.
Canin's 1991 novel, Blue River, an expansion of one of those stories, examined the ways that admiration and jealousy of a brilliant, deviant older brother affect a boy's development. Constancy of character is the issue. The boy betrays first his best friend and then his rebellious brother; as an adult, he drives the brother away once more.
In The Palace Thief, his new collection of four long stories, Canin pursues similar...
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SOURCE: Caldwell, Gail. “The Delicate Wisdom of Ethan Canin.” The Boston Globe (27 February 1994): A14.
[In the following mixed review of The Palace Thief, Caldwell argues that the only real weakness in the volume “is a lack of range, rather than depth; each of these stories stands tall alone, but a familiarity seeps in by the end of the collection that tugs at the hem—it's as though you've watched an exquisite performance, the same exquisite performance, done again and again.”]
One of the litmus tests for a writer of substance is that, once summoned, the name evokes a certain literary memory: Fitzgerald with his lonely, high-priced wisdom, say, or Flaubert with his heartsore heart. With new writers, this tendency of association becomes less distinct or profound, for one has images instead of time to draw upon. But what I remember when I remember Ethan Canin is the closing scene of the title story in his first collection, Emperor of the Air. An old man, a high school astronomy teacher, has been drinking bourbon in the predawn hours, and he catches the paper boy on his route across the yard. “I want you to do something for me,” he tells him. “Put down your bicycle and look up at the stars.”
Ever since his youthful promise rattled the rafters in 1988, when Emperor of the Air was published, Canin has rendered a hand-stenciled fictional world of...
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SOURCE: Brandmark, Wendy. “Awful Daring.” New Statesman & Society 7, no. 292 (4 March 1994): 40.
[In the following positive review of The Palace Thief, Brandmark maintains that what makes Canin “an exceptional writer rather than just a clever one is his combination of wit, compassion and moral seriousness.”]
Ethan Canin writes about men of quiet desperation. Each of these four novellas [in The Palace Thief] reaches its epiphany in the hero's moment of folly or dishonesty, when he realises that the flaw in his character that allowed him this small rebellion is “so large that it cannot properly be called a flaw but my character itself.”
Canin does not always seem comfortable with the limited scope of the novella. Batorsag and Szerelem is too ambitious a coming-of-age story for such a compressed narrative, but The Accountant and The Palace Thief seem perfectly mated to their form. They are about men who have led narrow lives, unimaginative men perhaps, who secretly admire the audacity, recklessness and arrogant ease of those who defeat them.
In The Accountant, the staid and pragmatic Abba Roth looks back complacently on a life devoted to accounting: “I do not mind saying that in the conscientious embrace of the ledger I have done well for myself over the years.” But he cannot bury the anger and envy he feels...
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SOURCE: Pols, Mary F. “‘Palace’ a Satisfying Quartet.” The Seattle Times (6 March 1994): F2.
[In the following review, Pols commends the haunting novellas collected in The Palace Thief.]
Ethan Canin is a publisher's dream. He's young (33), handsome, went to the best schools (Stanford, Harvard), and he has an interesting second career—medicine—giving him credibility beyond the coffeehouse.
Then there is his talent, which is considerable, and apparently not as fleeting as some had feared. His entrancing debut collection of stories, Emperor of the Air rode the bestseller list in 1988, but his first novel, Blue River, fared less well in sales and critical acclaim in 1991. Despite solid reviews, it faded quickly, raising questions about Canin's durability. The author kept his day job.
He now returns with The Palace Thief, four novellas that cling to the reader well after the book is closed. They are mostly about men, unhappy and rather weak men whose approaches to life, and subsequent pain, will strike a familiar chord in all but the freest spirits. Canin is an expert portrayer of small dishonesties and humiliations.
In The Accountant, Abba Roth, an uptight accountant—used to being passed over for advancement—is haunted by the huge financial success of his sloppy, work-shy childhood friend, Eugene Peters....
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SOURCE: Scott, R. C. “Fictional Stethoscope on Human Condition.” Book World—The Washington Times (13 March 1994): B7.
[In the following review, Scott regards the novellas in The Palace Thief as engaging and provocative and compares them to the work of Anton Chekhov.]
“Medicine is my lawful wife,” wrote Anton Chekov to his publisher Aleksey Suvorin, “and literature my mistress.” Suvorin had been trying to persuade Chekov to give up doctoring in favor of writing, but the doctor could not be made to abandon his belief in his ability to reduce human suffering. Neither could he forsake his writing. In addition to the plays, he wrote 588 short stories before succumbing at the age of 44 to the tuberculosis he knew he had, but had long denied.
One is left to wonder, then, at his potential literary prodigiousness had he only taken Suvorin's advice, which brings us, a century later, to the case of Ethan Canin, also a young doctor and a writer of astoundingly good stories.
Dr. Canin is 33 years old and serving his medical residency. This is his second book of stories, which may seem a slight accomplishment in comparison to Chekov's, but it is nonetheless astonishing that somewhere between hospital rounds Dr. Canin has managed to commit to paper these engaging and provocative tales entirely American in affect but Chekovian in their deftness, which is to say...
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SOURCE: Kaufman, Joanne. “Doctor, Author, Hunk All Rolled into One.” The Wall Street Journal (22 March 1994): A12.
[In the following essay, Kaufman provides a brief overview of Canin's life and career.]
A young woman recently called Random House pleading for a set of the galleys of Ethan Canin's The Palace Thief. If no galleys were available of this second collection of stories by the critically acclaimed, bestselling author of Emperor of the Air (1988), then how about an advance bound copy of the book or a press release? “Or maybe,” she added hopefully, “a toenail clipping or a hair follicle?”
Mr. Canin is 33 years old and a hunk, in the estimation of many bookish young women who don't know that he's getting married in July and who packed the house for a recent reading here. Critics who may or may not feel the same primal urge call Mr. Canin a writer of tremendous talent, the real thing and guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of brilliance. Still others just call him Doc.
Before he graduated from Harvard Medical School (he has a B.A. from Stanford and an M.F.A. from the Iowa Writers' Workshop), Mr. Canin published Emperor of the Air, a short-story collection that fetched rave reviews and the Houghton Mifflin Fellowship, a ＄2,500 grant previously won by Philip Roth and Robert Penn Warren, among others.
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SOURCE: Saari, Jon. Review of The Palace Thief, by Ethan Canin. The Antioch Review 52, no. 3 (summer 1994): 530-31.
[In the following review, Saari offers a favorable assessment of The Palace Thief.]
Canin's four stories [in The Palace Thief] are novella-length and formally distinctive. The style is deceptively postmodern, pointing back to the classic fiction of John Cheever while clearly springing from a contemporary sensibility. This trick is a neat one, and Canin pulls it off. The magic comes from the directness of the prose and everyday settings. How can men so easy to dislike hold the secret to philosophical questions? Life is a game of cat and mouse where each of us plays at being tormentors in a Kafkaesque world. If Melville's Bartleby were to write a story, it would be The Accountant. Abba Roth, the narrator, has prospered not through risk but through restraint. He lost his chance to become a partner but now has a second chance through a boyhood friend who has invited him to a fantasy baseball camp. Abba once could have invested in his friend's fledgeling company but didn't, losing out on millions of dollars. Now he can change his fate, but when the time comes he does something stupid (too good to reveal here) and blows this new opportunity. Each ensuing story follows this pattern, yet each presents a set of details carefully worked out, almost chess-like in their exactitude....
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SOURCE: Aarons, Victoria. “Ancient Acts of Love and Betrayal: Ethan Canin's ‘Batorsag and Szerelem’.” Modern Jewish Studies 11 (1999): 15-36.
[In the following essay, Aarons investigates the central thematic concerns of Canin's novella Batorsag and Szerelem.]
“Deliver me, I pray, from the hand of my brother.”
Ethan Canin, author of the novels Blue River (1991) and For Kings and Planets (1998), as well as two collections of short stories, Emperor of the Air (1988) and The Palace Thief (1994), has, to date, escaped serious scholarly attention. The absence of any appreciable critical commentary is a remarkable oversight, since Canin's fiction, especially his short stories, lend themselves, as much as any short fiction being written today, not only to an analysis of complex narrative design and voice, but also of the tangled, often tortuous, disposition of middle-class American Jewish life, with its singularly self-revealing, often menacing, possibilities and requirements for living in the latter part of the twentieth-century, and where, as one of Canin's characters discovers, “there were as many worlds of anguish as there were doors, … or porches, or chimneys.”1 America, in Canin's fiction, is a place both “unimaginable” (City [City of Broken...
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SOURCE: Canin, Ethan with Lewis Burke Frumkes. “A Conversation with Ethan Canin.” The Writer 113, no. 5 (May 2000): 19-21.
[In the following interview, Canin discusses how his medical knowledge affects his fiction, the origins of the stories in Emperor of the Air, and his creative process.]
[Frumkes]: Ethan Canin, whose most recent novel, For Kings and Planets, is published by Random House, is widely regarded as one of our finest writers. For Kings and Planets is an extraordinary coming-of-age story. I want to begin by asking where the title comes from.
[Canin]: One of the characters in the novel, Orno Tarcher, is a Midwesterner living in New York. He's a rather serious, hardworking, intelligent man seeking contentment in his life. He finds himself in the company of a wild, energetic, creative, artistic New Yorker named Marshall Emerson. That's sort of what the book is about—contentment versus ambition.
Orno ends up becoming a dentist. Marshall asks him if he's learned the names of teeth yet and Orno responds, “Yes, I have, and I think it will be a disappointment for you. They are not named for kings and planets.”
Are Marshall and Orno based on people you have known?
No. Like any character a fiction writer has created, they are parts of me drawn out and enlarged. But I don't think I...
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Goodale, Gloria. “It's Just One Little Test, Isn't It?” The Christian Science Monitor (22 November 2002): 16.
Discusses the ethical issues in The Emperor's Club, the film adaptation of Canin's “The Palace Thief.”
Klein, Sarah A. “A Novel Specialty.” American Medical News 42, no. 36 (27 September 1999): 7.
Considers the impact of Canin's medical career and training on his fiction.
Additional coverage of Canin's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vols. 131, 135; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vol. 55; and Literature Resource Center.
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