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Emperor of the Air: Stories

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EMPEROR OF THE AIR "explores tricky family relationships and tender moments of self-discovery with a voice of compassion rarely found in contemporary short fiction" (San Francisco Chronicle). Whether his characters are struggling to save trees in their yards, their marriages, or themselves, Cannin renders their moments of revelation with rich observation, energy, humor, and grace.

192 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1988

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About the author

Ethan Canin

33 books286 followers
Highly regarded as both a novelist and a short story writer, Ethan Canin has ranged in his career from the "breathtaking" short stories of Emperor of the Air to the "stunning" novellas of The Palace Thief, from the "wise and beautiful" short novel Carry Me Across the Water to the "epic" America America. His short stories, which have been the basis for four Hollywood movies, have appeared in a wide range of magazines, including The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, Esquire, The Paris Review, and Granta, and have been selected for many prize anthologies.

The son of a musician and a public-school art teacher, he spent his childhood in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and California before attending Stanford University, the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop, and then Harvard Medical School. He subsequently gave up a career in medicine to write and teach, and is now F. Wendell Miller Professor of English at his alma mater, the Iowa Writers' Workshop, where he has been privileged to teach a great number of talented new writers. In his spare time he is very slowly remodeling two old houses, one in the woods of northern Michigan and the other in Iowa City, where he lives with his wife, their three children, and four chickens.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 131 reviews
Profile Image for Melki.
6,031 reviews2,386 followers
November 28, 2014
I'm not sure why I didn't like these stories more.

Technically, they are perfect, well written little hunks of fiction. But, I never really believed any of them. The author used the same voice to narrate each tale, whether the character was a sickly old man on a mission to save a dying tree or a teenager falsely pledging undying love. Every story struck me as having been written by a well educated young man pretending to be something he's not. There was a hesitancy about them and they failed to resonate with me.

The one exception was The Carnival Dog, the Buyer of Diamonds about a man who has the MOST competitive father in the universe. This one was touching and hilarious, and even made me gasp at one point.

I have a few of Canin's novels on my shelf. Perhaps his writing style will better enchant me in a longer format.
Profile Image for Maciek.
567 reviews3,410 followers
June 9, 2015
Ethan Canin is the author of The Palace Thief, which was one of my favorite books that I read in 2013. The Palace Thief is a collection of four novellas - each written in a different voice, with the eponymous story being my favorite. I bought that book purely on the spur on the moment, and it has been one of my favorite spontaneous purchases ever since.

Emperor of the Air is Canin's debut collection, featuring nine much shorter stories which he wrote during his time as a student at the Harvard Medical School. The volume was published when he was just 27 - a remarkable achievement, considering his young age and the fact that he also managed to actually finish the school, earn an M.D. and practice medicine before becoming a full time author.

Sadly, most of the stories pale in comparison to the novellas included in The Palace Thief, and not just because of their length. The Palace Thief is a notable book because of how it manages to establish a diverse set of characters and their stories in the relatively short length of a novella; in comparison, most of the stories included in Emperor of the Air share a similar voice, and aren't very distinct from one another. They all share the same theme - the struggle to communicate effectively and become close with others, longing. But there's little to make them truly memorable, which would make them remain in the corner of the reader's memory like the stories from The Palace Thief; in the end they fade away, and disappear like the issues of literary magazines they were originally published in.

The collection is saved by the title story, which is the best of all. In Emperor of the Air, the elderly narrator - a retired astronomy teacher - is pressured by his neighbor to cut down a 200 year old elm tree, because it is infested with bugs; he does not care about the narrator's obvious fondness for the ancient tree, and is concerned only with the safety of his own garden. The narrator tries to reason with the neighbor, find a common ground to save his tree; he devises a last-chance plan, but witnesses a scene he did not expect and which will change his outlook not only on the neighbor but on life as well.

It is a simple story, but a touching one, and very well done. One reviewer compared it to an allegory of the Cold War, with each protagonist being a side of the conflict; the looming tree is a symbol of tense nuclear talks. It can certainly be read this way, but I think that the message of the story is simpler and more general: the tree is a reflection of the narrator himself, who in it being cut down sees his own death. The tree is also a barrier which keeps the narrator from understanding his neighbor and move on with his life; he only reminisces about the few things which made him happy in a very distant past. He sees his neighbor only as a threat to his tree, and the tree itself becomes a high wall which ends up trapping him; the moral seems to be that good walls do not necessarily make for good neighbors, and that tearing down these wall (Cold War analogy again!) might actually be the better way to go. It is a strangely upbeat ending to an otherwise brooding and melancholy story, but it is also what makes it work and why it becomes memorable. Even if you do not intend to read the whole collection, I think it is worth to just read Emperor of the Air alone - and certainly do not miss out on The Palace Thief if it falls into your hands.
Profile Image for Ville Verkkapuro.
Author 1 book121 followers
January 17, 2023
I have to start with the history of this book: I got it last summer as a present from my brother while we were sitting on grass, waiting for a very special show to start in Kaisaniemi, Helsinki.
He found the book from a thrift shop. I loved the look of it: small, like a travel bible, white hardcover. It had a few drops of my brothers blood on it and a receipt for three vodkas from "Cafe Latino" in Turku. My brother laughed, bopping his head back a bit, like he always does. His hair was longer than the last time I saw him, he had a small beard. I said it suited him, made him look a bit like Ethan Hawke.
My brother gave me the book and told me about the the funeral of our grandfather, buried in the same grave as our dad, Pete. He said that the funeral was awkward and depressing, the best moment being when they played a recording by me, composed of a letter I wrote for our grandfather and a song I played: "Ain't No Grave" by Johnny Cash.
My brother showed a belt that he stole from my grandfathers closet. It was a cheap one, low-quality.
So we sat there on the grass, sun shining. I felt something special in that moment, though I wasn't very relaxed. I was sober, drinking Coke Zero, smoking cigarettes. My throat was already sore, those blue Lucky Strikes were too dry for me. And I snuck a few joints to the area but was too nervous to smoke them.
I ate beans in tomato sauce, my brother ate a hachapuri, gave me a slice. It was the greasiest thing I'd eaten all summer.
I'm pretty sure the special feeling in that moment was the connection between my and my brother. We don't get to spend a lot of time together. Or maybe more so I felt that it was a break from real life, because we had many hours to kill and after those hours we'd see Jeff Beck performing with Johnny Depp.
They performed, they were loose and cool and wonderful. Depp was smoking a small cigar and looking like a guy dressed as Johnny Depp. And there were multiple Jack Sparrows in the audience, I was very embarrased. But Jeff Beck was unreal. I never heard never play guitar as beautifully and great as Beck did.
After the show we sat a while on the benches, fighting off the seagulls who raided the area, eating leftover food. A man was crying on one bench, the most heart-breaking cry ever, I figured somebody had died but I guess he had "only" had disappointments in love. No way to be sure.
So we left the area, my brother took the book back because he still had to finish it. I gave it to him and left back to my home in the city.
Half a year went by and a million things changed. I moved far away from the city, lost my job and had troubles in love, felt like the sun of my life had set. I was very lonely, but my brother came by, carrying books with him. He gave me back this and I finally got to read it.

This book took my by complete surprise. It was so well-written, containing a certain ease but very detailed and finalised thoughts that were highly rememberable. Like bringing your own thermometers to a hospital or having blue paint on your lashes or the blood-shot eyes of the old people. So many good moments in here. And so many particulars that painted a vivid picture, topped with great, symbolic levels. To me this collection of short stories had very profound insights on life on all levels. Made me look at my own life in a different way. To me this done more things than Carver does. Kind of like elevated Carver. I'm not sure if I'm allowed to say that, but that's how I feel.

Jeff Beck died while I read this. I wasn't expecting it, he was so energetic and fresh. Everything changed; I saw our moment on the green grass differently. All of the moments in our life just roll along exactly like life on the pages of this book.

Jeff Beck said only two words during that show: "Guess what", a moment before Depp arrived.

So... guess what? There's a way of stopping time and making sense of life. It's called literature.
Do me a favor. Write about a moment in your life, in such vivid detail as possible. Read it years later. You will give yourself an enormous reward and make yourself cry.
Profile Image for R..
904 reviews113 followers
July 28, 2010
There is a, uh, poignant vignette in "The Year of Getting to Know Us" wherein the narrator - a high school English teacher -catches his wife (herself a writer, a journalist) canoodling with a younger man at Denny's. Narrator sits in his booth, with little emotional reaction, sizing up the rival's hands (they are broad); before paying for his coffee and taking his leave he scrawls on a napkin: You are a forty-year-old man with no children and your wife is having an affair.

Which perfectly describes the genre of late-80s white male angst that Canin - 27 at the time of this book's publication - had, uh, mastered (to the point that the bookjacket - third printing - states, in a tasteful font, that he is the Winner of A Houghton Mifflin Literary Fellowship).

But my opinion is that Canin, at the time of the book's publication, being only 27, had not earned, through life's trials, a deep psychological perspective. So, no wonder his characters are flat and, when given the opportunity to strike, sit.


The opening story, "Emperor of the Air", is not a steampunk adventure, folks. The titular Emperor is from a factoid drawled off by the story's antagonist - a throwaway line, really - and overheard by the protag, a 69-year-old man huddled in a bombshelter with a jarful of tree-eating bugs.

(Why? No spoilers.)

It's interesting. I can see why, in 1985, it was selected for the Best Short Stories of 1985. It spoke to the era of bombshelters. The antagonist/neighbor, Mr. Pike, could easily be a symbol of the USSR. The narrator (who, nudge wink, states that he's been living in his house since a czar ruled Russia) could be perceived as the USA. Their talk of diseased trees talk of nuclear proliferation or some such thing.

Whatever you want it to be.


"Lies" is a decent-enough ventriloquist act by Canin who, at the time of publication, "lives in Boston, Massachusetts, where he attends medical school" - the voice is of a proto-slacker ("It's summer and I'm out of High.") working a deadend job (future shades of Palahniuk - as a projectionist in a rundown theater) discussing how he met some girl and the two are getting married by a justice of the peace in November. Now, the "lies" are either that Canin recognizes he's just writing a story of personal circumstances which he has absolutely zero knowledge (the writer gets paid so many cents per lie per page) OR it's the I-Love-You's the teens whisper Juicy Fruitily to each other.

Whatever you want it to be.

From IMDB.com
Charlie Gordon (Mark Ruffalo) has marital troubles. Namely, his wife (a CGI Susan Sarandon)! She wants to move out of their crappy apartment(Scott Bakula, reprising his starmaking role as Dr. Sam Beckett) that he's completely satisfied with; and, towards that end , she insists that the first step is house hunting. But after a spooky encounter (Bernie Mac, hilarious just eating an orange) in a creepy old house (Ruth Gordon), he returns to musing on his glory days (Bruce Springsteen) as a college baseball pitcher (Kevin Bacon). Based on a fuckload of Philip Roth, "Where We Are Now" is where you'll want to be this summer (Eva Amurri)!


"We are Nighttime Travelers" is a compelling poetic meditation on aging - and turning to poetry as one ages. The rhymes and rhythms of Whitman luring us away from the "motor homes and national league standings" - a Hornbyesque koan: does what we read make us miserable?

But of all things to do last, poetry is a barren choice...A man should go out swinging an axe. Instead, I shall go out in a coffee shop. (pg. 89)

Also, some tender scenes of old people sitting at the kitchen table with cups of pills (the author's medical aspirations already informing his writing: pills are named - their colors and brands rattled off with authority!) bridging the gulf silence between the two souls.

The collection's most sexually explicit scene (so far): frail old people, in bed, in from the cold, gumming their yappers together; parched lips and wet mouths...a tsunami of passion, considering the narrator previously claimed (not unreliable, just a fucking liar) that he hasn't held his wife for three presidents (a common pickup line at the Shriner's convention, I'm sure. I mean, I'll be using it).

A story which drove me to the Potter's Vodka in the freezer and a can of Pepsi: great, but depressing. And it boggles one how a 27-year-old did this. Pulled this off. Published this in Esquire and concentrated on doctor school at the same time?

Test: Which plea best stirs your willingness to provide aid?
Help, my son, the doctor, is drowning!
Help, my son, the writer, is drowning!

A: Glug, glug.

Last one to the coffee shop is a doctor. Race ya - GO!


In "Pitch Memory" a stereotypical Jewish mother ("Help, my daughter, the artist, if you can believe, isn't married, yet!") etc. etc. etc. two daughters (one a heart doctor) etc. etc. etc. dead husband etc. etc. etc. J.C. Penney's etc. etc. etc. easily bribed mall cops (Freddie Mercury, hilarious just standing there) etc. etc. etc. and like "Nighttime Travelers" with its insistent porpoise-heavy pornoceanography (not mentioned in the original review) - this story returns, in the end, to some MFA-approved symbology of perfect pitch.


"American Beauty" has nothing to do with the 1999 lukewarm anti-establishment Hollywood movie. No. Canin's "American Beauty" is a deeply felt, almost Biblical and, ultimately, timeless vignette about an unhappy family that is, well, let's just say it, unhappy in its own way. A true gem in the Canin canon.

Profile Image for Alan.
Author 11 books166 followers
May 15, 2020
probably 4-and-a-bit stars because there are stories that seem almost mirror images of each other, but they are still good, and I don't want to spoil my so-far 5 star March (following Alan Warner's Dead Man's Pedal and Alice Munro's Dear Life). And there are three or four stand out stories of gentle revelation or non-revelation in the lives of Californian middle class couples or old men or boys becoming men. The first one, the title story (which R has pointed out could be about US/USSR relations with its bomb shelter and date of publication: 1985) of neighbours-at-odds has an unexpected and forgiving ending and set me up for a run of finely tuned stories of family expectations and the thwarting of them, or desire and its dwindling. The collection ended with three of the strongest pieces. ‘American Beauty’ was so vivid and spiky it stayed with me as if it was a film I’d seen (not the Kevin Spacey one which has nothing to do with this), scenes playing in my head days later. ‘The Carnival Dog, the Buyer of Diamonds’ likewise featured something unforgettable, this time the character summed up in the title, the protagonist’s father who physically fights and competes against his son to keep him focused, eg to stop him drifting out of medical school. There’s something of that in the final story ‘Star Food’, set mostly on the roof of a supermarket with a dreamy boy encouraged by his mother to think big and by his father to be practical, and ends with a kind of non-epiphany. They seem remarkably mature and empathetic stories for a writer only 27 at the time of publication. Thanks R, Simon and Ryan for pointing me at this collection.
Profile Image for Marcie.
102 reviews21 followers
June 26, 2011
Variety among short stories seems difficult to come by in anthologies like this one, which puzzles me, since I assumed part of the reason you'd write a short story is that you don't have a whole novel's worth to say about a subject. I like Jhumpa Lahiri as much as the next person, but Unaccustomed Earth felt redundant to me, and so does Emperor of the Air. Maybe I just shouldn't read more than one story per sitting? Maybe collections of short stories are supposed to be linked by a central theme expressed through a variety of characters' tales to highlight the commonality of the human experience? What do you guys think? Maybe I should focus on the book review at hand. :-)

Ok, so the redundant theme of this book seemed to be, "you can never really know/trust/understand the people you think you love, and you'll eventually end up with a gaping chasm between you and the rest of the world that makes you feel alone and unable to achieve happiness." I love tragedy, but this melancholy was pretty intolerably depressing. The writing was fine/good -- maybe it was even great, since it elicited such a strong emotional reaction from me, but it wasn't a reaction I enjoyed. The back of the book says, "Canin renders [the stories] with rich observation, energy, humor and grace," which I found to be completely inaccurate, especially on the energy and humor fronts.

I picked this up because Canin wrote it while he was a med student. Med school can certainly be isolating and depressing. While only one of the stories actually features a med student, maybe Canin simply hit a little too close to home for me in terms of expressing the sentiment of the darker moments of doctor training with his prose. Obviously I do read to find stories that resonate with me, but I also enjoy some escape, so perhaps this just isn't the right time for me to appreciate this collection.
Profile Image for Simon Smith.
Author 2 books40 followers
January 5, 2014
One of the best short story collections I've ever read, and I've read MANY. Tremendous craftsman. Excellent writing. Canin does an amazing job depicting and portraying the hardships, tragedies and heartbreaks associated with middle class manhood/boyhood. Yes, I know white middle class life gets made fun of because it isn't that difficult compared to other cultures/races/societies and I agree (I get it) BUT the life and identity of a white boy growing up in a world where they are expected to dominate carries its own set of baggage, insecurities and turmoil and Canin is a master at representing it.
Profile Image for Morgan.
83 reviews4 followers
January 6, 2010
Ethan Canin is a surprising, magical short story writer.
It is 13 years later and still vivid in my mind is the old lady living alone in a city apartment on her birthday--her 80th? Suddenly a bird flies into her window. In the encounter, she tells the bird,
"My husband knew President Roosevelt."

I love this author!
Profile Image for Joe.
307 reviews10 followers
July 4, 2007
This enjoyable and highly readable collection of short stories was recommended to me by a veteran educator. Canin's stories have the readability of Raymond Carver and the profundity of F.S. Fitzgerald.
Profile Image for Faiza Sattar.
323 reviews104 followers
March 2, 2018
★★★★★ (5/5)

A selection of my favourite passages from the book
Emperor of the Air 
• Age, it seems, has left my wife alone
• The elm was dying. Vera was gone, and I lay in bed thinking of the insects, of their miniature jaws carrying away heartwood
• I didn’t think I was a sentimental man, and I don’t weep at plays or movies, but certain moments have always been peculiarly moving for me, and the mention of a century was one

The Year of Getting to Know Us 
• I hadn’t wanted to see the counselor. Anne and I have been married seven years, and sometimes I think the history of marriage can be written like this: People Want Too Much
• “You don’t have to get to know me,” he said, “because one day you’re going to grow up and then you’re going to be me.”
• When the deodorant commercials come on the set he turns the TV off. That’s the way he is. There’s no second chance with him
• The ones who carry knives are the ones who hang out in front. They wouldn’t cut anybody but they might take the sidewall off your tire. They’re the ones who stopped at tenth grade, when the law says the state doesn’t care anymore. They hang out in front, drinking usually, only they almost never actually come in to see the movie

Where We Are Now 
• Too much money makes you lose sight of things
• I’d been reading books. Not baseball books. Biographies: Martin Luther King, Gandhi. To play baseball right you have to forget that you’re a person; you’re muscles, bone, the need for sleep and food. So when you stop, you’re saved by someone else’s ideas. This isn’t true just for baseball players. It’s true for anyone who’s failed at what he loves
• You can sleep next to a woman, you can know the way she smiles when she’s turned on, you can see in her hands when she wants to talk about something. Then you wake up one day and some signal’s been exchanged—and you don’t know what it is, but you think for the first time, Maybe I don’t know her. Just something. You never know what the signal is.
We Are Nighttime Travelers 
• What the imagination seizes as beauty must be truth. What holds you to what you see of me is that grasp alone
• when I recall my life my mood turns sour and I am reminded that no man makes truly proper use of his time
• Time has made torments of our small differences and tolerance of our passions
• And as for conversation—that feast of reason, that flow of the soul—our house is silent as the bone yard.
• Francine is at the table, four feet across from my seat, the width of two dropleaves. Our medicine is in cups. There have been three Presidents since I held her in my arms
• For me this is futile, but I stand anyway. The page will be blank when I finish. This I know. The dreams I compose are the dreams of others, remembered bits of verse. Songs of greater men than I
• A bicycle tire: rimless, thready, worn treadless already and now losing its fatness. A war of attrition
• but when I gather my memories they seem to fill no more than an hour. Where has my life gone?
• But of all things to do last, poetry is a barren choice. Deciphering other men’s riddles while the world is full of procreation and war. A man should go out swinging an axe. Instead, I shall go out in a coffee shop.
• But how can any man leave this world with honor? Despite anything he does, it grows corrupt around him. It fills with locks and sirens
• Have I loved my wife? At one time, yes—in rages and torrents. I’ve been covered by the pimples of ecstasy and have rooted in the mud of despair; and I’ve lived for months, for whole years now, as mindless of Francine as a tree of its mosses. 
• I have never written a word of my own poetry but can recite the verse of others. This is the culmination of a life. Coryphaena hippurus, says the plaque on the dolphin’s tank, words more beautiful than any of my own
• I have mean secrets and small dreams, no plans greater than where to buy groceries and what rhymes to read next, and by the time we reach our porch again my foolishness has subsided. My knees and elbows ache. They ache with a mortal ache, tired flesh, the cartilage gone sandy with time 

Pitch Memory 
• That day became the meridian of my mother’s life. For a year she wept at red lights and at drawers that didn’t close. She began coaching my sister and me about the viciousness of the world, and she began feeding us a whole new kind of diet 

American Beauty 
• she doesn’t know what to do with what she knows
• It seemed to me that all of them, she and my mother and Lawrence, had suffered a wound that had somehow skipped over me
The Carnival Dog, The Buyer of Diamonds 
• He let the knowledge collect around him, in notebooks, binders, pads, on napkins and checks, everywhere except in his brain. His room was strewn with notes he never studied. Once in a letter home he said learning medicine was like trying to drink water from a fire hose. 
• That was why Myron wanted to quit medical school. He hated the demise of the spirit
62 reviews
March 28, 2020
Great writing but the stories felt small. Or maybe it is me who is small.
Profile Image for Arwen56.
1,218 reviews271 followers
March 15, 2015
Ci ho pensato sopra e credo lascerò in sospeso il giudizio su questa raccolta di racconti, che non riesco ancora a collocare chiaramente. Sono tutte piccole storie, apparentemente prive di grande importanza, che però ne rivestono parecchia per i protagonisti stessi, che appaiono improvvisamente chiamati a riflettere sulla loro condizione, fatta per lo più di insoddisfazione, mediocrità e assenza di entusiasmo, siano essi adolescenti, uomini maturi o addirittura anziani.

Mi sono sicuramente piaciuti “Dove siamo ora” e “I diamanti del saltimbanco”, ma ho letto senza stancarmi anche tutti gli altri. Il problema è che, nonostante alcuni ottimi passaggi, mi sono apparsi un po’ incompleti, come lasciati in sospeso. In buona sostanza, non ho ben capito dove vogliano andare a parare. A volte, ho pensato che Canin volesse ispirarsi a Joyce o, forse, ad Alice Munro, ma che la giovane età (aveva ventisette anni quando li pubblicò) non gli abbia permesso di essere davvero incisivo. L’introspezione psicologica resta, a mio modesto avviso, a un livello piuttosto superficiale, ponendo il lettore nella condizione di continuare a chiedersi “perché” senza poter giungere ad una risposta soddisfacente.

Ad ogni modo, se mi capiterà l’occasione, leggero altro di questo autore, per chiarirmi le idee.
Profile Image for Elyssa.
799 reviews
September 22, 2007
I read this many years ago, but it remains one of my favorite short story collections.
Profile Image for Laura Alice Watt.
209 reviews4 followers
January 2, 2020
beautiful, lonesome, well-crafted stories - makes me think of being on a dimly-lit porch late in the evening. (7/97)
Profile Image for Arnie Kahn.
310 reviews
March 17, 2020
Really 4.5. This first collection of stories is a fine. The title story, of a man who wants to save his huge, dying elm tree from the saw of his neighbor is a favorite, as is "Pitch Memory," about a mother who steals.
Profile Image for Jane.
1,153 reviews1 follower
November 10, 2018
These stories were published in 1988, when I first read them. I remembered loving them, particularly the title story, which was a tender story of an elderly man, dealing with an serious heart problem, whose wife is vibrant woman nearly his age, who travels, swims, caves. The premise of the story is that their neighbor wants them to cut down their elm tree which is infested with insects, but is gorgeous and over two hundred years old. This man hears his neighbor explaining the constellations to his son. He's fabricating all his stories; the narrator know this because HIS father taught him the actual names of the constellations. His compassion for this father and son is deep. He and his wife have no children. I loved the story, even realizing that it was somewhat sentimental.

When I went to the NYT review when the book was first published, they were less impressed. Canin's stories narrated by older or middle ages men were deemed technically well crafted, but very sentimental. His stories didn't have dynamic plots but seemed heavy-handedly structured.

I still love these stories. They may indeed be overly crafted, but I respond emotionally. I love the title story as well as "Pitch Memory." I may be a sucker for emotional, well-crafted stories. I'm fine with that.
Profile Image for Luna Claire.
Author 2 books131 followers
February 27, 2016
I first read Ethan Canin when Emperor of the Air was released to critically acclaimed reviews. Writng a novel was the furthest thing from my brain at the time. I was immersed in my fashion career. Today, I was reminded because I read the review for his new book, A Doubter's Almanac. The opening line of the review leaped out.“It’s hard to create a great literary monster. The character’s behavior has to evoke repulsion in the readers, meanwhile engaging their sympathy for the suffering soul beneath.” Ellen Ullman (NY Times Book Review). She could have been talking about my novel, The Sleeping Serpent. When I got to the part of the review where she writes, “I took a moment to toss the book across the room” – I laughed out loud because one of the reviewers of my book wrote the exact same sentence! I know, this review is not about his new book. But I can tell you that Mr. Canin is a beautiful writer.
Profile Image for Jerry.
Author 10 books23 followers
August 5, 2017
I read a friend’s copy of this a long time ago—back in the previous century—and it stuck with me enough that when I started looking for more authors to read, I remembered Ethan Canin and picked up Carry Me Across the Water the next time I saw it, which made me decide, in turn, to pick up this collection and re-read it.

It’s well worth re-reading. These are all about people struggling to understand how and why their world is changing. Or has changed and is in the process of changing again. They’re about the impossibility of understanding how other people think (between any two people is all the sky of all the thunderstorms in the world), and the necessity of trying.

I have never understood what it is about rain that smells, but as I stood there behind the woman I suddenly realized I was smelling the inside of clowds.
January 16, 2022
I really really like Canin’s writing style!!! This short story collection has a few duds, but it also has some entries I absolutely love. My favorite story is the last one, Star Food, so I think it ended on a good note. :) There are some really intriguing one-liners scattered throughout the book that really made me think… about death, loneliness, family… i laid on the floor for about an hour just thinking about my feelings… I want to come back to some of these stories later!
Profile Image for Jeff Hobbs.
1,020 reviews21 followers
Want to read
March 18, 2021
Read so far:

*Emperor of the Air--
The Year of Getting to Know Us--3
Where We Are Now--3
We Are Nighttime Travelers--
Pitch Memory--
American Beauty--
The Carnival Dog--
The Buyer of Diamonds--
*Star Food--
Profile Image for Denise.
35 reviews2 followers
April 29, 2018
Beautiful, well written and thought provoking. One of my favorites of the year so far.
Profile Image for Cathryn Conroy.
1,074 reviews35 followers
November 26, 2022
This is a magnificently written collection of nine short stories by Ethan Canin. Each one is a little treasure as the disparate characters try to figure out the meaning of their lives—whether they are 69 or 16.

My favorites:
• "The Year of Getting to Know Us": You'll be laughing and crying as Leonard deals with a dying father who betrayed him and his mother years ago.
• "Lies": A recent high school graduate's surprising spur-of-the-moment decision reminds us of the passion of young love.
• "American Beauty": A bitter, but street-smart, 27-year-old leaves home for the first time, leaving behind his younger siblings who can't imagine life without him.
• "Pitch Memory": The mother of two grown daughters, one of whom is a heart surgeon and the other is an artist, gets caught shoplifting with a surprising resolution.

What really stood out to me is Canin's breadth of knowledge, be it astronomy, medicine (OK, he did graduate from medical school), family dynamics, auto mechanics, music, and grocery store management, among other things.
October 22, 2019
نویسنده تلاش کرده که خواننده بفهمه پافشاری روی حفظ چیزهایی که از گذشته همیشه باعث شادی و آرامش مون میشدن و همواره با چنگ و دندون سعی در حفظشون کردیم همیشه هم بهترین کار نیست، گاهی کنار زدن یک روتین ثابت و وارد زمینه جدید شدن باعث میشه بفهمیم «واقعا» چی از زندگی مون می‌خوایم و برای چنین کشفی باید پیله ی اطرافمون رو بشکافیم. صدالبته که پیام خوبی توی این قصه هست، شاید این سبک از نوشته ها برای عده ای خیلی جالب باشه اما ترجیح من بر اینه که بجای استفاده استعاری از اشیا و افراد، مستقیما به خواسته ها و خلأ ها پرداخته بشه. درواقع ترجیح میدم موقع خوندن داستان ، همراه نویسنده باشم تا اینکه کشف کنم کدوم شخصیت گویای کی و کدوم شئ سنبل چیه.
حس میکنم این داستان برای خوانندگان کمی جوانتر داستان بسیار خوبی باشه.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Thomas Ray.
10 reviews1 follower
June 30, 2022
Quite a strong and concise collection. As many others have mentioned the tone and voice of many stories can be similar to a fault. Yet, there are flashes of real insight and raw emotion here.

Don’t be taken in by those who say this work is flawed by the youth of its author. This is a collection about youth and the uncertainty it entails. The yearning to know and never quite knowing.

The clearest revelations of life are often sharp and affective. Words often struggle to convey these moments and somehow Canin breaks through the limitations of his form and provides his audience with second hand glimpses of the potent and ephemeral stuff of life.

I would specifically recommend The Year of Getting to Know Us, Where We Are Now, and American Beauty.
Profile Image for eve c.
33 reviews
May 20, 2021
I’m sorry, I really hate giving books bad reviews but I just hated this. The worst part was that the writing is lovely in some places (hence the two stars), but just so dull. I had real trouble distinguishing the voices of each story because they just sound like the same person, and no matter the setting or the subject matter, they all blended into one in a kind of American male existentialism soup. I don’t know, maybe I’m just thoroughly not the target audience, but this book genuinely depressed me. The only story I kind of enjoyed was Star Food, and I haven’t got a clue why.
Profile Image for Nancy.
618 reviews
July 5, 2021
4.5 What an incredible short story collection — each story captures my heart and leaves me saddened, lifted, thinking. I am always in awe of young people who write with the wisdom of the aged. Ethan Canin, only 28 when this his first book was published, writes like he must be at least 70 and have experienced all of the emotional weights he writes about: the gains and losses, the doubts, the regrets, especially the sadness. He seems to ever be looking back and evaluating. "'I would like to walk in air that is so cold and new'" (96).
Profile Image for Joanna.
1,517 reviews41 followers
April 28, 2023
A collection of short stories that's been languishing on my shelves for over a decade waiting for me to notice them. I enjoyed these stories even though there was a nearly consistent narrative voice across quite disparate characters. The title story of this collection is a practically perfect short story and it alone makes this a wonderful collection. But there are other great moments here.

This is the debut publication by this author. I suspect he gets better at writing over time. I want to pick up some of his later work.
31 reviews
August 27, 2019
Como dicen otros comentarios, todas las historias están narradas con la misma voz o estilo, ya sea el protagonista un abuelo en el ocaso de su vida o una chica adolescente.
Cada vez soporto menos los cuentos cortos, que personalmente creo que sólo funcionan con el género de terror, pero este recopilatorio ya es la gota que colma el vaso, si el libro hubiese sido más largo lo hubiera dejado a medias.
Profile Image for Tony Lam.
5 reviews
December 29, 2020
Evocative collection of short stories mostly taking place in Southern California. Stories remind me of Updikesian suburban tales of broken upper-middle-class human beings. The voices are a bit similar. Of course, one can also say the same thing to reading Raymond Carver’s or Richard Ford’s short works. My favorite is the titled story, Emperor of the Air. I also love the tone of The Year of Getting to Know Us. All in all, it’s a great collection of compassionate short stories.
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