Books by Richard Selzer

Released: March 1, 2001

"Nonetheless, a passionate, unsentimental celebration of life's messiness, whether on an operating table or at a dining table."
In this eloquent collection of essays, five new, the rest previously published, writer/surgeon Selzer (Raising the Dead, 1994) explores spirit and substance, flesh and feeling, pain and epiphany. Read full book review >
THE DOCTOR STORIES by Richard Selzer
Released: Aug. 19, 1998

A sampling of the writer/surgeon's short fiction, 25 tales drawn from four volumes (Imagine a Woman, 1990, etc.). Selzer provides a lengthy, rather discursive, and quite typically charming introduction, yet never explains why these particular stories were selected. Though he says that "my real subject is language itself," this is only partially true; while Selzer's prose is rich and his cadence measured ("It's my pleasure to use as much of the English language as I can"), it's the subject matter that make these tales so distinctive. No other writer in recent memory has so well fathomed the complex ways in which illness tests and alters us, the often unavailing (and clumsy) struggles of physicians to heal body or spirit, or the ways in which, in the face of mortality, we attempt to assert, to define, our fragile humanity. The best tales focus on the particulars of such struggles: "Tube Feeding" traces the despairing love of a husband for his wife, who's dying of an especially horrible malady; "Pipistrel" describes, with considerable originality, a mother's attempt to help her autistic son create art; "Whither Thou Goest" follows a woman's urgent quest to track down the recipient of her husband's heart several years after she had donated his organs. She yearns to hear it beating once again. And "Imagine a Woman" shows how a woman, dying of AIDS, slowly finds herself easing into a rapturous acceptance of life and its end. A useful introduction to a distinctive body of work. (Author tour) Read full book review >
Released: Feb. 1, 1994

The near-fatal illness of surgeon-turned-writer Selzer (Down From Troy, 1992; etc.), told with his usual precision and grit. On March 31, 1992, while working in his study, Selzer felt his knees buckle, watched paramedics bustle him into an ambulance...and awoke 23 days later from a coma triggered, as it transpired, by Legionnaire's Disease. Here, he recounts his illness, in part by fretting over just how to go about recounting it. He begins obliquely, telling how 19th-century French novelist Fanny d'Arbley described her own breast surgery (a harrowing account, with the terrified surgeon working without benefit of anesthesia). Can Selzer, another ``convalescent scrivener,'' follow in her brave footsteps? Yes and no. His descriptions of coma—during which he was not dead to mentation but, rather, ``a gardener digging into the earth who makes a decision to lower himself to the underworld''—shine; so too do his accounts of post-coma disorientation, during which he imagined himself to be a reluctant novice in a medieval monastery, or an explorer escaping from Khartoum. Wonderful cameos of doctors, nurses, and visitors pepper the narrative, which is told in the third person, a sign of the ``independence'' of the illness. But what to make of the text's pivotal event, when on April 23rd at 1:38 p.m., Selzer is declared dead for ten minutes? At times, the author seems to take this as a genuine death (although it tells him nothing of the afterlife); at others, he talks of it as a literary conceit thrown in for effect (``a writer will go to any lengths to captivate and entertain his readers....So it is decided that, after 23 days in the intensive care unit, I died''). Such ambiguity—in which, one suspects, Fanny d'Arbley would never have indulged—deflects the otherwise razor- sharp cut of Selzer's tale. For the most part: an unsentimental, often funny account of life on the verge of death. Read full book review >
DOWN FROM TROY by Richard Selzer
Released: July 23, 1992

Superbly skilled writer/surgeon Selzer (Imagine a Woman, 1990, etc.) cracks open his psyche's sternum, showing us his heart repairs, then goes about sewing up the wounds while they are still dotted with blood. Now 64, Selzer didn't start writing seriously until he was 40, then retired at 58 to write full time. He finds many likenesses between surgery and writing: ``Writing, like doctoring, has nothing to do with cleverness. It is all diagnosis and feeling....'' His father and mother dominate this memoir, and he's greatly happy that he has fulfilled both their dreams. His mother, a singer forever bursting into arias around the house (even as Selzer here bursts into warblings and subtly shaded songs about yellow meadows of fat and maroon- and salmon-colored inner organs), wanted him to be an artist; his father, a general practitioner, took young Selzer around with him on his house calls and inducted him into the healing art. Much of what Selzer remembers here takes place in his hometown of Troy, N.Y., where prostitution flourished as a leading business during the Depression. Selzer's father doctored to the whores at the Selzer home, and after his death Selzer heard from an aunt that his father was a great womanizer with these clients. In fact, only after his parents' deaths has Selzer faced many family skeletons. His mother's death at 88 and burial in the rain is movingly told: ``There was the trench, like a socket from which the tooth had been pulled. Then the ancient spectacle, full of murmuring and slow gestures. The village of black umbrellas.'' It's his widower mother's attractiveness to suitors that frees Selzer to show us her history as a teenage waterfront songstress, with hints of darker, more reckless days. A marvel as Selzer gives every pain its name—though his nonreading mother called his books all lies. Read full book review >