Palace Thief: Stories

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This brilliant new work from the acclaimed author of Emperor of the Air presents four novellas--each a stunning fictional portrait--that tell of peo ple trying to understand why their lives have taken such surprising turns.
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Palace Thief

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This brilliant new work from the acclaimed author of Emperor of the Air presents four novellas--each a stunning fictional portrait--that tell of peo ple trying to understand why their lives have taken such surprising turns.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Canin, whose short-story collection Emperor of the Air was justly feted, as his novel Blue River was not, here 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 painful secrets and a quiet secret of his own, the most painful and insidious of all. BOMC and QPB selection; author tour. (Feb.)
Library Journal
Four stories from Harvard Medical School graduate Canin, author of the fine collection Emperor of the Air ( LJ 2/1/88).
From the Publisher

"Marvelous...Each plot is dramatic, its characters highly engaging, the suspense sustained and irresistible...A commanding performance."-The New York Times

"Extraordinary for its craft and emotional effect...a writer of enormous talent and charm." -The Washington Post

"These four long stories are not only splendid reading material; they are stunning art, the kind if art that, blessed with an adamant yet unadorned intelligence, capers at the edge of life's deepest mysteries." -The Dallas Morning News


“Masterful...[Canin is] a keen and compassionate talent. His writing is cut of whole cloth; it is beautiful and it wears well.” —New York Daily News

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780312119300
  • Publisher: Picador
  • Publication date: 1/1/1995
  • Pages: 224
  • Product dimensions: 5.04 (w) x 9.26 (h) x 0.62 (d)

Meet the Author

Ethan Canin is the author of Emperor of the Air, For Kings and Planets,and Carry Me Across the Water, among other books. A former physician, he is now on the faculty of the Iowa Writers' Workshop.


Born in Michigan and raised in California, Ethan Canin entered Stanford University dead set on an engineering career. Then, in junior year he took an English course that changed the direction of his dreams. Exposed for the first time to the brilliant short stories of John Cheever, he underwent a true epiphany. He changed majors and determined there and then to become a writer.

Canin proved sufficiently gifted to be accepted into the world-famous Iowa Writers' Workshop, but between the daunting competition and a severe case of writer's block, he developed serious doubts about his abilities. Discouraged, he enrolled in Harvard Medical School shortly after receiving his M.F.A. "It was a real failure of the imagination," he confessed in an interview with Stanford Magazine. "I just couldn't think of another job."

Perversely, Canin's muse returned in medical school. A few of his stories appeared in Atlantic Monthly, resulting in a book deal with Houghton Mifflin. In 1988, the short story collection Emperor of the Air was published to glowing reviews. (Writing in The New York Times, critic Christopher Lehmann-Haupt observed "The way these stories transcend the ordinariness of human voices is ... startling.")

Canin spent the next few years conflicted over what he wanted to do with his life. He received his M.D. from Harvard and, for a while at least, successfully combined writing with the practice of medicine. But after the enthusiastic response to 1994's The Palace Thief, he found it increasingly difficult to juggle two careers. Finally, after much soul-searching, he made the decision to give up doctoring to become a full-time writer.

Although he is best known for short stories and novellas, Canin has also written full-length fiction -- most notably the deceptively small and spare Carry Me Across the Water, proclaimed by the London Daily Telegraph as "[t]he most wise and beautiful novel of 2001." This story of a scrappy, 78-year-old Jewish-American who sets out to right a tragic mistake from his past is considered by many to be the author's finest work. In 2008, Canin published America America, an ambitious novel John Updike called "a complicated, many-layered epic of class, politics, sex, death, and social history...shuttling between the twenty-first-century present and the crowded events of 1971-72." Begun in early 2001, and stalled after the tragic events of 9/11, the story underwent ten rewrites before Canin finally finished it.

Canin writes slowly and with great deliberation, polishing phrases with grace, elegance, and an accumulation of detail his hero John Cheever would surely approve. Yet, despite his success, he admits that writing for him is hard work. He has repeatedly stated that the process is "exquisitely difficult," a misery rooted in fear and self-doubt. "Fear of failure is what's hard -- it's overwhelming," he told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. "I'll never get beyond sitting down and saying, 'This is a disaster, this will never work.' "

Yet, "work" it most certainly does! Considered one of our finest writers (in 1996, he was named to Granta's list of Best Young American Novelists), Canin crafts wonderful, mature stories that resonate with timeless, universal themes. He is especially skilled at handling the sensitive, emotional terrain of family life -- growing up, marriage, aging, and the complex relationships between fathers and sons. Small wonder The New York Times has called him "one of the most satisfying writers on the contemporary scene." It's an assessment Canin's many fans wholeheartedly endorse.

Good To Know

Although his parents lived in Iowa City, Canin was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan, while his mother and father were on vacation.

Canin's father was an accomplished violinist who performed and taught throughout the East and Midwest before accepting the position of concertmaster for the San Francisco Symphony.

Canin was mentored by his high school English teacher Danielle Steel, who read several of his stories and encouraged him to continue writing.

In 1998, Canin joined the faculty at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, the scene of his own literary meltdown. He enjoys teaching and finds the environment far kinder and more supportive than it was in his own student days.

Along with fellow authors Po Bronson and Ethan Watters, Canin cofounded the San Francisco Writers' Grotto, a collective workspace for writers filmmakers, and narrative artists.

Canin's novella The Palace Thief was filmed as The Emperor's Club, a 2002 movie starring Kevin Kline.

Some fascinating outtakes from our interview with Ethan Canin:

"I love woodworking and remodeling houses. Our basement looks like a hardware store, and my car is a truck with a ladder rack. I've remodeled three old houses myself, as well as built the backyard office where I write, and I like to do every job at least once, from framing to plumbing to wiring to finish carpentry. It's easier than writing, and the results don't take years."

"In medical school I loved surgery (similar to remodeling houses); in fact, I wanted to be a surgeon rather than an internist but was (reasonably, I think) afraid of the five-year surgical residency with its every-other-night call schedule. Since then, residencies have gotten easier; I sometimes think that if I'd started medical school a few years later than I did, I would have been a surgeon; and if I'd been a surgeon, I'd never have quit to become a writer."

"Playing softball is perhaps my favorite thing to do in the world. Since my childhood summers, which I spent from dawn to dusk on the local baseball diamond, I've always been more glove than bat. I've just always loved fielding, its most graceful combination of thought, luck, and intimate cooperation. Baseball metaphors have been overdone by writers, but there really is nothing like the pivot moment of a double play, or a rising, one-hop relay to the plate, or-in that most graceful of executions-the tightening noose of a three-fielder, choreographed, role-revolving run-down."

"I've always been a pragmatic and physical thinker, starting even before I studied engineering in college. One of my concerns with our culture at the moment is the way in which we've detached ourselves from a physical understanding of our essential inventions. I know nothing more about the operation of a microchip than that it works, and that if it breaks it has to be replaced. Almost nobody does; and nobody can repair one without a set of machines that are themselves built from microchips. I can't picture its gears; I can't, in a pinch, substitute something else in its place, the way as a teen-ager once, on a car trip over the Sierras, I substituted a sock and two pieces of string for a broken engine hose.

Likewise, I'm concerned that our culture has detached itself from our common social purposes. Money, once the reward for achievement, has become the achievement itself. This, in my opinion, is as dangerous a trend as any we face.

"I started America America in early 2001. After 9/11, I stopped working on it for a full two years, and when I came back I was motivated to make it a more overtly political story. History, politics, the nature of power and its costs-all these subjects were occupying my mind.

This novel was brutally difficult. But they all are. That's not news. I nearly gave up any number of times. I wrote a good ten drafts, but it wasn't till perhaps the seventh or eighth that, while teaching at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, I had a student turn in a story he'd re-written in such a way that I realized exactly what I needed to do on my own novel."

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    1. Hometown:
      Iowa City, IA
    1. Date of Birth:
    2. Place of Birth:
      Ann Arbor, MI
    1. Education:
      A.B., Stanford, 1982; M.F.A., University of Iowa, 1984; M.D., Harvard Medical School, 1991

Customer Reviews

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( 6 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 6 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted September 15, 2008


    This book was an excellent read! I typically don't like collections of short stories, however, I picked this up after reading America America by the same author, and I was very pleasantly surprised. The stories are thought-provoking, intense, deep emotions, and some surprising endings as well! It was a very good book and a quick read. I highly recommend this book.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 23, 2007

    Thought Provoking

    I read this book in a couple days and enjoyed all four stories. This was a book recommended for a discussion group. Glad I was introduced to this author.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 24, 2003

    Absolutely Dire!

    I suggest that Mr Varney reads a little more if this is the 'most engrossing piece of prose' that he has ever read. This book despite its pretensions is horrifically derivative; Canin's style flaunts its supposed cleverness but has little in the way of real emotion or feeling. Its view of the education system is stunted at best and treads a line that has been depicted in so many mediocre works of this kind.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 12, 2010

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 29, 2008

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 15, 2013

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