Three Recent Library Reads: Boundaries, Lung Transplants, and Dirty Dishes

Watching You Without Me by Lynn Coady

I have loved Lynn Coady’s short stories, but had yet to read one of her novels. As is often the case, I am starting from most recent and will be working my way back.

Watching You Without Me is narrated by Karen, who is telling her own story after it has already happened. She has moved back home, after the death of her mother Irene, to take care of her developmentally disabled sister, who Irene has been caring for all these years.

In the past, Karen could not understand the choices Irene made, believing she sacrificed too much of herself to care for Kelli. In an effort to save herself from the same kind of life, Karen moved away. But after being home again for a while, she starts to come around to her mother’s way of thinking…

But here’s what I needed to understand – what Irene understood. Either you were all in with Kelli, or you were not. But if you were, Kelli had to become your joy. Kelli would be where you went for meaning. Kelli was what it was all about. And Irene was right about this too – it was like faith. It was exactly like faith in that you had to stop futzing around and let it take you over… Once you accepted that, you were – and this was strange to think but the moment I thought it I realized I had put my finger on the savagely beating heart of my mother’s philosophy – free.

At the heart of this novel are family relationships and the boundaries we draw; boundaries between family members, but also between care workers and their clients. One of Kelli’s support workers – Trevor – starts hanging around outside of work hours, and offers help that is above and beyond his job description. Karen’s spidey senses are alerted, but it’s hard to turn down the help.

In stories, successful stories anyway, endings always feel right, satisfying, even when they’re sad. But in life, endings – the big-choo kind of endings – uniformly feel awful. They’re the incidents from which we must recover, the cascade of events that feel unexpected even when they’re not and divide our lives into the innocent, oblivious before and the annihilated after.

Dory Cerny at the Quill & Quire says that “as much as this is a novel about family, it’s also a mid-life coming-of-age story about a woman who’s been ticking along in life, weathering its ups and downs… , and generally accepting her mother’s responses of “I’m fine, it’s fine” as a convenient truth, to everyone’s detriment.

Donald Calabrese at Atlantic Books Today focuses on Coady’s “profound understanding of the anger of men” and the fact that Karen remains “absolutely tethered to her shame“.


Transplanted by Allison Watson

Transplanted is a memoir about Allison Watson’s experience with cystic fibrosis and double-lung transplant.

In Transplanted, Allison writes about her family (her older sister also suffers from CF), her active lifestyle, what it’s like to live with decreasing lung capacity. She describes the terror as well as the gratitude of receiving a set of lungs. There were may panic attacks and setbacks, but Allison continued on with the support of friends and family.

Allison’s book started out as a blog, and reads very much like one with its conversational tone. Impressively, Allison is able to stay positive (and even laugh at herself at times) as she describes her long ordeal.

I started to panic as I was suddenly positive the blurred vision and spinning world meant that I had carbon dioxide poisoning. I needed to tell someone what was wrong. My assumption wasn’t such a stretch, as the last thing I remembered was being told that my carbon dioxide levels were high. I was sure I was either still in that hazy, poisoned world or that it was happening again. My panic mounted while I continued to be unable to get anyone into the room to help me. The people I kept seeing in the hallway were ignoring me. And why did the unit have a cardboard cut-out of a smiling, mustachioed man in a sombrero selling tacos?

I learned a lot, too. Did you know that people with cystic fibrosis also have problems with their pancreas, liver, kidneys, and intestine? Lack of digestive enzymes result in poor absorption of nutrients – Allison has spent her life fighting to gain or maintain her weight.

You might start out reading this book for its interesting medical content, but in the end you will be glad you read it for its bravery and heart.

It was effortless to breathe for the first time in years.

Read another review of Transplanted at The Miramichi Reader.


The Dishwasher by Stéphane Larue

I didn’t know what to expect from The Dishwasher. Which is one of the reasons I wanted to read it. Now I think it will be one of my favourite books of the year.

The narrator of the story (who remains nameless until the end) takes a job as a dishwasher at a high-end, late-night restaurant in Montreal, desperate for any job to pay off his debts. A nineteen year old student at CEGEP, the narrator is struggling to remain in school, pay his rent, and keep his girlfriend as he succumbs over and over to the euphoria of the video gambling machines.

The intensity of the kitchen scenes blew me away with their vivid images and sensory descriptions. The food, the mess, the gunk, the smoke, the prep, the cooks, the servers, the yelling, the insults, the stress, the heat, the sweat, the drinking, the drugs, and the endless dishes. Here’s the narrator’s impression of the dishpit the first time he saw it…

The left side was stacked with clean dishes; the right with the dirty ones. Between was a battlefield where the remains of the day’s lunch lay in agony. A tall, grimy metal shelving unit was covered with piles of splattered plates. Pots stained with burnt tomato sauce harboured twisted ladles, tongs coated with unidentifiable sauces, plastic inserts with soggy julienned vegetables and viscous marinades, baking sheets spackled with fat and strips of scorched chicken skin. On the dishpit’s long steel counter piles of crusted frying pans leaned precariously next to a dishwasher from which small puffs of steam emerged. At the bottom of one of the overstuffed shelves a mountain of cutlery soaked in a bucket of grey water. The tiled walls were filthier than a high school cafeteria after a food fight: knots of overcooked linguini, brown shreds of lettuce poised to come unstuck, unidentifiable lumps, soup splatters, and squirts of sauce covered the wall with a layer that grew thicker as it neared the ground, where it coalesced into a seam of sodden, oily black gunk. A large garbage can rose in the centre of it all like a sacrificial well, its black bag overflowing with what the lunchtime hordes had rejected, like the entrails of an animal with rumpled, slimy skin. The area smelled like disinfectant and something else I couldn’t put my finger on, a greasy, fetid odour that filled my nostrils. A small hood vent was noisily sucking up the humid air that had long ago had its way with the ceiling.

Jeff Miller at the Montreal Review of Books articulates my thoughts perfectly in connection to the “fresh” kitchen scenes and the “galloping” pace of the novel: “The Dishwasher is powered by Larue’s kinetic, heavily descriptive writing. Quoting short extracts would not do it justice – it is the accumulation of detail over several galloping pages that creates immersive scenes of sensory and affective precision. Through descriptions of the frenzied kitchen night after night, the reader is drawn into the routines of the restaurant, its volatile energy, and extreme personalities. With a less skilled writer this could have become repetitive, but one of the pleasures of the book is how Larue manages to keep these scenes fresh, introducing a rich cast of secondary characters and making each night feel somehow both the same and completely different.”

A couple of good lines…

In a sweet moment of relief and disappointment, I gave up.

The smell of seafood and detergent was more revolting than a rest-stop outhouse in the middle of a heatwave.

What have you been reading about lately?


22 thoughts on “Three Recent Library Reads: Boundaries, Lung Transplants, and Dirty Dishes

  1. A Life in Books says:

    The Watson rang a loud bell for me although I knew I hadn’t read it. Then I made the connection – a Canadian woman, a writer, is awaiting a lung transplant thanks to CF in Sarah Leipciger’s new novel, Coming Up For Air, which I’ll be reviewing on my blog next month.

    • Naomi says:

      They were actually very professional when it came to the cleanliness – not so professional in their interactions with each other. It did make me wonder if all high-end, successful restaurants are like that. I’m pretty sure I’m not cut out to work in that type of environment!

  2. annelogan17 says:

    I have both Lynn Coady’s book, and The Dishwasher on my shelf right now-I want to read both so badly!!! Now you’ve convinced me The Dishwasher at the very least needs to jump to the top of my pile 🙂

  3. buriedinprint says:

    What a great combination of styles and subjects: you have something for every reading mood here!

    I’ve been reading about coming-of-age as a Maori (by Witi Ihimaera), about writing books in the southern U.S. (Flannery O’Connor’s letters) and about sad and disappointing experiences in school (both as a teacher and as a student, in Chris Ware’s Rusty Brown).

      • buriedinprint says:

        Not really, they feel pretty true-to-life. Just ordinary sadnesses across the generations (feeling misunderstood, not being fulfilled at work, etc.). What I love about Ware’s comics is that there are always multiple stories unfolding at the same time (drawn in different places on the pages, for example) so that it’s like a linked story collection with all the characters intersecting. I think you’d like them — for comics. LOL

      • Naomi says:

        I didn’t know they were comics. I might look for them at the library – our graphic novel sections are growing by leaps and bounds!

  4. lauratfrey says:

    Have you read Love Me Back? Another gritty story set in a high end restaurant. The Dishwasher sounds great. My brother is a dishwasher in a hospital, which I’m sure has it’s own challenges and indignities 😁

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