ALAN v27n3 - Reviews of Four Reference Books in the Greenwood 'Literature in Context' Series

Volume 27, Number 3
Spring 2000

Reviews of Four Reference Books in the Greenwood Press "Literature in Context" Series

Clarissa West White Kimberly Quackenbush
Susan Phelan Judy L. Harrison

Review of Understanding Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God

Clarissa West White

Neal Lester compiles an impressive body of resources for teachers in Understanding Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God ( Greenwood, 1999 ). This compilation of historical documents, poetry, essays, interviews, and collection of pictorial memorabilia serves as a splendid supplemental tool for both beginning and veteran teachers. The text assists teachers with explaining and demonstrating the significance of the historical influences surrounding the period in which Hurston's novel occurs, and those that envelop her life experiences. The book highlights such cultural patterns as the importance and place of what I term the "front porch" phenomena in the African American oral tradition. The "front porch" can be real or imagined, but it is the place where folktales are told, music is played, friends meet, and politics are debated. It is where the people and their language can be found. In addition, Lester discusses the central themes of Hurston's work: sisterhood and male and female relationships. He doesn't skirt issues raised in Hurston's work, or those prevalent during her lifetime.

Lester includes in this unique text a plethora of diverse resources for teachers. Teachers could easily spend hours searching for these items, or could simply overlook many of the artifacts, unaware of their importance or place in their classrooms. He takes the guesswork out of what to use and what is inappropriate. He is also able to incorporate photographs that speak more than words ever could in describing what African descendants encountered in America.

The text is easy to read and follow. Chapters include a number of themes. Each theme is addressed through articles, suggested readings, and topics for written or oral exploration. For example, chapter two centers on the role of language . The introduction promptly states the purpose, including vital background research and information, then sets the stage for what's to come. There are questions imbedded within the introduction to explore "Hurston's use of orality and rituals of talking to define and celebrate African American culture" (24). Lester then moves to " Gossip As Storytelling " which is followed by a list of topics for written or oral discussion and thirty-one suggested readings centering on - gossip.

The next theme he discusses regards names and naming , followed by topics for written and oral discussion. Through newspaper headlines he then tackles the ebonics debate , which is followed by a number of articles/essays, poetry and two and a half pages of suggested readings. Next, he addresses folktales , including two modern day folktales written in 1996 by two of Lester's undergraduate students. The two themes that follow are sermons and prayers . He includes, of course, colorful examples and suggested readings. His final entry for chapter two is words . Included in this section is a must-have glossary of some 500 African American code words, slang, and phrases , as well as those found in Spike Lee's movie Do the Right Thing . He concludes chapter two with a suggested reading on words and selected bibliography on African Americans and language.

Although Lester goes to great length to include such resources, his most remarkable accomplishment is relating each theme directly to Hurston's text. He doesn't simply state the information, but ties it to the novel in order to capture the significance of the themes in relation to the characters.

The remaining chapters focus on relations between men and women, race relations and the blues tradition. Each chapter includes numerous themes from a writing on women rights dated (1851) by Sojourner Truth to intraracism found in Hurston's text to directions and questions for conducting a family history interview to a historical overview of Hurston's hometown.

This text, in essence, becomes a teacher's third hand in the classroom. The suggested readings, activities and discussions will make any class come alive and demonstrate how easily history and literature connects to produce more well-rounded and informed students.

Review of Understanding The Catcher in the Rye

Kimberly Quackenbush

In Understanding The Catcher in the Rye ( Greenwood, 1999 ), editors Pinsker and Pinsker create a useful text to complement the teaching and learning of Salinger's trend-setting novel. Providing numerous essays, articles, and interviews, the authors present readers with a wealth of background information about the culture and society that Catcher was born into in 1951, and the times the book has survived since. The text opens with an in-depth literary analysis of the novel. In chapter two, discussions in the forms of essays and articles trace the censorship battle that Salinger's work has endured. Pinsker and Pinsker collected five essays in chapter three that center around the post-WWII America , the setting for The Catcher in the Rye . Readers will be given several perspectives of preparatory school life by students who attended institutions similar to Holden Caulfield's Pencey, in chapter four. Pinsker and Pinsker then present readers with reviews of six movies that they believe affected Salinger's creation of Holden Caulfield. Lastly, chapter six provides a psychological exploration of Holden's mind. Students will find this supplementary text useful while reading The Catcher in the Rye , and teachers will be able to make Salinger's novel come alive even more readily through discussions of the background information presented by Pinsker and Pinsker.

Review of Understanding Animal Farm

Susan Phelan

Animal Farm is a novel that functions on many surface and symbolic levels. Students benefit greatly from a resource such as Understanding Animal Farm : A Student Casebook to Issues, Sources, and Historical Documents ( Greenwood, 1999 ), a book that helps them recognize and make sense of the intricacies of the story. Rodden's casebook consists of seven chapters, which address Animal Farm as a work of literature , the historical context and political issues relevant to the novel, the biography of George Orwell , and recent political events applicable to Animal Farm . The authors have taken an interdisciplinary focus in order to aid students' ability to grasp Russian and Western twentieth-century history during their reading of Animal Farm . In addition, the casebook contains a list of topics for written or oral expression following each chapter, illustrations of significant scenes from the novel, and a glossary of literary terms, as well as other historical, biographical, literary, and political documents that have never before been available to an English-speaking public . Understanding Animal Farm makes it possible to appreciate the novel's valuable political lessons and universal themes, while, at the same time, allowing readers to enjoy the novel's function as a modern parable.

Review of Understanding Romeo and Juliet

Judy L. Harrison

Some things never change; Romeo and Juliet's saga of passion and death, with a little vengeance added to spice things up, presents universal and timeless themes. Hager's academic approach to this classic in his Understanding Romeo and Juliet ( Greenwood, 1999 ) is recommended as a wonderful reference for the serious student of literature or an instructor searching for interesting and novel approaches to the play. There is no stone left unturned in this academic pursuit of knowledge as it relates to the Bard's classic tale of love, vengeance, and death. Hager's book is layered with information from every angle possible for the study of this tale. He provides an analysis of the play from four perspectives: (1) the love story that ends in separate suicides, (2) the ongoing vendetta, (3) the idea of paradox or contrariety, (4) the rush of action evident throughout the play . Following the analysis, Hager, obviously a student of the classics, turns to writers such as Ovid, Plato, and Aristotle , along with an array of other less famous scholars, for historical references which illuminate the universality of these four focal points. Twentieth-century examples and even newspaper articles are included. Excerpts from these formidable writers and the points in question are compared not only with Romeo and Juliet but with others of Shakespeare's plays as well, providing a much broader approach than initially anticipated. Although today's readers are often unaccustomed to the style of some of these writers, Hager does a good job of defining unfamiliar words and offering explanations that are easily understood. In addition to the above, the author makes many historically situated comments, and as biographical information about Shakespeare. The book gives a good overview of the time period, political climate and its effect on drama, and, in general, leaves the reader with a new understanding of not only Romeo and Juliet , but also the life and times of William Shakespeare.

Clarissa West-White is a doctoral student in English Education at Florida State University, Tallahassee, Florida. She enjoys reading and writing in her spare time, and currently is an adjunct instructor at Tallahassee Community College and a supervisor of English Education student teachers.

Kimberly Quackenbush , who has served this year as the Editorial Assistant for The ALAN Review, has recently completed her Master's degree in English Education at Florida State University. She will begin teaching English in Hillsborough County, Florida, in the fall, 2000. Her inter-mural softball team is the defending champion at FSU.

Susan Phelan has recently completed her Master's degree in English Education at Florida State University; she is an instructor of freshman composition at FSU, and plans to teach English in North Carolina beginning in the fall, 2000.

Judy L. Harrison is a student in the Master's program in English Education who has a strong background in Humanities. She is an instructor of music at North Florida Community College and teaches private piano lessons.

Works Cited

Hager , Alan. (Ed). Understanding Romeo and Juliet . Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1999.

Lester , Neal A. (Ed.). Understanding Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God . Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1999.

Pinsker , Sanford, and Ann Pinsker (Eds.). Understanding The Catcher in the Rye . Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1999.

Rodden , John (Ed.). Understanding Animal Farm . Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1999.

Reference Citation: White, Clarissa West, Kimberly Quackenbush, Susan Phelan and Judy L. Harrison. (2000) "Reviews of four Reference Books in the Greenwood Press "Literature in Context" Series." The ALAN Review , Volume 27, Number 3, Pages 60-61.