Vol. 5. No. 1 R-3 April 2001
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America Now: Short Readings from Recent Periodicals (3rd ed.)

Robert Atwan (Ed.) (1999)
Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martin's Press
Pp. 348
ISBN: 0-312-19182-0 (paper)
US $31.95

In looking for ESL-oriented texts that cover a range of socially/culturally relevant material I often run into limitations imposed by publishers. For example, how many texts do you see that raise political issues, perhaps even controversial ones? How many texts deal honestly with the lives of gays and lesbians? What about issues of poverty and the lack of health care for the working poor, or the true condition of Native Americans living on reservations? Perhaps in trying to appeal to as broad an audience as possible, publishers eliminate certain topics from texts because they might offend; or perhaps it is because they feel compelled to present an average or "mainstream" view of America. I was, thus, happily surprised to come across Robert Atwan's reader, America Now, which doesn't shy away from the most pressing and important issues facing Americans today.

I first used this book (the 1996 edition) when I was on a Fulbright teaching university students in the Czech Republic, in a course entitled "Today's American Society." As I pored over possible texts, looking for something with short insightful readings and the potential to be woven fairly easily into a course based on discussion and reflective writing, America Now seemed a good fit.

Once I got settled into the peculiar rigors of a foreign institution and began the course, I realized that the text was perfect. The editor, Robert Atwan, had compiled several dozen articles from periodicals spanning a wide ideological spectrum--The National Review to the Nation--and arranged them into thematic units such as "Who Has It Tougher, Girls or Boys?" and "Can We Resist Stereotypes?" Identified in the preface as a text for "introductory writers," the editor has included a vocabulary gloss, brief rhetorical pointers on essay structure, discussion questions, and suggested writing assignments clearly addressing ESL/EFL students' needs. Other than having numbered paragraphs in the margin, the essays themselves are unedited. [-1-]

In the unit "Who Has It Tougher, Girls or Boys?" for example, the first two readings support the notion that girls have a harder time in American society, followed by two with opposing views; one of these includes a student (non-professional) writer. The inclusion of a student viewpoint provides developing writers with an accessible "peer" model as they see that students too can be thoughtful, serious, and engaging writers. At the end of the unit there are cross-cultural questions which can engage native as well as non-native speakers; this makes the text appealing for developmental English or even freshman composition, given that more and more English composition classes include people from many countries and backgrounds. There are also writing themes proposed at the end of each unit which bring together different strands of the authors' arguments.

One of the repeated comments I got from my Czech students was that the book gave them a lot of different views of American culture and they liked having writers with very different opinions grouped together. They also liked the fact that the articles were fairly short but substantive, and that student writers were included. Similarly, when I used America Now in an advanced oral communications course stateside, students appreciated reading and discussing topics which seemed to them to come right from the day's news, issues that many Americans grapple with in their everyday lives.

The third edition of this text includes more current articles, a well-designed workbook aimed at non-native speakers, and brief book reviews called "From the Bookshelf." It has also been integrated into a web site (http://www.bedfordstmartins.com/composition/americanow/) where students can find links to the periodicals the articles are taken from, research topics, and student on-line publications. It is a very user-friendly site with an abundance of resources related to themes from the text, and would well serve students looking to do more in-depth research.

Overall, America Now is one of the better reading/composition texts currently in print. It is adaptable to a variety of courses and can be used with high level ESL students and/or native speakers. It has a clean easy-to-follow format, good writing topics, and a reasonable number of pre- and post-reading activities. This text should satisfy the diverse interests of both teachers and students.

Craig Machado
Norwalk Community College, Norwalk CT

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