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The Cruel Country by Judith Ortiz Cofer

The Cruel Country

by Judith Ortiz Cofer

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A father-in-law dies. A mother dies. A husband takes ill. The Cruel Country, by Judith Ortiz Cofer is an amorphous meditation on all this. Not a particularly uplifting book with which to start 2016.

Part way through The Cruel Country, I thought to myself Is this really necessary? Not that the book isn't necessary to the author; with each word, you can feel how cathartic this memoir is for her, the ability to place all this in a narrative, however unsatisfying. But the book in relation to the reader: my father-in-law and mother are still alive, my husband isn't sick. Ortiz Cofer's words are going to be nothing more than a pale simulacrum until these things happen to me, in the same way that explaining motherhood to the childfree is a somewhat futile task. What can I say to an experience I haven't lived through? Is it a failure of the words that I feel distanced from them? A failure of my own imagination? A failure of empathy? A failure of eliciting empathy? I can't say. I can say that a few times the jumps between paragraphs fall flat, too quick transitions. I can say that there is some repetition, because of the repetitiveness of life, but that doesn't mean I want to read it. I can say there is some unevenness, the story pushed into two books, one far longer than the other, so the second, dealing with the illness of her husband, feels more like a P.S. at the end, with the writing style and tone changing almost completely (less poetry, less Spanish).

I'll say I loved the Spanish words sprinkled in. I'll say I love, now and then, with the poetry. I'll say I love this, this quote:

Ave María. Let me learn to relinquish her physical presence. Let her be the dew in the grass, the seed in teh rich black earth, the shade of the tree; let her be in the ephemeral bloom of the hibiscus plant ... with flowers that fold unto themselves each night and are renewed each day.

I'll think of that with my grandmother, who is the closest person I've lost, who was Catholic, and slightly foreign to my Protestant upbringing. I'll think of her as I watch the little kids across the way tobogganing down their hill in the snow, almost a completely perpendicular image from the de afuera who lives in Georgia, USA, and comes to Puerto Rico to bury her mother.

Let me learn to relinquish; at least that I will take away from this book that I can barely even fathom.

The Cruel Country, by Judith Ortiz Cofer went on sale March 1, 2015.

I received a copy free from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. ( )
  reluctantm | Jan 4, 2016 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0820347639, Hardcover)

“I am learning the alchemy of grief—how it must be carefully measured and doled out, inflicted—but I have not yet mastered this art,” writes Judith Ortiz Cofer in The Cruel Country. This richly textured, deeply moving, lyrical memoir centers on Cofer’s return to her native Puerto Rico after her mother has been diagnosed with late-stage lung cancer.

Cofer’s work has always drawn strength from her life’s contradictions and dualities, such as the necessities and demands of both English and Spanish, her travels between and within various mainland and island subcultures, and the challenges of being a Latina living in the U.S. South. Interlaced with these far-from-common tensions are dualities we all share: our lives as both sacred and profane, our negotiation of both child and adult roles, our desires to be the person who belongs and also the person who is different.

What we discover in The Cruel Country is how much Cofer has heretofore held back in her vivid and compelling writing. This journey to her mother’s deathbed has released her to tell the truth within the truth. She arrives at her mother’s bedside as a daughter overcome by grief, but she navigates this cruel country as a writer—an acute observer of detail, a relentless and insistent questioner.

(retrieved from Amazon Fri, 24 Jul 2015 12:58:00 -0400)

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