Activities of Daily Living Summary and Reviews

Activities of Daily Living

A Novel

by Lisa Hsiao Chen

Activities of Daily Living by Lisa Hsiao Chen X
Activities of Daily Living by Lisa Hsiao Chen
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  • Published in USA  Apr 2022
    288 pages
    Genre: Novels

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Book Summary

A lucid and moving debut novel on the interconnection between work and life, loneliness and kinship, and the projects that occupy our time.

How do we take stock of a life―by what means, and by what measure? This is the question that preoccupies Alice, a Taiwanese immigrant in her late thirties. In the off-hours from her day job, Alice struggles to create a project about the enigmatic downtown performance artist Tehching Hsieh and his monumental, yearlong 1980s performance pieces. As Alice roots deeper into Hsieh's radical use of time and his mysterious disappearance from the art world, her project starts metabolizing events from her own life. She wanders from subway rides to street protests, loses touch with a friend, and becomes a caretaker for her stepfather, a Vietnam vet whose dream of making traditional Chinese furniture dissolved in alcoholism and dementia.

Moving between present-day and 1980s New York City, with detours to Silicon Valley and the Venice Biennale, Activities of Daily Living is a startlingly precise, vivid, and tender examination of the passage of time.

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Media Reviews

"Chen wows in this tender debut novel (after the poetry collection Mouth) about an Asian American woman caring for her ailing white stepfather while working on a study of Tehching Hsieh, the Taiwanese performance artist best known for his durational performances." - Publishers Weekly (starred review)

"The human urge to fill time with projects of all sorts (movies, furniture building, writing, tying oneself to another person for a year!) is examined from all angles in Chen's thoughtful and thought-filled meditation on time. Elegiac and revealing, Chen's debut illuminates the clock in our hearts." - Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

This information about Activities of Daily Living shown above was first featured in "The BookBrowse Review" - BookBrowse's membership magazine, and in our weekly "Publishing This Week" newsletter. In most cases, the reviews are necessarily limited to those that were available to us ahead of publication. If you are the publisher or author and feel that the reviews shown do not properly reflect the range of media opinion now available, please send us a message with the mainstream media reviews that you would like to see added.

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Reader Reviews

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Art of Living
Lisa Hsaio Chen introduces Alice, a Taiwanese immigrant who lives and works in NYC. When she is not working as a freelance video editor, Alice devotes her time to her “project,” a study of a Taiwanese performance artist, and to the care of her father who lives on the west coast. Her father is an alcoholic who is sinking inexorably into dementia.

Like a permeable Venn diagram, the parts of Alice’s life overlap and shift. She grapples with the concept of project and the passing of time, with the definition of art and the meaning of life. Do projects simply fill our time? Do they give life meaning? Is living a project because it has a beginning and an end? Are relationships projects? How do we measure the worth of a life or the value of time? Is just living life an art?

Chen’s prose is crisp and vivid. Although a knowledge of the art world would we helpful, it is not necessary to the enjoyment of her book. She poses questions that writers, artists and book clubs will enjoy discussing and will continue to ponder long after the discussion ends. I found myself playing with the words that we use to describe time. We save time, kill time, spend time and buy time. We bide time, waste time and share time. In the end, of course, like Alice and her father, all we have is the lifetime and the projects and relationships that give it meaning.

Julie Z. (Oak Park, IL)

Activities of Daily Living by Lisa Hsiao Chen
Alice is a Taiwanese immigrant living in NYC. In her free time, she is researching and writing about Tehsching Hsieh, an obscure performance artist, whom she refers to as "the Artist" ( While Hsieh's art often is centered on the notion of time, Alice's stepfather ("the Father" in the novel) is dying of Alzheimer's disease; wrestling with time in his own way. Alice flies back and forth to San Francisco, trying to find the best care for the Father, while trying to carry out her own daily living through her job, research, and relationships with friends. Hsiao Chan has a spare, distinctive writing style, which lends itself to the story at hand. Her treatment of the end of her stepfather's life is touching and rang true to me, as my mother also died of Alzheimer's. An excellent debut novel.

Lynn D. (Kingston, NY)

Life and art in time
What an interesting and unusual novel!
There are two story threads. Alice is struggling with her Taiwanese Father's decline into dementia and his need for more and more help. The descriptions of her father's experiences in care facilities seem very true to me.
In her spare time Alice is researching a famous (but not to me) performance artist in NYC. The stories are connected by the details of Alice's life and her thinking about life and art. She uses the idea of the Project to explore these ideas, whether or not the project is ever completed, or ever seen or appreciated by anyone else. The many digressions into history, philosophy, etc, enhance the story. This is a thought provoking novel with sympathetic characters.

Lucy S. (Ann Arbor, MI)

Memorable, vivid, and tender
In Activities of Daily Living, Lisa Hsiao Chen expertly weaves together two storylines: The Father, in which main character Alice is caring for her aging step-father, and The Artist, in which Alice is creating a project that studies the works of performance artist Teching Hsieh.

Both storylines examine time, how it is used, viewed, and passed. The structure of the book reflects this theme through its nonlinear chronology. Time skips around, is loose, a character itself. Chen deftly uses Alice's project to inform readers about true-to-life events and people in the art world, while easily bringing us back to the moving story of a man succumbing to dementia.

This amazing book asks whether a life without creativity is worth living, and is the act of creativity more important than the outcome. It is a mediation on the importance of art and what we do with the passing of time.

Melissa C. (Saint Johns, FL)

Pondering the meaning of "time"
I didn't know what to expect from this book, other than reading rave reviews. And I have to agree, this book is wonderful. Rarely do I find myself wanting to re-read passages to fully absorb what the author is saying. Anyone who has experienced caring for an elderly or sick loved one will find themselves nodding or shaking their heads in concert with Alice, the main character, as she contends with caring for her dying stepfather and contemplating the meaning of "time."

Wendy A. (Durham, NC)

A Tale of Two Projects
Lisa Hsiao Chen's first novel, "Activities of Daily Living," presents two projects. The first project, about Tehching Hsieh (The Artist), a New York-based performance artist who undertakes year-long projects (but art?) whom the main character, Alice, researches for a project with no seeming end. The second project is about caring for Alice's step-father (the Father), who descends into dementia with a definite ending. What ties the two projects together is the concept of time and how it is perceived by The Artist, the Father and Alice herself. Living a bi-coastal life between Alice's Brooklyn home and the Father's residence in the Bay Area from his home, to skilled nursing facilities to memory care units, the concept of time for Alice and the Father take on a devastating, thankless journey when the brain can no longer count on neurotransmitters, clocks and lacking the ability to undertake activities of daily living (ADLs), known as dressing, personal hygiene, toileting and remembering, demarcating the depths of dementia.

The Artist project is done at a distance although many opportunities presented themselves for Alice to speak with Hsieh, she demurs. The Father project is a deep-dive sort where love and closeness are a marked contrast to Alice's distance from The Artist. Then, there are all the other "ouvres" introduced in the novel providing dimension (albeit distracting!) with references to art and literature, however disjointed they seem. I am sure the "dots connected" for the author, but not for this reader. What did connect, however, is the pain of losing a loved one to the black hole of dementia and "the long goodbye". The novel is worth a read, slowly, re-reading chapters (get a highlighter) to ponder time and ADLs in your own life and others' conception of time, with whom you are close or from whom you are distant.

...20 more reader reviews

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More Information

Born in Taipei, Lisa Hsiao Chen received a 2018 Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers' Award and fellowships from the Center for Fiction and the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council's Workspace program. A graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, she lives in New York.

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