Summary and book reviews of Secondhand World by Katherine Min

Secondhand World

By Katherine Min

Secondhand World
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  • Hardcover: Oct 2006,
    288 pages.
    Paperback: Feb 2008,
    288 pages.

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Book Summary

A brilliant novel from an exciting new writer.

Isadora Myung Hee Sohn—Isa—worships her mother, an exceptional beauty, born in Seoul and sheltered in a harem of sisters inside the wealthy family’s compound. Isa’s father, a scientist and professor, an orphan, is haunted by the war in which he served as a South Korean soldier and by a painful secret that he keeps from his wife. Still mourning the death of Isa’s younger brother, Stephen, her parents are traditional enough to prize their dead son over their living daughter; to them, Isa only half exists.

But unlike many Asian American daughters, Isa is neither meek nor a quiet victim of tradition. Despite her parents’ success and sophistication—they’ve achieved the American dream—she repudiates their values, embarks on her own sexual education, and runs away with an albino boy, Hero. At the same time, Isa suspects that despite her mother’s strict adherence to Korean traditional values, she is involved with another man, and Isa determines to make the affair known. What begins as a child’s unthinking fury at her mother soon leads to more deadly consequences.

A daring, haunting, inspired debut.

Secondhand World

My name is Isadora Myung Hee Sohn and I am eighteen years old. I was recently ninety-five days on a pediatric burn unit at Tri-State Medical Center, in Albany, New York, being treated for second- and third-degree burns on my legs, complicated by a recurring bacterial infection. The same fire that injured me killed my parents, Hae Kyoung Chung and Tae Mun Sohn, on June 11, 1976, at approximately 3:20 a.m.

It's very isolating to recover from a severe burn injury. The pain requires a great deal of attention and inward focus. While your skin tissue rages and dies, you try and put yourself as far away as possible mentally, to take refuge in small, retrievable thoughts. Nursery rhymes are sometimes useful, as are television theme songs and knock-knock jokes.



Here's a riddle. A jumbo jet takes off from New York en route to Vancouver with 246 people on board. There's a massive snowstorm, visibility worsens, passengers pray and panic. The pilot ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  1. Secondhand World is marked by a series of tragedies. What are they? Do you think that one sets off the next? How so?

  2. Isa feels different from both her peers and her family. What are the reasons for this? How does Isa’s perception of herself manifest itself in her behavior?

  3. In Korean culture, male babies are strongly favored. It is the eldest male who is supposed to grow up and take care of his parents; it is the male who will carry on the family name. Isa feels an enormous amount of guilt that she is alive while her brother Stephen is dead. Do the words and actions of her parents contribute to her feelings? What are some examples?

  4. While Isa grows up in a suburban world that, on the surface, should be familiar ...
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Reviews

BookBrowse

Min also illuminates a universal truth - that all of us are to an extent "second-generation" children, because we're all born into a secondhand world, "what is novel to us is only so because we're newborn"; and each of us must find our own place in this hand-me-down society.   (Reviewed by BookBrowse Review Team).

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Media Reviews
Author Blurb John Dalton, author of Heaven Lake
What makes this novel so memorable — and hard to put down — is the realness and urgency of its emotion. It’s a force that commands the reader from one aching and beautifully concise chapter to the next. Secondhand World is both powerful and intimate and offers us a piercing, new view of immigrant isolation.

Publishers Weekly

The plot lurches and meanders, but Min's rendering of an outsider family's tight-knit alienation is spot-on.

High School Journal

Min poignantly captures the dilemma of second-generation Americans as they try to find a place in their universe, but she also tells of a quest for self-discovery, which is universal.

Library Journal

Touching and bittersweet, this novel is filled with universal themes presented through Isa's eyes and should resonate with teen readers of both today and yesterday.

Kirkus Reviews

Min evokes period and place as well as characters with stringent attention and honesty.

The New Yorker

This disquieting debut novel begins like a murder mystery: in a hospital burn unit, a badly scarred eighteen-year-old flatly informs us of her parents' death by fire. The story that follows, however, is less an investigation than an exorcism… The writing is exquisite and exacting, as when the narrator describes the dregs of whiskey in a glass as her father's "spoor," or recalls her lover's "dazzling Kabuki face."

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Beyond the Book

Katherine Min was born in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, and graduated from Amherst College and the Columbia School of Journalism. She currently teaches at Plymouth State University and the Iowa Summer Writing Festival.

Her short stories have appeared in many publications and have been anthologized, most recently in The Pushcart Book of Stories: The Best Short Stories from a Quarter-Century of The Pushcart Prize. "Eyelids" was listed as one of 100 distinguished stories in The Best American Short Stories of 1997. "The Brick" was read on National Public ...

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