Fifteen selections--short stories, essays, and memoir--make up this collection. Two stories are notable: The Whistlers' Room and Atrium: October 2001 (see annotations). The title story is a translation and retelling of an obscure German tale published 75 years ago. Set in a military hospital in Germany during World War I, four soldiers share a common wound--throat injuries and laryngeal damage necessitating a tracheostomy for each man. This remarkable quartet of patients forges a fellowship of the maimed.

"Atrium: October 2001" describes the random meeting between a physician and a terminally ill teenager in the hospital atrium. The subject of death dominates their discussion. "Parable" chronicles an elderly doctor's efforts to comfort a dying man, and in the process, ease both their suffering.

Excerpts from Selzer's diary reveal much about the character of the author as well as the characters in his life. He also reminisces about growing up in Troy, New York. Approximately one-quarter of the book is devoted to Selzer's musings on works of art (sculpture and painting). Lighter fare includes a discussion of life behind the podium, a description of his home, and a new ending for A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens.


This book suggests that since he retired from surgery, Richard Selzer spends much of his time writing at the library and visiting the art gallery. Ritual still plays a major role in his life. Without patients to analyze, his attention has apparently turned to the examination of artwork and the revision of literature written by other authors.

In this collection, he has tackled a little known German story, a minor biblical character, and the conclusion of A Tale of Two Cities. The excerpts from his diary are often entertaining and sometimes illuminating. Consider this instructive passage: "Listen to the patients. They are trying to tell you something that is both beautiful and true" (174).

A number of themes from his previous books reverberate in this collection. Pain sanctifies patients. Words are powerful but language can cloak emotions. Imagination nourishes us. Many of these selections display Selzer's gift for language and his affection for hyperbole. A few of them remind us of his unrivaled ability to depict the unique connection between doctors and patients.


Shoemaker & Hoard

Place Published

Washington, D.C.



Page Count