A Few Short Notes on Tropical Butterflies

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9780060532239: A Few Short Notes on Tropical Butterflies

In this remarkably assured and satisfying debut collection, John Murray seamlessly meshes fact with fiction, taking his inspiration from the worlds of science, medicine, and nature. The stories are set in intriguing locations across the globe -- a cholera tent in the slums of Bombay, a United Nations refugee camp in the mountains of Africa, a Key West hideaway -- where his characters, among them doctors, nurses, research scientists, explorers, and collectors, can be found reading The Manual of Clinical Microbiology or Gray's Anatomy or the Complete Textbook of Psychiatry.

And yet, despite the pull of the outer world, these stories are all about the internal world of emotions -- love, loss, obsession, and conflict -- and about families and how they survive. They unfold to tell of moments when people catch glimpses of their real selves, their pasts, and have flashes of understanding about their lives. In "The Hill Station," an American-born scientist is drawn to Bombay, the homeland of her parents, where she breaks free from the confines of her well-ordered life. The title story tells of an aging surgeon who uses his grandfather's collection of butterflies to try and make sense of his past. In "Blue" a young man -- still haunted by the tragic death of his father years earlier -- traverses the Himalayan mountain that would have been his father's last climb. In "Acts of Memory, Wisdom of Man," the son of Indian immigrants relives the summer of 1968, and the events that determined his brother's fate.

Vivid and alive, these stories reveal whole lives -- characters caught between the past and the present, between different cultures, and between their intellects and emotions. Global in scope, classical in form, evocative of place, this rich collection marks an exciting and original debut.

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Review:

John Murray trained as a doctor, and his debut collection of stories, A Few Short Notes on Tropical Butterflies, reveals its author's background. Not all of his characters are physicians, but they tend to share a doctor's ability to concentrate on details and compartmentalize emotions. In "The Hill Station," the American-born daughter of Indian parents returns to India, where she speaks at a conference on infectious diseases. She is charged with new, ungovernable feelings when she finally meets actual patients with the disease she specializes in; heretofore, she had only known cholera under a microscope. Murray bumps his heroine into a new, looser way of living as she travels deeper into dirty, disease-ridden India. In the title story, a doctor mourns the loss of his sister and comes to terms with his family history, all the while examining butterflies. In "Blue," a climber ascends a Himalayan peak under dire circumstances and encounters ghostly memories of his father. These stories of frustrated, intelligent achievers can recall Mark Helprin, and Murray has, too, some of Helprin's ambitious scope. These stories aren't as crystalline as Helprin's, but that's a small complaint to lodge against an elegant first collection. --Claire Dederer

About the Author:

John Murray trained as a doctor and is a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, where he was a teaching-writing fellow. "The Hill Station" won the Prairie Lights Short Fiction Award, and the title story was selected by Joyce Carol Oates for the Best New American Voices 2002 fiction anthology. John Murray currently lives in Iowa.

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