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December 21, 2006

Book Notes - Katherine Min ("Secondhand World")

Katherine Min's debut novel, Secondhand World, is a coming-of-age story that works on many levels. I agree with the School Library Journal, which selected the novel as one of the best adult books for high school students. Min's protagonist, Isa, is a teen whose voice is always credible. Secondhand World is an amazing debut, hopefully the first novel of many from this talented author.

In her own words, here is Katherine Min's Book Notes entry for her debut novel, Secondhand World:

What song would best set the mood for a teenage ménage a trois involving a Korean girl, her best friend, and an albino?

a) “Stuck in the Middle with You” – Stealers Wheel
b) “Smells Like Teen Spirit” – Nirvana
c) “I Predict a Riot” – Kaiser Chiefs
d) “Bone in My Ear” – Bruce Cockburn
e) “Both Ends Burning” – Roxy Music

Secondhand World is set in the late 70’s. Isa, the 17-year-old narrator, and her friends, listen to Jimi Hendrix’s “Are You Experienced?” so obsessively that the album crackles and skips. Her albino boyfriend, Hero, covers “Foxy Lady” and “And the Wind Cries Mary” with his band, and does a smoking rendition of Johnny Winter’s, “Be Careful with a Fool.” Isa loses her virginity at a Who concert. The song: “I Can’t Explain.” The tune that plays on the radio all that year, but which Isa hates is: “Rhiannon” by Fleetwood Mac.

Hero likes to sing silly songs when he and Isa are in bed together. “Tie Me Kangeroo Down, Sport,” by Rolf Harris, Monty Python’s “The Lumberjack Song,” and “Plastic Jesus,” by Eddie Marrs. (Note: Knopf was denied permission to reprint lyrics from “Plastic Jesus” for my book. I like to think it’s because it appears in a scene involving fellatio.)

Isa’s parents are killed in a house fire that leaves Isa badly burned. For this reason, I am tempted to include The Talking Heads, “Burning Down the House,” and that song by Shawn Colvin where Sunny comes home, but I won’t because that would be irreverent. Instead, there are so many songs that Isa would have loved if she’d been a teenager now. Secondhand World is filled with the Korean concept of han, which is described by Isa’s father as “a kind of sadness, or longing. A sense of loss....” It’s untranslatable into English but goes beyond mere sadness as a mood, encompassing a kind of soulful sorrow that is a permanent part of the human condition. These songs have it, and remind me strongly of Isa, who outlives almost everyone she loves. I think of her listening, (anachronistically), to this playlist and feeling the exquisite melancholy, which is either a prelude to serious depression, or a way out through beauty.

1.“For Real” – Okkervil River (“Sometimes the blood from real cuts feels real nice/when it's really mine.”)
2.“In the Aeroplane o’er the Sea” – Neutral Milk Hotel (“But for now we are young/ Let us lay in the sun/and count every beautiful thing we can see.”)
3.“Portions of Foxes” – Rilo Kiley (“And talking leads to touching/and touching leads to sex/and then there is no mystery left.”)
4.“Love Steals Us From Loneliness” – Idlewild (“My anger is a form of madness/So I'd rather have hope than sadness/And you said something/You said something stupid like/Love steals us from loneliness/Happy birthday/Are you lonely yet?”)
5.“Don’t Leave the Light on Baby” – Belle & Sebastian (“It's been a bloody stupid day/My baby called me up to say/Don't call me love, don't call me/It's not all she said.”)
6.“Grace Cathedral Hill” – The Decemberists (“Grace Cathedral Hill/All wrapped in bones of setting sun/All dust and stone and moribund/I paid twenty-five cents to light/A little white candle/For a New Year's Day/I sat and watched it burn away/Then turned and weaved/Through slow decay.”)
7.“I Don’t Believe in the Sun” – Magnetic Fields (“They say there's a sun in the sky/but me, I can't imagine why/There might have been one before you were gone/ but now all I see is the night.”)
8.“That Don’t Make it Junk” – Leonard Cohen (“I fought against the bottle, but I had to do it drunk/Took my diamond to the pawnshop, but that don’t make it junk.”)
9.“Bird Stealing Bread” – Iron & Wine (“Tell me, baby/tell me, does his company make light of a rainy day?/How I've missed you lately, and the way we would speak/and all that we wouldn't say.”)

The book ends with a grace note of hope: Isa outside in a snowstorm. “The chill made the scars on my legs pulse with a shooting pain that was itself icy cold. From where I lay, looking straight up at the sky, the snow seemed to pulse in the same rhythm. It was like witnessing the multiple birth of stars.” Cue:

10. “Hallelujah” – Jeff Buckley (“Well, baby I've been here before/I've seen this room, and I've walked this floor/You know, I used to live alone before I knew you/And I've seen your flag on the marble arch/And Love is not a victory march/It's a cold and it's a broken Hallelujah.”)

see also:

Katherine Min's website

Book House of Stuyvesant Plaza review
Curled Up review
Los Angeles Times review
Northwest Asian Weekly review
other reviews

Redbook interview with Katherine Min
New Hampshire Public Radio interview with Katherine Min
Katherine Min's book tour notes at The Happy Booker
The Mumpsimus interview with Katherine Min

Previous Book Notes submissions (authors create playlists for their book)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2006 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2005 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2004 Edition)


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