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Who's Irish?: Stories Hardcover – May 18, 1999

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Nobody writes about the immigrant experience like Gish Jen. What sets her apart from other ethnic writers is the wide-angle lens she turns not only on her own Chinese American ethnic group, but on Jewish Americans, African Americans, Irish Americans, and just about any other hyphenate you'd care to name. Though her tales are filtered through an Asian experience, they are, at heart, the quintessential American story of immigration, assimilation, and occasional tensions with other ethnic communities. The title story, for example, is a neat variation on a time-worn theme: mothers and daughters. The narrator is an elderly Chinese woman whose thoroughly assimilated daughter, Natalie, has married into an Irish American family. Natalie is successful; her husband, John, is not. Natalie's mother comments early on:
I always thought Irish people are like Chinese people, work so hard on the railroad, but now I know why the Chinese beat the Irish. Of course, not all Irish are like the Shea family, of course not. My daughter tell me I should not say Irish this, Irish that.
The narrator has other thoughts on the Irish question as well, including the connection between national diet and world view: "Plain boiled food, plain boiled thinking," she says of John, then adds that "because I grew up with black bean sauce and hoisin sauce and garlic sauce, I always feel something is missing when my son-in-law talk." But it soon becomes apparent that the problems between the narrator and her daughter's family are less cultural than generational, and in the end the mother forms a surprising alliance.

Jen comes at the question of identity from another angle in "Duncan in China," in which a second-generation Chinese American man returns to Mainland China to teach English. Here she manages to delicately suggest the enormity of the differences between the very American Duncan and his Chinese students, coworkers, and relatives. And in "Birthmates" she places her computer programmer protagonist, Art Woo, in close proximity to the low-income, mostly black residents of a welfare hotel that he's accidentally checked into. Class, race, gender, and job security all figure into this brilliant, subtle story that looks at the dark side of the American dream and finds that failure comes in all colors. These eight stories are sharply written, filled with humor, pathos, and more than a few surprising twists and turns. Quite simply, Who's Irish? is a delight. --Alix Wilber

From Publishers Weekly

The Chinese-American author (Typical American, Mona in the Promised Land) is a known quantity by now, though her sometimes uproarious but just as often compassionate tales of culture clash always manage to find some new and surprising angles from which to ambush the reader. There are two novella-length tales in this breezy, assured collection: Duncan in China tells of a young man, a dropout at home, who achieves a certain bizarre status on a prolonged visit to contemporary China, and of the perplexing choices he has to make when all his usual assumptions are turned on their heads. House, House, Home is the account of Pammies two marriages, to wry, eccentric Scandinavian Sven and, later, to massively laid-back Carver from Hawaii, and the sorts of space these very different men give her to move in. As always with Jen, a multitude of details, domestic and behavioral, are acutely observed, and the impact, in barely 80 pages, is that of a much longer work. The title story is a delightfully rueful account of a Chinese grandmother trying to come to terms with her spoiled Irish grandchild, Birthmates is a cunningly woven mixture of farce and pathos about a born loser looking for a job at a convention and In the American Society portrays the mixed dignity and foolishness of a traditional Chinese man trying, and failing, to adapt to our odd mores.
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf; 1st edition (May 18, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375406212
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375406218
  • Product Dimensions: 5.8 x 1 x 8.7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 13.3 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (19 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #4,803,654 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Gish Jen has published in the New Yorker, the Atlantic, the New Republic, and other magazines, as well as in numerous anthologies, including The Best American Short Stories of the Century. Her honors include a Lannan Literary Award and a Strauss Living Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. For further info, please see www.gishjen.com.

Customer Reviews

3.8 out of 5 stars
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

18 of 21 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on August 8, 1999
Format: Hardcover
I am a working mom with little time to read fiction. But the need exists. Amy Tam never did it for me. Maxine Kingston Wong was too ethereal. Finally, I found an Asian American writer with an East Coast sensibility! Gish Jen's new book of short stories is a delight. There are treasures in this volume. For me, she is the most down-to-earth and funny(!) Asian American woman writing today. "House, House, Home" is one of the best short stories that I have ready anywhere, anytime. The short story format (some are more polished than others, but all are worth the time) makes for good summer reading.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Dana Lightstone on July 22, 2000
Format: Hardcover
Some of these stories were outstanding, all were good. The title story was great. This book is an excellent commentary on American society, and the experience of being an immigrant. This collection, like many other short story collections explores the theme of "East meets West," for lack of a more politically correct term. It explores some valuable questions in todays society. Jen's writing style is also excellent, and much improved since "Mona in the Promised Land."
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8 of 10 people found the following review helpful By Stephen M. Bauer on July 7, 2002
Format: Paperback
The collection of short stories titled, "Who's Irish?" by Gish Jen, is a contemporary look at middle class, Chinese-American life in the suburbs. Generally, the stories are about Americanized children in conflict with the traditional Chinese values of their immigrant parents.
In all of her stories, Gish Jen shows an ability to create vivid characters with just a few telling details. He stories have a component that is comic and a component that is sad. Although most the stories are written in a very feminine voice, "Birthmates" and "Duncan in China," have male protagonists, and I am amazed at how authentic her male characters seem, especailly the latter.
The title story, "Who's Irish?" is a picture of cultural differences between America and China. The story is told in broken English through the eyes of an immigrant Chinese grandmother. Her daughter Natalie is banking professional with a three year-old daughter named Sophie. Natalie's husband John is an Irish-American who works only intermittently due to bouts of depression. Natalie and John rely heavily on Natalie's mother to baby sit Sophie. Natalie and John's marriage and child rearing are terminally American. Natalie's mother's attitudes and customs are traditional Chinese. Natalie's mother's comments and criticisms of American child-rearing methods and life in America are absolutely hilarious. The conflict over the granddaughter, Sophie, gets so bad at one point that the parents accuse the grandmother of child abuse and cut off all contact between granddaughter and grandmother. But, I'm not doing the story justice. It is a gem; I'm tempted to call it a masterpiece. It must be read to be appreciated.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on August 3, 1999
Format: Hardcover
I may have preferred this anthology of short stories to her last work (Mona in the Promised Land) because I tend to lean in that literary direction but I also noticed an improvement of Jen's writing style. Where as in the last novel I felt as if she wandered in certain sections, in each of her stories in Who's Irish? she seemed both eloquent but more straight to the point. Like Amy Tan, Jen is an Chinese American writer that is talented enough to relate her ideas and themes to the reader without him or her having to be of the same ethnic background. She did this exceedingly well in the short story House, House, Home with the protagonist Pammie.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on July 13, 1999
Format: Hardcover
Jen's collection includes "Birthmates" which John Updike selected for his recent "Best American Short Stories of the Century." This is one of the few literary stories I've read with any insight into the business world and it shatters many a stereotype. My favorites, however, were the title story "Who's Irish?" and "Just Wait" (though I liked them all -- not a dud in the collection). In "Who's Irish," Jen subtly balances the humor and pathos of both intergenerational and interracial conflicts. The two grandmother characters are forever memorable! Reading "Just Wait," I was on the floor laughing at the sibling dynamics, but found much to chew on later. "Chin", the darkest story of the collection, illustrates the broad variety in this collection. The final story, "House, House, Home" goes far beyond the surface issues of a single mother in suburbia to provide insights into what attracts, and separates, men and women. The ending was unbelievably moving. This is a long story and I would not have minded it being a novel. Jen seems to have a talent for treating weighty subject matters within the confines of "ordinary life" (nothing exotic here). She also takes amazing risks with racial material without stumbling -- I find her characters to be complex & painfully authentic (you'll scream when you get to Duncan's mother). As with her last novel, Jen's voice in these stories is unique, intelligent, funny but not off-putting. Highly recommended.
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