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Travel abroad from the comfort of home
Kevin Nenstiel
Guest Writer

One joy of reading is the chance to travel abroad from the comfort of home. Three new books invite us on a guided tour of our huge, sprawling world.

Peter Murphy’s novel "John the Revelator" (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 272 pages, $25) captures boyhood in modern Ireland. Reminiscent of Roddy Doyle and Martin McDonagh, Murphy paints a paradox: a celebration of bleakness, a gala of gloom.

John Devine is bookish and lonely, too smart for his horizons. His single mother, Lily, thinks he’s too precious for the world. Wild-spirited Jamey Corboy widens John’s scope, permitting a poor rural boy to hope for more.

John is caught between his mother, quoting Bible verses and Irish myth, and Jamey, who reads Rimbaud and mocks old rules. John is like Ireland itself, trapped between a numbing past and terrifying future.

But Jamey has bad bedfellows, while Lily’s fragile health deteriorates inexorably. John must decide where his loyalties lie—and to do that, he must decide who he is.

Murphy’s heartfelt picaresque wavers between glum triumph and happy catastrophe. When John sells his best friend to a crooked cop, or loses his virginity to his English teacher in a motorway lay-by, it’s hard not to think that joy and calamity snuggle all too close in his Ireland.

Yet this is not some wearying laundry list of woes. John is resourceful, intrepid, and very much the hero of his strange odyssey.

This same resilience comes across in "Old World Daughter, New World Mother," by Maria Laurino (W.W. Norton, 224 pages, $23.95). Laurino studies her Italian-American mother to rebuild feminism for a new generation.

Like many immigrants’ kids, Laurino wanted to be American and shed trappings of the Old Country. And like many ’70’s girls, she wanted to make her way in a man’s world, regardless of cost.

But marriage and motherhood made her question early assumptions. She spent years seeking a third way, a compromise, a way to nurture her family while remaining an independent modern woman.

Mixing memoir and manifesto, Laurino walks us through her lessons and discoveries. Along the way she shows us how her mother’s kitchen-sink education gave her strength to triumph against long odds.

Laurino grew up thinking her mother gave and gave until she gave herself away.  Now she realizes her mother was one of the most whole women she ever knew.

And that, she says, is the answer.  We become whole when we realize how much we need other people and how much they need us.  How she arrived at that realization is the heart of her story and the triumph of her life.

Chloe Hooper’s "Tall Man: the Death of Doomadgee" (Scribner, 272 pages, $24) mixes Murphy’s grim wit and Laurino’s conscience and it shows a side of Australia that never appears in tourist brochures.

Palm Island, off Queensland’s steamy east coast, is an Aboriginal community where poverty, crime and racism create a pressure cooker. In Hooper’s telling, Palm Island combines elements of an Indian reservation, a penal colony, and Hell.

On Friday, Nov. 19, 2004, Senior Sergeant Christopher Hurley arrested Cameron Doomadgee for cursing at him and another officer. Doomadgee was drunk at 10 a.m. Forty minutes later, Doomadgee was dead from injuries consistent with a train wreck.

Hooper tries to reconstruct those 40 minutes, and the years of legal limbo that followed. Never in Australian history was a lawman held culpable for an Aboriginal death, until Chris Hurley became the first.

Though Hooper writes with the help of Doomadgee’s family, she paints a picture of immense moral complexity. This is no simple tale of Bull Connor hosing protestors. Every twist of the story is difficult and ambiguous.

Hurley is a loyal, decorated cop and friend of Aborigines. Yet he’s hugely violent, a compressed spring ready to strike. Doomadgee is a loving father and hard worker but an abusive drunk who picks fights with neighbors and the law.

No one emerges from Hooper’s telling unscathed. That includes Australia’s legal system. Hurley’s trial before an all-white jury, in an overtly racist province, looks all too familiar to those old enough to remember the Rodney King verdict.

"Tall Man" doesn’t fall prey to easy answers or pat platitudes. But it challenges American readers to ask: Is this story so different from events in our own history?
And how does that make us different from the rest of our world?


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