Educators, THE HOUSE OF THE SCORPION provides a valuable and sensitive context for a discussion on genetics and cloning. To begin the journey, read the novel alongside your student(s). Next, discuss the science. There are a number of kid-friendly articles on cloning, I liked this one from Science News For Students

Finally, with an understanding of what cloning is, dig deep into the human story presented by Nancy Farmer in her deftly written account of a boy clone, Matt Alacrán.

I reviewed THE HOUSE OF THE SCORPION on another post on this website. If you continue reading this post, you’ll encounter more than a few spoilers, so beware, click here if you’re interested in reading the novel review before continuing.

 

To order HOUSE OF THE SCORPION, click here.

 

Here are a few questions to get the discussion flowing.

  1. Who is Matt? How would you describe him?
  2. Why do you think others often treat him cruelly?
  3. How would you describe Celia?
  4. What does Celia feel about Matt?
  5. What does El Patrón feel about Matt? Why do you think he calls Matt “mi vida”?
  6. What does it mean to be owned by a person? (Tam Lin, Matt, Celia, and even Felicia…all of them tell stories that indicate they are owned and not free…owned by El Patrón.) How is it that El Patrón owns them?
  7. What is an eejit?
  8. How is an eejit similar or different than Matt?
  9. How would you describe Matt’s struggle with being a clone? Does it make sense to you? Why or Why not?
  10. Matt’s life makes a positive difference in the lives of many others in the novel. Make a list of those people.
  11. Do you believe the cloning of people will take place in our future? In no, why?
  12. If yes, How should clones be viewed by the society that creates them?
  13. Can you imagine a situation where you would choose to have a clone of yourself created or that of a loved one?

Synopsis of the Cloning Story:

THE HOUSE OF THE SCORPION is a Middle Grade/YA novel that follows the story of Matt Alacrán, one soul and his battle to find meaning and love in the midst of his genetic reality. El Patrón, a powerful drug lord who has an appetite for eternal life, has allowed Matt to be created as his clone, but the assumption is that Matt will not to live much past his adolescence. El Patrón’s long-term plans are to harvest the boy’s organs for himself. Neither the reader nor Matt know all of this initially. The reveal happens little by little. This is not a horror story in essence, though there are horrific issues to grapple with…Primarily, this story is about a young person figuring out who he is, learning day by day what it means to be human.

Roadtrip Listen

Audiobook Rating

THE HOUSE OF THE SCORPION

by Nancy Farmer

read by Raúl Esparza

8 out of 10

 

Highly Recommend! This listen is perfect for a family road trip because the novel is well written and engaging enough to capture the interest of a variety of story-lovers, young and old. The audio voices are well-performed by actor, Raúl Esparza (Ferdinand, Law & Order: Special Victim’s unit) and the story lends itself easily to the listening ear.

5 Reasons for such a strong review:

1. Initially, there are few characters to follow and as new ones are introduced, the listener can maintain a grip on who everyone is…including, there are a number of characters with accents and very distinct voices (performed well by Esparza).

2. The point of view is third person, it stays close to Matt. It does not jump around from character to character.

3. The repetition of little stories told mostly by El Patrón, work like anchors for the listening brain. I write about this in my review of the novel, THE HOUSE OF THE SCORPION Repetition is a common story-telling technique, much like songwriters or poets will use a chorus or a repeated stanza to drive a point home.

4. The writing is top notch, which means, the dialogue is well written. The dialogue feels authentic, like real people talking.

5. Description of Opium takes place slowly and organically. The listener doesn’t have to absorb a huge amount of exposition, the describing of places, houses, rooms, plants, animals, people etc..takes place incrementally. Matt’s life starts out small and his view of Opium is narrow, but little by little, as he learns, the listener learns. Details are added that are important, but not all at once. It makes the audio format easy to follow.

For more on how to choose a good audiobook, see Part II  The Rise of the Audio Book

THE HOUSE OF THE SCORPION by Nancy Farmer 

Nancy Farmer’s first of of three novels, following the life of Matteo (Matt) Alacrán, is a story worth reading to or with your kids. The primary moral challenge centers around cloning, but there are many other ethical questions that will arise in the reading. Farmer’s writing creates real characters, despite the fantastical nature of the world. She takes on complicated relationships. power dynamics, and even religion as she draws the readers toward an inevitable reckoning. She stays close to the child, Matt, who grows up in the oddly luxurious world that is Opium. Matt is a young child at the start of the narrative, a teenager by the end. The story is told in close third person.

Matt is a clone of the wealthiest drug Lord in the world, an elderly Mexican man who dragged himself out of poverty to become one of the wealthiest men in the world. He is known as El Patrón. El Patrón is well over 100 years old. He rules his nation through fear and raw power and on its land he produces enough Opium, legal and illegal, for those who need the product. The land of Opium is both a place of horrors and an ecological oasis.  Nothing is simple in Opium, as the reader will slowly discover.

THE HOUSE OF THE SCORPION deals with extreme wealth versus extreme poverty as well as power, ecological degradation, leadership, friendship, loyalty, religion and meaning. All of this subject matter is delivered in an impactful way to the young reader through relatable characters.

Farmer uses a style of writing that does not explain too much too early, but for those details that are difficult to fathom, they get repeated many times throughout the book, almost like a chorus. For example, the story of how El Patrón’s siblings perished, is told and retold. The story reveals the condition of poverty endured by his family, his town, his people and how desperately powerless he had been at one time. El Patrón is an old man…of course he would repeat himself again and again, but there is more to that story. The tale is part of the legend and a defining trauma in the life of the old man. The story also reminds the reader that Matt, though he is an exact replica of El Patrón on a cellular level, his life experiences will have been completely different. That memory of losing his family is El Patrón’s, but not Matt’s. The nature versus nurture debate looms in the background of this narrative and is worthy of a hearty discussion with your child.

Many other issues are introduced in THE HOUSE OF THE SCORPION There is more great storytelling and ethics to unearth as the narrative progresses. Nothing is black and white in Matt’s world, but this is why I would recommend the book. Farmer has put forward a character and a world with the kind of complexity that leads to memorable discussions. My next post will cover a short audiobook review of THE HOUSE OF THE SCORPION.

To buy THE HOUSE OF THE SCORPION, click here.

A Tale Worthy of a Listen

What to look for when choosing a book, especially if you’re a novice audiobook consumer…

Today, as I was having my teeth cleaned, my dental hygienist told me she is NOT a reader these days because of having two little girls to whom she reads all the time (a 4-year-old and a 2-year-old), but has found herself addicted to Audible when she drives, cooks and does other chores. She tells me while I am flat on my back, my mouth opened as wide as it will go,

“I fall asleep when I pick up a book to read right before bed, but during the day, I’m finding it so much fun to listen to a romance novel. I’m a sucker for a good love story.”

Audiobook listeners are coming out of the woodwork to talk to me when I indicate that I am writing this post. I don’t have enough data to know if this is a true cultural phenomena, but something is definitely percolating among us.

Like our ancestors of old, we still LOVE listening to stories. If you’re not an audio book-o-phile, consider this…

  1. More and more, writers and publishers are thinking about the audio platform and their customers who like to hear a story. They are organizing books to cater to our ear, for example, making chapter titles to anchor the listening ear and investing in professional actors as readers.
  2. You can download many audiobooks from your library for free…right at your fingertips, no subscription necessary…just a library card.
  3. If you need more choice, try Scribd’s free 30-day trial.
  4. You can do the same with Audible.

But, how will you know what will be a satisfying listening experience? Here are a few tips, my opinions on the best audio books and the ones to be wary of…

Say YES to these audiobooks…

  1. Theatrical Productions. Great if you’re listening to a play and can be fun for multi-character stories. Back in the cassette tape era, our family listened to a version of THE HOBBIT, produced by a company of actors under the label Mindspring. The production was originally done for radio and I say version of THE HOBBIT because I believe they edited out/streamlined some of the longer descriptive portions of the novel. My children often listened while they took baths (sometimes for an hour or more…getting extra clean). They begged to hear and re-hear the Bilbo/Gollum dialogue and the Smaug/Bilbo interactions. The varied voices captivated their imaginations.
  2. Well-reviewed Professional Actors Reading Fiction…Those able to perform the various voices are sought after. The best are employed to read best sellers…like…Harry Potter. There exists (believe me…I found out as I wrote this post…the debate is rabid) an epic debate about who voiced the characters better between two readers, Stephen Fry or Jim Vale…both brilliant in their own right, Fry reads the British version of HP and Dale reads the American version. I am not picky! I recommend both versions! This link to the very real debate reveals how nerdy the listening audience can be…and how nerdy Harry Potter fans often are:
  3. Any Compelling Story told in First Person. This means, as a listener, you get to stick with one point of view for all of the tale (or, at least most of the tale). HUCKLEBERRY FINN is a good example, so is HUNGER GAMES and one of my recent favs, ANNIHILATION. The first person narration puts the listener in the head of one person, usually the main character, and the main character only. Many find it easier to follow one voice as a listener because you become acquainted with that narrator, the sound, mood and tone of the voice, the opinions held by him/her. You don’t always have to trust the narrator’s opinions, but at least you know him/her and maintain that point of view as an anchor when navigating the story universe in your imagination. At the end of this article I will post a few more science fiction first person narrations I recommend.
  4. Tried and Tested Non Fiction Authors. Writers like Malcolm Gladwell and Michael Lewis are a great fit for the beginner audio consumer simply because they are such great communicators in writing and in speaking (they read their own audio versions). And, as always, you can also read reviews at Audible or ScribD’s online stores or google the information like the bestselling non-fiction audio books A list like this will point you in the right direction.

 

What to avoid if you’re unused to listening to stories…

  1. A Novel with Many Characters and Storylines. I enjoyed the novel, THE THREE BODY PROBLEM, but there were two things made that book a challenging listen…one was the vast number of character, some with semi-similar names. Since the book was originally written in Mandarin Chinese and my ear is not used to listening to the sounds and hearing the distinction regarding names, I was mixing up characters for a while before I got them straight. If I had had the physical book in front of me, I could have used the handy character list at the beginning of the book to keep myself straight. This story also jumps point of view, so anchoring in one mind and one voice were not an option.
  2. A Novel with Long Descriptive Passages. Tolkien fits into this mold. It’s not that you can’t listen to his books, but they might be challenging for beginners. I’m an audio learner and even my mind wanders when listening to Tolkien, especially portions of  THE TWO TOWERS, as the vast landscape around Rohan is described for page after page.
  3. Poorly Written Anything with Poorly Constructed Characters. I might be a snob here, but certain novels that are written by men in particular who write “their fantasy” of a man (a super brilliant spy or detective, for example) and stereotype women as needy or pseudo-independent, but are really dependent on the super spy dude and the writer denigrates all the main character’s rivals and writes dialogue that is cliché or just terrible to listen to…um…I don’t like those books in any form, not in audio, not in print, not on the screen. My husband and I listened to a book like this for a few hours until I could stomach it no further. We never finished it.
  4. Beware of the Textbook. Unless that textbook writer is a master storyteller, don’t start with this genre. Not that you can’t work your way up to it, but the kind of info that is dumped onto the page of a textbook is often so dense, it’s better to read with highlighter in hand and in shorter spurts.

 

 

And now for THE LIST

 

Recent audiobooks I loved:

ANNIHILATION by Jeff Vandermeer (scifi), first person narration

EMBASSY TOWN by China Miéville (scifi), first person narration

THE MARTIAN by Andy Weir (scifi), mostly first person narration

The first ¾ of THE POWER OF HABIT by Charles Duhigg (non fiction) compelling subject matter for anyone

THE HOUSE OF THE SCORPION by Nancy Farmer (YA speculative fiction), great story, few characters

Audiobooks that were a challenge to listen to:

THE THREE BODY PROBLEM, by Liu Cixin  (scifi) for me, too many storylines and characters

the last ¼ of THE POWER OF HABIT by Charles Duhigg (non fiction)…it felt redundant and repetitive by the end. I quit before finishing, but I’m glad I listened to the first ¾.

THE GANGSTER by Clive Cussler, Okay…he’s a NYTimes bestseller, but I found it difficult to stomach the characters and dialogue, dominated by cliché speeches and stereotypical males/females…maybe his other writing is better?

 

THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS is one of the greatest scifi stories of all time and it’s not a difficult read. There is a simplicity to the prose as the main character narrates in the first person, yet profound ideas flow out of this tome like rivers from a mountain spring. I highly recommend this book to any interested in science fiction, but also to the average reader who enjoys smart characters and deft storytelling.

The GREAT Ursula K. Le Guin wrote this novel in 1969. Many feel this novel to be her magnum opus. I have read the novel twice in the last couple of years, once because my child (who also graduated from Berkeley High as did the author) told me I had to read it, but also because my science fiction book group decided to read and discuss it at one of our monthly meetings. To understand the development of science fiction as a genre and its stream of ideas, Le Guin must be read and if you have to pull one book off her author shelf, I recommend THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS.

For more biographical info on Le Guin, there are a number of beautiful tributes to her that emerged after her passing this past January. This tribute from the New York Times is lovely, but there are many others. A google search will do the trick.

First, the short review…

Three reasons why I recommend this novel:

  1. THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS was written by a female author writing at a time when men dominated the genre. Ursula K. Le Guin was never really in “the club” with Asimov, Heinlein, Bradbury or Philip K. Dick. She was an outsider, as much as Margaret Atwood and yet she won the Hugo and Nebula Awards for this novel.
  2. This book is pleasure to read. The writing is tight and beautiful. The characters are other-worldly in a way that stretches the reader, yet both main characters, (including the alien character) are relatable.
  3. The ideas about politics and sexuality echo beyond the story. They provoke thought about our own culture’s morphing views on both topics and more.

Now for the longer review…

THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS tells the story of a man called Mr. Ai, who has traveled to a planet called Winter (or Gethen by its inhabitants). His aim is to woo the planet to join an intergalactic civilization of which he is an emissary and of which Earth is a part. The average temperature of Gethen is cold, which is why the visiting emissaries call it Winter.

The problem Mr. Ai encounters are many, but include the fact that the inhabitants of Gethen are not only suspicious of one another (rooted in tribal affiliations), they are suspicious of Mr. Ai, in part because of his sexual perversion…that Mr. Ai, as a human man, will be a male and remain a sexually-presenting male at all times and not just during courting or mating. On Gethen, inhabitants choose and change their gender. Their reproductive organs and energies are limited to those times when they morph. Their spouse/partner will be a sexual partner for a time or for a few seasons, maybe even for life, but the partnership is rooted in friendship and the male/female roles don’t exist in the same way they do on Earth.

This is a fascinating idea and in a way, it makes sense that Le Guin would think up Gethenian sexuality during the Modern/Western sexual revolution, when the society around her was contemplating gender roles. And still, Le Guin was more prophetic than she might have realized to delve into cultural assumptions around sexual identity. It is possible that this is one of the reasons there has been a resurgence of interest in this story as our society grapples with ever-changing, ever-new gender ideals and ideas. I find THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS to be an important touchstone in the public discourse that is taking place today.

An excerpt from the novel: My Landlady, a voluble man, arranged my journey into the East…He was so feminine in looks and manner that I once asked him how many children he had. He looked glum. He had never borne any. He had, however, sired four. It was one of the little jolts I was always getting. Cultural shock was nothing much compared to the biological shock I suffered as a human male among human beings who were, five-sixths of the time, hermaphroditic neuters.

Le Guin did not always want the moniker of science fiction or fantasy writer. She knew she was more than that. She wanted to provoke her reader into new thought. Observe how she deftly weaves politics into this early exchange between the two primary characters about patriotism.

Mr. Ai says: “If by patriotism you don’t mean the love of one’s homeland, for that I do know.”

The Gethen called Estraven replies: “No, I don’t mean love, when I say patriotism. I mean fear. The fear of the other. And its expressions are political, not poetical: hate, rivalry, aggression. It grows in us, that fear. It grows in us year by year. We’ve followed our road too far. And you, who come from a world that outgrew nations centuries ago, who hardly know what I’m talking about, who show us the new road…it is because of fear that I refuse to urge your cause with the king now…”

Estraven emerges as a forward-imagining Gethen and a friend to Mr. Ai. Their friendship and the adventure they undertake together make up the meat of the story.

To order the THE LEFT HAND of DARKNESS, click here.

Discussion Questions for Educators

Appropriate for Middle Schoolers and High Schoolers

 What a potent book and an important topic. If you are an educator, please assign this short novel to your kids. I have tested it on more than a few middle and high schoolers and they liked it, even felt captivated by it and knew there was truth in the story that they needed to pay attention to.

Five discussion questions for your students

  1. How is the feed similar to the way we connect to our devices?
  2. How is the feed different from the way we connect to our devices?
  3. How would you describe Titus and his friends?
  4. How would you describe Violet?
  5. Who is more of a hero? Violet or Titus? Explain why…

To read a no spoiler review of the novel, click here.

To buy, FEED, click here.

FeedFeed
By M.T. Anderson

A Book Review Without Spoilers

My daughter took a Dystopian Young Adult Literature class at her university a few years back. She took it for fun because though she was an architecture student, she loved to read fantasy, science or dystopian fiction. FEED was on the syllabus and after reading it for class, she handed it to me. “Mom, you have to read this book.”

When your kid hands you a book with that recommendation, you ought to respond, so I began to read…The first line of this novel grabbed me. It has to be one of the best EVER in the history of YA or scifi…

We went to the moon to have fun, but the moon turned out to completely suck.

However, after that first line, I almost didn’t make it past the first chapter. The narrator grated on me. The story is told from the first person point of view of a spoiled and entitled older teen male. Initially, I wasn’t sure I wanted to read his story, but I kept on, glancing a glimmer of hope for this character as I pushed through my angst. I saw how MT Anderson was using this vantage point to get under my skin…after all, much of the Western world falls into the category of entitled, wealthy and spoiled. I decided that rather than distancing myself from this character, I ought to learn from his journey.

FEED is a YA dystopian novel, but as it is set in the future and part of the story takes place on the moon, it also falls into the category of YA science fiction.

In recent months, I have recommended this story to more people than any other book I have read in the last 10 years. Why? FEED is good enough to hand over to a 13-year-old and a 52-year-old and if you are a parent, please read it and discuss it with your teen. Talk honestly about how we are connected to our devices.

FEED projects a future where children are connected to the web via the brain at a very early age. In the story world, the connection is called the feed. The practical science of how this takes place is never detailed, but it becomes clear that those with the feed maintain major economic, educational and social advantages. The story also shows the consequences of our planet devastated by greed and consumption. Oceans are dead, meat is genetically grown without the need for an actual animal and those who have money spend it on pure entertainment.

Titus, the teen protagonist and the narrator, lives at the top of this food chain. Initially, Titus seems utterly narcissistic. He and his friends battle boredom by pursuing short bursts of entertainment in whatever form available (almost always for purchase and provided by the feed). Titus slowly emerges as a deeper character, as someone hoping for authentic intimacy and friendship. Within his social class, it seems there are no guides to help him. Even his family is devoid of warmth and affection. For example, Titus never calls his little brother by his name, but refers to him throughout the story as Smellfactor. He treats his brother as an object of inconvenience, someone to ignore and avoid. Within Titus’ social circle, there is every indication that his family is normative.

While on the Moon, Titus meets Violet. Initially, Physical attraction drives his desire to be with her, but when an event disconnects Titus, his group of his friends and Violet from the feed for a few hours, their bond takes on a deeper hue. Violet is not from his social class and was not connected to the feed at the earliest age possible. Her hippy, intellectual parents resisted putting the feed in her brain for as long as they were able, homeschooling her for a time (since education happens via the feed). As a result, Violet knows about the world in ways Titus and his friends don’t. She has developed critical thinking skills and keeps current on news, including the broad unrest that is taking place across the globe.

Violet isn’t lost without her feed, as are the others, including Titus. She asks questions, she makes observations, she opens Titus’ eyes to the way the feed manipulates, limits and traps those who are connected. Titus finds her views compelling and true, yet he resists her as well. Titus is less of a hero than we might hope, but he does attempt in his own way to move toward knowledge and depth. This makes for a potent story.

FEED poses so many questions that are worth asking. I won’t spoil the finale, but there is a poetic vision that lends itself to pondering and, as I said…a great discussion.

This book is a quick read. Do hand it out to your children and grandchildren. Do make it a present to your nieces and nephews. Do read it yourself, so you can quietly draw out the conversation that needs to take place in our society…TODAY if not yesterday.

If you need questions for starting a discussion, see my post called: FEED, by M.T. Anderson Discussion Questions for Educators.

To buy this amazing book, click here.