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Activities of Daily Living

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Alice, an immigrant raised by her Taiwanese mother and white Vietnam veteran stepfather (whom she refers to as “The Father” throughout the novel), is consumed with the idea of completing a project on the legendary performance artist Tehching Hsieh (referred to as The Artist). While she struggles to nail down the details of her project, she simultaneously deals with The Father's quick descent into dementia. Chen references many different artists and authors in a way that I thought was fascinating. This book is an excellent read for those of us that go down Wikipedia rabbit holes regularly, clicking through hyperlinks with the desire for unexpected connections and correlations. The conceptual performance pieces done by The Artist paired with Alice's experiences as she prepares The Father and herself for the end of his life make for a moving and thought-provoking exploration of time and what we do with it while we're here.
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Activities of Daily Living portrays a slice of Alice’s life–the years her father’s health rapidly deteriorates from severe dementia, moving from his house into several nursing homes based on his care needs. Simultaneously, she is fixated on both the Taiwanese performance artist Tehching Hsieh for what she calls The Project, and the concept of projects as a coping mechanism against the durational performance that is life. The book flips between the history of Hsieh’s practice and Alice’s visits to California to see her dad, with clear parallels made between their experiences with isolation and battles with time.

This story hit home for me in so many ways. My grandma was recently admitted into a care home after many unmanageable instances over the years. I worked in art for a decade, focussing on contemporary Asian art, in which Tehching Hsieh is a legend. And I know how Alice feels as she busies herself with projects that either don’t manifest or don’t pay, and how she tries to understand life through art, theory, and literature, holding onto these coping mechanisms that are ultimately ineffective. I loved the heart of this novel and the writing style–how it connected plot to Sontag, Levé, etc. in meandering ways, yet was approachable to read. Still, something needed to be tweaked. Perhaps it needed to be in first-person POV vs. third, as the narration was very “stream of consciousness” but was hindered by its detached feeling. I was also jarred when reality mixed with fiction–Alice attended real-life exhibitions, but then the story at times shifted into a bit of a Tehching Hsieh fan fiction; the mix left me not knowing how to position my headspace.

Overall, this was tender and introspective, and gave me a lot to think about. Fans of art history and critical theory would especially enjoy it.
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This is a unique story.  Alice, in her late 30s, works as a freelance video editor in New York City.  In her spare time, she is trying to develop a project about a performance art and his projects from the 1980s.  Little is known about the artist since he stopped working, at leas tin public, decades ago.  At the same time, Alice is dealing with her stepfather's failing health, a challenge given that he lives across the country in the Bay Area.  The intersection of these two prompts Alice to reflect on her own life, her relationship with her father and her friends, his father's experiences, the performance artist's life and work, and what it means to be an artist.  This was an original and creative story, raising interesting concepts about creating art, family, identity, and time.  

Highly recommended!
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Alice is watching her stepfather rapidly decline in this novel which blends her story with factual information about Teaching Hseih and other artists.  A video editor, she lives in New York, where she's working on a project circling around Hsieh's year long performance works, but she spends considerable time in Berkley where the Father is losing his capabilities one at a time. The depiction of the Father, his illness, the facilities he cycles through will ring bells with many but Chen has written about it with great sensitivity.  In New York, her friend James and her cat are both struggling.  While Hsieh is the most important influence, there are also relevant detours into other artists (Sontag is recurrent and the inclusion of Simone de Beauvoir and Sartre is especially poignant).  I found myself delving into the bios of the various artists and writers- and I learned a great deal.  This is thoughtfully plotted and beautifully written.  It's also the sort of novel that lingers in the mind.  Thanks to Netgalley for the ARC.  Highly recommend this terrific read.
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I do not know how to describe this book. Looking solely at the premise, this novel follows Alice, a Taiwanese American in her late thirties, as she goes through her activities of daily living. For Alice, these include caring for her father with dementia, and working on her “project”. Alice is fascinated with an artist, Tehching Hsieh. The novel is told in random snippets of this artist’s works and Alice’s life, past and present.

This book is more abstract, even philosophical, more than anything. There is no plot, and the side characters are introduced abruptly. Their names just appear without any mention of Alice’s relationship to these people, I had to make do with context clues. It was an aspect I did not appreciate. I didn’t appreciate the structure, neither did I enjoy the writing. I wouldn’t call it bad, just not my thing. I felt disconnected the entire time I was reading, I found it pretty emotionless and a bit of a chore to get through.

I wasn’t able to fully connect the dots between the artist’s works and Alice’s own life, but despite that I did appreciate the philosophical parts this had. It had a lot to do about time, there were lines that resonated with me but overall still didn’t leave much of a mark.

In short, the way this novel is told wasn’t for me but I’d still say this is a good debut novel, thought-provoking and well-written.
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This book is hilarious and captivating.  I am docking one star off of my review because at times, I did feel like it became a little too tongue-in-cheek/heady that it distracted from its plot. That being said, I think this book will be massively discussed, enjoyed, and appreciated. Anytime writers contemplate art (i.e. Frank O'Hara's "Why I Am Not a Painter" comes to mind), I enjoy it. The two are so paralleled that it always makes for an enjoyable read.

Activities of Daily Living *felt* carefully constructed in the best way. I really liked this one. Thank you for the opportunity to read it!
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“This is what life is: the passage of time. It’s not about how to pass time, but the acceptance of time passing.”

This book is most of all about the perception of time, time as narrative. The protagonist is a woman caring for her aging father through care facilities as his agency slips and his life is reduced to quotidian maintenance—activities of daily living. Meanwhile, she works on a project of a (nonfictional) enigmatic performance artist Tehching Hsieh, who in a series of works confines himself to conditions in calendar year amounts. In contemplating her father’s past and present self, the narrator weaves through works of art that enlighten the growths and losses of existing for a finite interval. The style, of art informing living, might be of interest particularly to fans of Olivia Laing and Maggie Nelson.

I was quietly blown away. The book is a slow read and Hsiao Chen is a master at controlling pace to a slow and steady erosion. The works of Tehching Hsieh and other artists are interleaved with the narrative and I found myself equally interested in the interjections and the story. For those who are looking for something to contemplate through, I would pick up this work.
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This book was hard work to read. That's not a bad thing by any means, but I do think it's important to be aware of! I think I entered into it with the wrong mindset; based on the blurb, I was expecting something more prototypically "novelesque" - something more squarely aligned with most contemporary or literary fiction. I was taken aback by its detached tone (her father - never named - is simply "The Father") and its frequent allusions and references to philosophers and artists. I think I was anticipating something more purely emotional, and it was actually quite logical (though by no means linear). Again, that's not a criticism, but it does explain why it took me so long to get through - I ended up struggling so much on my first attempt I had to set it aside, then re-start from the beginning with an open mind one month later. 

Once I started for the second time, I was overall glad to have the experience of reading this book. In some ways, it reminded me of The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera, though I'd still describe that book as more overtly emotional than this one. There were some scenes that were incredibly visceral; in particular, the Father losing control of his bowels during the Super Bowl at his first care facility was so hard to read (and so memorable even weeks later) in large part because it was so well-described - the anticipation, the action, the aftermath: shame and relief and disconnection. That said, while there were bursts of vivid and powerful writing that captivated me, I never felt completely absorbed by this book - more vaguely curious, and like I was learning something. (Between this book and Ruth Ozeki's latest, I know more about Walter Benjamin than I ever would have suspected!) 

Overall, I would describe this as slow-paced, esoteric, and unique. I found it intriguing more than enjoyable, but I feel that had I gone in with those expectations, I might have had a more positive experience. 

Thanks to W.W. Horton and NetGalley for the ARC in exchange for my honest review.
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I really enjoyed this debut novel by Lisa Hsiao Chen, it touches on a few different characters and maybe the author’s own voice, but the overall theme is time and how it is perceived. The author presents us with different scenarios; an artist doing a year long project, a father with Alzheimer’s, institutions, the immigration experience. Time passes differently for everyone depending on their situation. Activities in Daily Living is harder to describe than it is to read, but I liked the exploration and ideas put forth.
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ACTIVITIES OF DAILY LIVING by Lisa Hsiao Chen caught my attention with its title. For anyone in the field of health care, activities of daily living (“ADLs”) are common parlance for the mundane functions of life that we take for granted until disability or old age gradually strip us of our ability to independently feed, bathe, or dress ourselves.

This novel mulls on questions like “What makes life meaningful?” and “What is the purpose of art?” by following the main character, Alice, as she attempts two things in parallel. First, she takes regular trips back to the Bay Area from NYC to care for her stepfather with dementia as he loses more of his ADLs - not to mention his ability to engage in hobbies, his personality, and his awareness of himself. Second, she embarks on a project to document the exploits of the Taiwanese American performance artist Tehching Hsieh, most famous for his series of yearlong performance pieces such as living in a cage for a year or living tied to another person with an eight foot long rope for a year.

This is such a unique novel, in that it is neither plot-driven or character-driven. Instead, it’s much more cerebral, introspective, and associative - a gathering of reflections on modernity, politics, philosophy, and art. It reminded me of some of the more art-centric passages of MINOR FEELINGS. There are lots of interesting facts about artists and philosophers that wind their way together along major themes, and Chen achieves a contemplative mood throughout.

It feels like the reader is wandering through Alice’s life and mind. I’d pick this up if you are in the mood for a slow-paced, reflective, intellectual read that encompasses both the humdrum banalities of life and the uplift of art.
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To be completely honest: I did not enjoy this book.

At surface level, "Activities of Daily Living" was promising: Alice, a mid-30s Taiwanese American woman, is forced to leave NYC for California to help care for her aging father. We get to see snippets of her life in the present, as she's navigating the responsibility of being her father's caretaker, as well as her past. In between these memories is the introduction of Tehching Hsieh, an artist Alice is fascinated with who has created perplexing works of art over the course of his life.

There are some weighty topics this novel covers, especially when it comes to aging - Alice watches as her father both physically and mentally declines, and as someone with an older parent, these scenes were deeply emotional and heart-wrenching. I had a difficult time with Chen's writing, however; the novel is told from a third person perspective and the tone is detached and unemotional. calling her father "the Father" and Hsieh "the Artist". The continual back and forth between time periods and settings was also jarring and made the reading experience less-than-enjoyable as well.
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Quite a unique book that is difficult to describe! It's also an interesting blend of fiction and fact. There are two stories going on, the slow death of the Father and his step-daughter's life which revolves around projects and an interest in art as a performance. Much of what is mentioned here really exists. The author cites famous and not so famous authors, yet this is fiction, not a research piece. I am in awe of the amount of reading she must have put in to be able to write such a book. And though I can't say that I've ever had any interest in performance art, it works well as a vehicle for the author's characters. 
The Father's dementia hit a little close to home for me as my mother had the same disease. The descriptions of his last years of life are not easy to read. Yet, they are poignant. 

I think some readers will struggle with this book, but it can be read on different levels, i.e. for the story or as an intellectual exercise, or even as an introduction to art. It's one of those books that you immediately want to re-read after finishing it so that you can absorb even more of it. I predict that there are many readers who will love this book.
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Alice, the protagonist of Lisa Hsiao Chen's Activities of Daily Living, is a 30-something Taiwanese American living in New York City. She spends her days working at a job that isn't particularly interesting or fulfilling. Her time is also increasingly taken up by caring for her aging stepfather, a white Vietnam War veteran, who is descending slowly into dementia in a nursing home. But when she's not occupied by those concerns, she works on a "project" about the life of an enigmatic performance artist, Tehching Hsieh, who disappeared from the art world in the 1980's.

I admit don't consider myself someone who has an appreciation for modern art. I'm especially baffled by performance art. But as I read this book, I found myself fascinated both by Hsieh, who is often referred to simply as "The Artist" and by how Alice's exploration into his art weaves itself in and out of her own life. This book is not an easy, leisurely read, but it is enjoyable. The plot is a little hard to pin down and at times feels like it's spiraling out beyond the confines of the story. But Lisa Hsiao Chen is an amazingly gifted writer, and I can't wait to see what comes next for her.
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Lisa Hsiao Chen writes with insight and the kind of reflection readers can locate in literary work. An enjoyable assembly of words.
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It’s common lately to talk about looking at everything through a lens – racial, ethnic, gender, sexual preference, etc. “Activities of Daily Living” Lisa Hsiao Chin takes this to a whole other level. She gives us a kaleidoscope to look through, and it is endlessly amazing.

I will leave it to future reviewers who are much better read than I to find the most appropriate comparisons for this marvelous debut effort. The best that I can come up with is Walter Benjamin’s “The Arcades Project”. Each time that I felt that I was getting a handle on the essence of Chin’s thesis, she took me around yet another bend where the view was amazing, and my mind was rocked.

Here are a few of the many lenses that the reader is treated to: the life and plight of Asian-American emigrants, immigrants, expats and lost and found souls; life, (especially end-of-life) care, reconciliation, and reflection of parents, partners, and friends; time – what is wasted, what is well spent, what is worth sharing, preserving; how we document, preserve, present every detail of life, down to the most quotidian and banal. And I am just scratching the surface. 

“Activities of Daily Living” is a novel of autofiction. It is a mosaic and a collage. It is an homage to scores of writers, philosophers, social scientists, parents, friends from long ago to just yesterday. It is simply a must read debut for lovers of literature. Ms. Chin has zoomed right up to the top of my list of “can’t wait to see what’s next”. 

Thanks to W.W. Horton and Netgalley for the eARC.
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