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Book Review: Back to the Garden

Book review: Jackie K. Cooper’s ‘Back to the Garden’

Published: Sunday, December 18, 2011, 1:13 PM
By Press-Register Correspondent

Reviewed by Correspondent BONNIE BARTEL LATINO

Jackie-Cooper-back-to-the-garden.jpgMOBILE, Alabama — ‘Tis the season! Those searching for life-enriching books appropriate for gifting either women or men should consider Georgia writer Jackie K. Cooper’s “Back to the Garden: The Goal of the Journey.” The memoir is filled with brief vignettes which may either be devoured like a prolonged Christmas feast or anticipated as scrumptious sugar plums savored during multiple trips to the holiday buffet.

The author of five previous “Journey” books, Cooper is also an entertainment critic, perhaps best-known nationally for his online reviews of books, movies, plays and television programs for The Huffington Post.

The book’s title and cover art might lead some prospective readers to mistakenly conclude that “Back to the Garden” is about, well, gardening. It is not. In his prologue, the author explains that he came “from a place of innocence, a Garden of Eden so to speak, and I am trying to live my life so that one day I emerge again in perfection in a perfect place, another Eden, preferably with air conditioning.”

“Back to the Garden” is a collection of personal essays, reflections from Cooper’s life primarily during 2004 and 2005. His words reveal that he is a South Carolina native who adores his wife, two adult sons, daughters-in-law and grandchildren. That he is a Southern gentleman is unstated but quickly obvious.

In the book’s foreword, South Carolina poet laureate Marjory Wentworth writes that Cooper “inspires us with the knowledge that comes from a life attentive to the details of his muse yet forever humbled in his acknowledgment that there is so much more left to learn.”

The author hooked this reader on page seven by simply sharing his minister’s sermon that began by describing a scene from the movie “Black Hawk Down”: A colonel attempted to get a convoy of trucks out of the battle zone. A number of men had already been lost, including the driver of the lead truck. Pulling the dead body from the truck, the colonel ordered a sergeant to drive the truck out of there. The sergeant replied that he’d been shot. The colonel shouted: “We’ve all been shot! Now drive the truck!”

The sermon concluded, “That is what life is all about … every one of us has been ‘shot’ in some way, but we need to get on with it and drive the truck.” The implications of those simple words contain universal wisdom.

Always entertaining, Cooper’s stories are also brutally honest. Most are uplifting. Many offer life lessons. All offer wisdom. For instance, in his chapter “Nobody’s important but me,” Cooper describes being in an Atlanta theater in which a woman with a screaming baby ruined the film for everyone. As management finally escorted the woman and her still screaming child from the theater, the audience applauded. The baby’s mother shouted an obscenity. Cooper opines that when things like that happen he fumes in silence. “If you say something to somebody these days,” he says, “you’re liable to get shot.” Indeed.

Yet another story illustrates the importance of “holding onto the joy of anticipation” while “scaling down expectations” of almost all life events. Particularly at this time of year, that is sage advice.

One of Cooper’s most poignant stories describes his granddaughter Genna’s dance recital, which, he writes, “lasted an interminable three hours. I was in dance-class hell, but I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.” Since Genna was only four, she wasn’t the star. As Cooper sat dozing through much of the event, several of the older dance students suddenly captured his attention as they waltzed — standing on tiptoe atop their fathers’ shoes. Cooper concludes: “Tears started coming out of my eyes … I’ll never get to dance with a daughter … There is a bond between fathers and daughters that I will never know. I have observed it with our friends … I envy that relationship … For so many years [my daughter] existed as a presence waiting to be born, but now I know that dream will not come true. I have the next best thing and that is a granddaughter. But sometimes I just miss that little girl I dreamed about. I miss her so much.”

Over 100 thought-provoking stories fill the 215 pages of Jackie K. Cooper’s endearing book. Tie a bow around it, and slip it into someone’s Christmas stocking. “Back to the Garden” is sure to bring tidings of comfort and joy.

Atmore native Bonnie Bartel Latino is an award-winning writer and former columnist for Stars and Stripes newspaper in Europe.

Back to the Garden:
The Goal of the Journey

By Jackie K. Cooper
Mercer University Press, paper, $18

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