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Since the publication of "The Great Gatsby" the notion of the American Dream has become a favorite theme in this country's literature. In recent years, Gish Jen has explored the immigrant experience in the land of plenty with an accurate and knowing eye.
In "Who's Irish?
" (Alfred A. Knopf, $22), a collection of eight short stories, Jen explores the complicated existence of those hyphenated Americans who are caught between cultures. A Chinese-American herself, Jen's prose and descriptions are equally deft whether she is writing about her own ancestors or the forebears of others.
In the opening story, "Who's Irish?" a Chinese-American mother and daughter clash over child rearing. Blaming the granddaughter's wildness on her "mixed" Irish blood, the grandmother is eventually forced to accept and embrace that same culture.
"Birthmates" (recently selected by John Updike for his "Best American Short Stories of the Century") is a heartbreaking story about Art Woo, a 49-year-old recently divorced minicomputer salesman trapped in a dying industry. When he checks into a welfare hotel to save money while attending a minicomputer conference, Woo and the reader are forced to confront the sorry state of his life. The story's O'Henrylike ending is a stunner.
"House, House, Home," at 75 pages more of a novella than a short story, really, follows the romantic relationship between art student Pammie and the much older art professor Sven. The reader knows their union is doomed from the start, but it is impossible to look away from this accident waiting to happen.
Jen is a master of the well-placed telling detail and realistic dialogue. Her sense of irony is exquisite and her sense of humor wickedly funny. But what really makes Jen's stories special is her ability to find humanity and hope in even the most difficult