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A Few Short Notes on Tropical Butterflies: Stories

A Few Short Notes on Tropical Butterflies: Stories

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by John Murray

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These vivid and compelling tales, many set in Africa and Asia, are about immigrants and others facing change and dislocation. The science is never pedantic; indeed the language of biology and natural history is used to great lyrical effect. The stories are accomplished and seasoned, remarkably so given that this is the author’s first book. Murray is adept at


These vivid and compelling tales, many set in Africa and Asia, are about immigrants and others facing change and dislocation. The science is never pedantic; indeed the language of biology and natural history is used to great lyrical effect. The stories are accomplished and seasoned, remarkably so given that this is the author’s first book. Murray is adept at holding together a complex narrative and creating characters who reach out emotionally to the reader upon first meeting.

Global in scope, classical in form, evocative of place, and deeply emotional, this collection marks the beginning of what promises to be an illustrious career.

Editorial Reviews

The New York Times
Like his characters, Mr. Murray, who trained as a doctor before he became a teaching-writing fellow at the Iowa Writers Workshop, has a fascination with detail, with the tiny, distinguishing specifics that can reveal a person's mood, presage an illness or define a place. Many of his people in A Few Short Notes on Tropical Butterflies focus on details as a way of achieving detachment, but in Mr. Murray's case, his orchestration of psychological and physical details results in stories that are as affecting as they are suspenseful. The best of these tales combine the narrative tension of an old-fashioned yarn with the emotional density of Alice Munro's fiction, compressing entire lives into a handful of pages while exposing the secrets and nightmares that connect one family member to another — Michiku Kakutani
The Washington Post
I read A Few Short Notes on Tropical Butterflies over eight nights, one story each evening. By the third and fourth day, I found myself looking forward to the evening's task, and by the seventh and eighth day I was picking up the book in the late afternoon, assuring myself that surely it was already nighttime somewhere. — Tom Miller
Beth Kephart
This debut collection of short stories is searing and mature, exacting and quietly provocative. A doctor who has worked in such developing areas as Gaza, Burundi and Ethiopia, Murray brings enormous wisdom—as well as the unexpected detail—to the fictional tales he tells about physicians, scientists and men of the sea who seek to better understand the physical and spiritual forces that have shaped them. The title story explores the emotional paralysis of an aging surgeon who tries to fathom his own tormented soul by remembering his grandfather's obsession with butterflies. "All the Rivers in the World" ties together several seemingly disparate story lines about a father, a son and the father's mistress, whose experience as a nurse working with refugees in Africa teaches her about her own limitations and enables the warring father and son to come to terms with their own. Mesmerizing, intelligent and forceful, this is a rare, memorable collection.
Publishers Weekly
Spinella turns in a smart, crisp performance of these achingly personal stories that take place at the crossroads of a variety of characters' lives. The prerequisite here is a penchant for impersonation, as formal British, cockney, and, especially, Indian accents abound. Spinella, a veteran stage actor, handles them all more than passably, demonstrating a flair for the Indian characters in particular. That his reading is otherwise largely unremarkable is actually an excellent thing in this case, as the stories are so replete with vivid detail and finely etched characters that it seems a narrator's only fault could be getting in the way. Instead, Spinella eschews bombast (except in the case of a frustrated wife in the title story) and reads with a style that echoes that of the writing itself: simple, even and subtle. These are beautifully crafted, honest portrayals of people in the throes of life. And no matter how far-flung the locales-from the cholera-ridden streets of hardscrabble Bombay to a U.N. refugee camp under attack in Africa-the stories' messages are sure to hit home. Simultaneous release with the HarperCollins hardcover (Forecasts, Feb. 10). (Mar.) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
In this award-winning fiction debut, Murray channels his understanding of human anatomy and disease (he is a medical doctor) into writing that bristles with emotive power. The eight stories, some of which are set in exotic locations such as India, deal with the universal theme of characters immersed in difficult situations, struggling with the choices and actions that they or other family members have made, with science and medicine as a unifying theme. In "The Hill Station," a female microbiologist who is more comfortable around bacteria than humans ruminates on her life while observing cholera and its widespread devastation in Bombay. Murray's imagery vibrates in the depiction of these exotic environments, provoking the reader's senses with a mastery of the technicalities of mortality that ineluctably elicits compassion. These "few short notes" are filled with profound, purgative human emotions leading to distinctive liberations for their characters. Highly recommended for public libraries. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 11/15/02.]-Colleen Lougen, Mt. St. Mary Coll. Lib., Newburgh, NY Copyright 2003 Cahners Business Information.
Buffalo News
In a great tradition of writer/physicians, John Murray is an utterly remarkable new one.... Science and medicine may be both subject and method in many of these remarkable stories but so too are they formed by a profound poetry and ease of metaphor that mark an emergent writer of remarkable gifts...this book marks the debut of an extraordinary American writer.
San Francisco Chronicle Book Review
As gorgeous and breathtaking as the winged marvels of the title. Compassionate stories such as these remind us what constitutes humanity.
Kirkus Reviews
Murray, himself an MD, debuts with eight stories that draw their strengths from medicine and arcane subject matter. The people and situations seem real, and the splashes of science and lingering nostalgia ("He will remember the sounds of the market through the open window. But it is the unopened letter that he will remember most clearly") make for fiction that will appeal to fans of, say, Ethan Canin and The English Patient. The title story's aging surgeon's marriage to a much younger and eventually pregnant Indian doctor, Maya, serves as contrast to his grandfather's obsession with butterflies, the largest species of which he will consume human flesh to obtain. But when the grandson begins to obsess too, will the old butterfly collection come along with the curse of the grandfather's suicide and possibly interfere with the pregnancy? A young man in "All the Rivers in the World" journeys to Florida to retrieve his father, who has shacked up with a woman half his age, while "White Flour" is another wacky father-abandonment piece. "Watson and the Shark" concerns doctors in Africa tending to the knifed masses in an atrocity, and "The Carpenter who Looked Like a Boxer" finds a young cuckold hearing phantom termites in his house a year after his masochistic wife has left. The final story, "Acts of Memory, Wisdom of Man," is another powerful patriarch doctor/bug setup, though this time the whole family is Indian and the bugs are beetles. Murray often refers to great writers but rarely pulls the stops and tries actually to write like them, even when it seems within his scope. "There are a thousand interesting facts about beetles, each of which teaches us something important about the nature oflife," the final father tells us. But this begs the question of Murray's work: What happens when you take away all the fascinating factoids? Well-practiced, from a voice we'll surely hear from again. Author tour

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A Few Short Notes on Tropical Butterflies

The Hill Station

On the first morning of the training in Bombay, just minutes before she collapsed, Elizabeth Dinakar stood in front of two hundred people in the conference hall, pointed up at the cholera bacteria magnified on the wall in front of her, and said "This is your enemy." The room was long and stuffy, with peeling walls and rattling air conditioners. People coughed and shuffled papers. The bacteria were the size of cars. Elizabeth Dinakar was tall and thin with thick black eyebrows. Her hair was pulled away from her face and held in a bun at the back of her head. She wore a silk shirt and khaki skirt, flat-soled shoes, and no makeup.

She talked slowly and illustrated everything she said with graphs and photographs. "Every child has five to seven episodes of diarrhea a year," she said, "and that is a great ocean of diarrhea. People are floating on it." She spoke as if she were reading, had a familiarity with the organisms that cause infectious diarrhea that was precise and detailed. She saw a beauty in the microscopic world that she knew others could not understand. She took it personally. As she spoke she tapped a wooden pointer against the floor. Beads of perspiration ran down her back. At the other end of the room, two stainless-steel tea urns sat on tables covered with white tablecloths. During breaks, the tea was poured into thick British Civil Service cups on saucers, and that morning she had looked over the rim of her teacup out into modern India, framed by the doors, noisy and glaring in the sun.

Blood drained from Elizabeth Dinakar's face and she felt light-headed. She had begun with a discussion of cholera, a disease with its origins along the Bay of Bengal that had ravaged white-limbed British soldiers in Calcutta. Cholera is one of India's great legacies to the world, she said, something that has struck fear into the hearts of men. She flashed a slide of a nineteenth-century lithograph depicting the specter of cholera hanging over New York City like the Grim Reaper. People at the back of the room laughed a little at this image, and Elizabeth said that it was astonishing how far they had come in just a few years; now cholera could be pinned down in the laboratory with culture, biochemistry, and antibodies. All the mystery has gone, she said, and as she spoke her voice seemed to become fainter to her, muffled, as if it were speaking from a distance. It is a conquest, she said, a conquest orchestrated by microbiologists working systematically, using solid bench science. She wondered if she sounded melodramatic, although she believed that it was dramatic; the triumph over cholera represented a triumph of the scientific method over chaos.

She stopped talking and let the pointer slip from her fingers. She turned her back to the audience. It crossed her mind that she was going to die. On the wall above her was a large Bakelite clock with a round white face and huge hands that had the appearance of sharpened harpoons. She stared up at the clock. As she lost consciousness, she saw herself as a little girl watching her father shoveling snow. She felt ice crystals on her cheeks, smelled cigarette smoke, and for an instant heard her father speaking to her. Then she fell to the floor.

A private American foundation was paying Elizabeth Dinakar to train local doctors in the principles of microbiology. She was forty years old. She had made a modest name for herself in the infectious diarrheas, studying enteric organisms that ravaged the gut. At the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, she had taken charge of the enteric laboratory and now ran it as an international reference center. On her fortieth birthday she wrote "Your shit is my bread and butter" in large letters on a piece of computer paper and stuck it to her door. Her birthday made her feel unaccountably optimistic -- as if she were weightless. Nothing seemed solid. Others saw her as serious and rational, she knew. Forty years old and unmarried. Cold. She felt so different from the way she appeared that it was inexplicable to her.

A photograph of the Eschericia coli, many times life size, grainy and oval shaped, transmitted in apple cider from New England and the cause of many hundreds of cases of bloody diarrhea, sat above her desk in a thin wooden frame. She did detailed work alone at cool laboratory benches. The specimens came to her from all over the world, although before this trip to Bombay, she had never been to Asia or Africa. When she saw the cholera Vibrio, she imagined herself on the island of Celebes in Indonesia, the origin of the seventh pandemic, floating on a colorful reef, smelling sea salt and green bananas. Her thesis, on the Shigella strains causing dysentery in Africa, made her think of salty goat butter in tiny cups of acrid Ethiopian coffee, the bottomless waters of Lakes Victoria and Tanganyika, humming with Nile perch, and tall lean men walking in low scrub with hardwood staves.

She opened her eyes and for a few seconds did not know where she was. A group of men from the front row had her by the shoulders and ankles and were carrying her out of the conference hall. The men wore cotton suits and monogrammed ties, smelled like fruity aftershave, and were all talking at once. They had shiny faces. They carried her outside and laid her on a wooden bench under a row of mango trees. It was cooler under the trees and dappled sunlight came through the leaves. She blinked and tried to sit up, but they held her by the shoulders.

Raj Singh, who worked for the NGO in Bombay that was organizing the training, knelt on the ground beside her and put two fingers on her wrist ...

A Few Short Notes on Tropical Butterflies
. Copyright © by John Murray. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

What People are Saying About This

Ann Patchett
Brilliant.... How lucky for all of us that he chose to write fiction.

Meet 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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Few Short Notes on Tropical Butterflies 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
amazingly well-written and lovely. a great book, especially for lovers of short stories. john murray's life experiences as a traveler and doctor contributed much to this read. wonderful.