Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Endorsement: Secondhand World

"Speaking King's English in quotation...
You wanna join in a chorus
of the Amerasian blues?"
--The Clash, "Straight to Hell." 

Hey all. I can't properly call this a review, but that's essentially what it is. The reason I can't call it a review is because, well, it's impossible for me to be impartial in recommending this book, as the author's someone I know personally. So while I can talk smack on G.B. Shaw, I can't really step back and give you a critique of this book, but I can say "hey, someone I know wrote a good book and you should check it out."

So hey, someone I know wrote a good book and you should check it out.

Katherine Min's a former professor of mine and a really smart woman in general--she regularly teaches a class on Murder in art and we've had really long discussions about Mahler. Right now I'm actually reading a book she loaned me (Joyce Carey's The Horse's Mouth, which I plan on praising to high heaven on here as soon as I'm done with it because it's pretty wonderful and I hadn't heard of it until she recommended it). So there's the full disclosure-- I picked up Secondhand World less out of being intrigued by literature and more so I could see the art someone I respect produced.

Good news is that you shouldn't let the whole personal bias issue be a worry at all, because it is a hell of a book and I'm really glad I picked it up. I read the whole thing over the course of a long afternoon--which I hadn't done since Nick Cave's The Death of Bunny Munro-- in between coats of paint on a couple paintings I was working on, and you can rest assured that I'm endorsing it here because it's a damn fine read.
Also, like 95% less painful sex scenes.
The book, at its core, is about, well, the secondhand world of the title.  For the novel's main character and narrator, Isa, that world is the one left behind by our parents--the fact that the sins, mistakes, and histories of our parents, ancestors, and nations are all passed down to the living and prevent us from living a life that is totally new. The secondhand world, though, is also the experience of the outsider. The woman, the racial Other--Isa is, like the author, the first American child of Korean immigrants--the book's strength is the way that it connects different modes of alienation and the different ways that its Korean, 17-year-old girl narrator feels lost in a world not her own.

That's one of the things I found a little frustrating about a blurb on the back of the book that compares it to Louside Erdrich (Chippewa woman), Zadie Smith (Afro-caribbean woman), and Amy Tan (Chinese-American woman). Secondhand World (and, yes, the books of the other women mentioned) isn't a book solely about the non-white, non-male experience as much as it is--for me at least--about the experience of being a stranger in someone else's world. As a white man, there were still moments of resonance in the text that had a painful familiarity, and (despite the floral print on the binding) some moments of pretty intense emotional violence towards the reader. But this is turning more into a complaint about publishing's tendency to treat female authors as incapable of writing big powerful books. (But that's for another time--although I've been considering doing an essay on Franzenfreude for a while now).

I know I'm rambling here--if you want actual journalism go read the mostly five-star reviews it has on Amazon-but I'm trying to express the way that this book connects with the themes of this blog (main themes: being angry at authority, being angry at the state of the world, out-of-place pop culture references).
All three of which can be summarized by pretty much any scene from The Street Fighter. I'm sorry. Most conversations with me, like most lives, inevitably end with Sonny Chiba.

Point is that alienation, outsider rage, and a love of art are what we do best here at The Triumph. And they're all subjects that are dealt with pretty powerfully and deftly in this book. So if it sounds good and you wanna do someone I respect a favor, check it out.

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