5 Must-Read Books with Deaf Characters

 

Ever since I watched Why Not Theatre’s excellent ASL/English Prince Hamlet a few months ago, I’ve been on the lookout for other examples of Deaf representation in arts and culture. As a bookworm, my interest naturally fell on finding books that featured Deaf characters or touched upon Deaf Culture.

I should point out that I’m not Deaf, CODA nor hard of hearing, so I’m in no way an expert on how good or how problematic a book is when representing Deaf Culture. That being said, below are books I’ve recently discovered and enjoyed. Most of my online searches for books on Deaf Culture and about Deaf characters often showed only academic texts or children’s books teaching the ASL alphabet, so I hope compiling this list will help other interested bookworms find their next read.

Finally — I’m always looking for my next great read. If you know of any fantastic titles I can add to this list, let me know!

1. El Deafo by Cece Bell

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A birthday gift from a friend, this adorable graphic memoir is by turns hilarious and bittersweet. Based in part on the author’s own experiences of growing up, El Deafo is about a young bunny, Cece, who is the only deaf kid at her new school. Cece creates a superhero persona ‘El Deafo’ to gain confidence when trying to make new friends, and uses the super-powered hearing from her Phonic Ear to help her classmates keep out of trouble. See my full review here.

2. Signs of Attraction by Laura Brown

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A deaf/hard of hearing college student falls in love with the hot deaf guy in her class. Carli has hidden her deafness all her life, and I love how her relationship with Reed helps her come to terms with her deafness, feel okay with needing CART services or close captioning, and learn ASL. The story was a lot more intense than the light-hearted romance I expected (content warning: child abuse, violence against women, suicide), and there were plot threads that I wish had been explored more (Reed’s birth father, Carli’s mother and sisters), but overall, I really liked this book.

I also love how signs are depicted in this book – most of the signed conversations are depicted in italics, but because Carli is just beginning to learn sign language, whenever characters use signs that she hasn’t learned yet, the author also describes the gesture. The scenes involving the sign for “falling in love” are particularly squee-worthy.

The author is hard of hearing and her next book Friend (with Benefits) Zone features two Deaf main characters.

3. Five Flavors of Dumb by Antony John

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This funny, hipsterish middle-grade/young adult story is about a deaf teenage girl who accepts a dare to become the manager of her high school band ‘Dumb’ and land them a paying gig within a month. Fuelled mostly by passion, Dumb is great at making noise but horrible at actually creating music together. Piper’s efforts to enforce harmony amongst the members often go hilariously awry, but the novel’s heart lies in the characters’ sincere love for music, and Piper’s realization that being a good manager goes beyond just making the next quick buck.

I also really liked the family dynamics. A decision by Piper’s parents leads to a major turning point in her relationship with them, her rebellious younger brother turns out to be a staunch ally, and she confronts her complex emotions about her baby sister having cochlear implants.

4. Finding Zoe: A Deaf Woman’s Journey of Love, Identity, and Adoption by Brandi Rarus and Gail Harris

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Brandi Rarus came of age at a very exciting time in Deaf history – she was a college student during the Gallaudet University 1988 student and faculty protest for a Deaf President, and ended up marrying one of the student leaders Tim Rarus. I loved learning about her life and seeing this period from her perspective as a deaf woman who grew up oral in a hearing household. For example, she writes about how Tim snubbed her at their first meeting because, having grown up in a multi-generational Deaf family, he viewed her as “too oral.”

The section about Zoe was the final third of the book, and I liked that Rarus featured the perspectives of the multiple people involved in the adoption, including Zoe’s birth parents and the family who had originally intended to adopt her. Rarus’ love for her child and joy over welcoming Zoe into their family is beautiful and heartwarming, but I felt bad for Zoe’s birth father. BJ wanted to raise his daughter and his parents had promised their support, but the birth mother Jess refused to give Zoe up to him (because it meant that she didn’t want her child, whereas giving the child up to a two-parent household meant “giving the child a better life”), and the adoption counselor eventually strong-armed him into agreeing that a traditional two-parent household (“with a mother and a father”) would be best. Even Jess’ decision to give up her child was heavily influenced by her religious mother, who basically convinced her that raising the child herself doomed Jess and the baby to a lifetime on welfare whereas adoption was presented in ridiculously fairy tale-like terms.

5. Seeing Voices by Oliver Sacks

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I discovered this book at a local bookstore and thought it was a great introduction to Deaf history. I was fascinated to learn about sign language’s roots in indigenous languages within the Deaf community, which developed as a natural form of communication despite attempts to teach Deaf people speech. I was also horrified to learn about the violence in forcing Deaf children to learn spoken languages, which delays their introduction to education in other areas.

I hadn’t realized that Sign Language used to be viewed by hearing people as only a gestural adaptation of English, until linguist William Stokoe argued about ASL having a linguistic structure and therefore being a language in its own right. I also hadn’t realized that Gallaudet University, which I’ve heard is one of the best post-secondary school for Deaf students, has had only hearing presidents until the late 1980s. Sacks covers the Deaf President Now protests, from a more detached yet detailed perspective than Rarus did, and that was my favourite part of this book.

Review | I’m Your Biggest Fan, Kate Coyne

27161824I’m Your Biggest Fan is a fun and funny collection of anecdotes about celebrity encounters from Kate Coyne, executive editor for People and formerly a reporter for Page Six of the New York Post and entertainment editor for Good Housekeeping. She begins the book with a story about her emotional first encounter with Robert Downey Jr, as a teenage fangirl who burst into tears at his autograph and later bumped into him with her eyes still puffy and her nose still swollen. The chapter is titled “Robert Downey Jr. Thinks I’m Emotionally Unhinged,” and that tone of self-deprecating humour sets the tone of hilarity for the rest of the book.

Coyne has what is arguably many readers’ dream job — the chance to hobnob with A-list celebrities and get paid for it. I can only imagine how awkward I would be face to face with RDJ, NPH and all the other celebrities she writes about, so it’s nice to read that someone who does this for a living is still just as starstruck as I would be, though admittedly more professional than I may have managed to act.

 

Coyne’s stories made my laugh (RDJ) or swoon (Tom Cruise, surprisingly, and Tom Hanks), and in one of my favourite chapters, served as a reality check that regardless of how friendly a celebrity is, the interview is still a job, and celebrity journalists are still an acquaintance at best and not necessarily a friend. In this particular chapter, Coyne interviews Mariska Hargitay and is blown away by how warm and friendly Hargitay is. Near the end of the interview, Hargitay makes an offhand suggestion that Coyne and her husband drop by sometime for a game of charades. I’ll be honest: I love Mariska Hargitay, and if she ever invites me over to charades, I may very well respond as starry-eyed as Coyne did, and will likely set myself up for the same disappointment she experienced when the follow up invitation never came. The punchline of the story comes years later when Coyne encounters Hargitay at the Emmys and blurts out something about the charades invitation apropos of absolutely nothing, and then proceeds to make it worse by babbling about the context for her comment. Coyne writes, “As I cackled like a lunatic, Mariska’s gorgeous Louboutin stilettos took two steps backward. She was physically trying to get away from me. She was slowly backing away from the scary stalker that I had become” (p. 67).

Coyne’s writing maintains its light and breezy tone. Listening to her stories felt like chatting with a friend who happens to be invited to amazing events with all the cool people in Hollywood. In another of my favourite chapters, this one featuring Tom Hanks, Coyne is feeling idiotic after a particularly awkward encounter with Neil Patrick Harris and Hanks notices her mood and kindly strikes up a conversation and makes her feel better. I’ve always loved Tom Hanks’ work, and this anecdote makes me just want to hug him.

Coyne also relates some more serious stories, such as her encounters with Kate Gosselin, who is really an object of sympathy unjustly maligned by the tabloids and with Michael Douglas, with whom Coyne shared a lovely moment reminiscing over a childhood encounter with his troubled son. There’s a chapter at the end about a bout with an eating disorder, which felt out of place with the rest of the book. Coyne keeps the tone as light as self-deprecating as ever but in this instance, the tone feels almost discordant with the content, and I wish that, if this part of the story had to be included, that it had been given a bit more space to unpack rather than treated as a throwaway amongst many other anecdotes.

I’m Your Biggest Fan is a fun, humorous look at celebrity journalism and having the dream of a lifetime chance to speak with celebrities you admire.

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Thanks to Hachette Book Group Canada for an Advance Reading Copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | Gender Failure, Rae Spoon and Ivan E. Coyote

18406194Gender Failure is a beautiful, candid, moving account of Rae Spoon and Ivan E. Coyote’s “failure” to fit into the traditional gender binary. Its roots as a stage production are evident — the tone is conversational, even intimate, and you can almost imagine the authors telling you these stories in person. Photos from the show are interspersed throughout, and I wish I’d seen the production live, as it must have been an even more powerful experience than reading it on the page.

The casual tone of the narration belies the depths of emotion that Spoon and Coyote express. Spoon recounts the experience of a man approaching them after a show and laughing because he’d originally thought Spoon was “a dude,” until they started singing and he then “knew you were a chick.” The man appeared to expect Spoon to share in this hilarity, even grabbing them by the arm in a show of comradeship. Spoon’s response struck me: they walked away, and only then corrected the man that he’d been mistaken both times. The need to walk away before correcting the misconception speaks to Spoon’s awareness of their vulnerability. Not only do they experience “a feeling that I have failed to be seen” every time they are misgendered, they are also all too aware of the dangers in revealing themselves as trans.

Both Spoon and Coyote share their fear of public washrooms. Coyote writes about developing the skill to hold their pee for hours, in the hopes that they may not need to use the wheelchair-accessible gender-neutral stall and potentially inconvenience someone with mobility issues. “[Women] are afraid of men in a women’s washroom, because of what may happen,” Spoon says. “I am afraid of women in a women’s washroom because of what happens to be all the time.” Experiences include being assaulted with a handbag and being dragged out from a stall by security guards, not to mention the less physical but no less violent experience of being glared at in disgust. Spoon’s frustration is evident when they say that they can’t even react in anger, “because if I get angry, then I am seen as even more of a threat. Then it’s all my fault, isn’t it? Because then there is a man in the ladies’ room, and for some reason, he’s angry.”

Coyote writes about their difficulty in trying to get medical approval to have their top surgery funded. Ironically, their difficulty lay in finding a psychologist who could provide an unbiased assessment on whether Coyote was “trans enough” for the procedure, because most of the psychologists had studied Coyote’s work when training to make such assessments. They also speak about the intrusive questions people feel entitled to ask. In one interview, for example, the reporter tried to be coy around the question of sex assignment surgery, and when Coyote told her to just come right out and ask the question, they realized that the reporter didn’t even know what sex Coyote had been assigned at birth. “She couldn’t even be sure what I might want removed or added on to me,” Coyote says. “But still. She had to know. She just had to ask.”

The section about the Trans Day of Remembrance is especially moving. The event honours those who have died by reading their names aloud, but as Coyote notes,

What will be missing are these women’s stories… What will also be missing is a discussion about the difference between excluding someone and actively including them, and intentionally making space. And the day after we are suppose to remember, most of this will be forgotten.

In particular, Coyote remembers their friend Rosie, a trans woman who left town and is presumed dead, and whom Coyote memorializes in this book. “I refuse to reduce her life to nothing more than a name on a list of the deceased,” they say. “I will remember so much more about Rosie than just her absence from my life.”

Gender Failure is such a powerful, beautiful book. Spoon and Coyote have moved me, and I can only imagine the impact their stories can have on transgendered readers, particularly those who are young and still trying to figure things out. I cannot recommend this book enough, and I’ll just end this here, with Coyote’s words:

I realize that the English language is sadly devoid of names for people like me. I try to cut the world some slack for this every day. All day. And the day after that, too. But the truth is that every time I am misgendered, a tiny little sliver of me disappears, A tiny little sliver of me is reminded that I do not fit … I remember that the truth of me is invisible, and a tiny little sliver of me disappears. Just a sliver, razored from the surface of my very thick skin most days, but other times right from my soul, sometimes felt so deep and other days simply shrugged off, but still. All those slivers add up to something much harder to pretend around.

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Thank you to Arsenal Pulp Press for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | Unfinished Business: Women, Men, Work, Family, Anne-Marie Slaughter

unfinishedbusinessThis is such a good book! Unfinished Business is an intelligent and well-balanced discussion on work/life balance. I love how Slaughter eschews a one-size-fits-all solution and instead talks about how this could work given a range of circumstances.

I thought the reframing of the question on work/life balance to re-evaluate how much caregiving should be worth is really smart. Slaughter also gives a broad understanding of the term “caregiving”, applying it equally to caring for a child, an aging parent, a spouse, a friend or whatever other type of loved one. Too often the discussion on work/life balance focuses on working mothers, and as a single, child-free woman, I’m glad to see my own experience finally included in this discussion.

Slaughter as well gives equal importance to working dads and distinguishes between making men equal partners in the home and having them help with household duties (the first accords them responsibility and a sense of ownership.) She also points out that same sex couples are unable to rely on traditionally held social notions of the gendered division of labour, and so their experiences demonstrate how bread winning and caregiving can be distributed equitably between both partners regardless of social assumptions about gendered capabilities.

Lots of food for thought in this book, and Slaughter raised a lot of interesting points. Hopefully this book sparks discussion on these topics and makes us all re-think how we see careers, competition and caregiving.

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Thanks to Random House Canada for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | 9 1/2 Narrow: My Life in Shoes, Patricia Morrisroe

Shoes9 1/2 Narrow is touching, funny and uplifting, a charming memoir about significant events in author Patricia Morrisroe’s life told through the framework of the shoes she wore at each incident. It’s fascinating to realize just how symbolic a choice of footwear can be.

I love how she credits meeting her husband to the shoes she wore — she happened to be tying her laces at the same time he passed by — and then later details how his collection of a certain type of athletic shoes became a cause of strain in their marriage. I also especially love the section when she wore a pair of fashion forward shoes at a new school to be cool only to discover that the popular girls were all wearing a completely different style — the incident turns into the type of “mean girl” misunderstanding that must have been much more painful than the author’s lighthearted touch leads us to believe. Having grown up studying in an all-girls’ school, where we had to wear uniforms, I know all too well the importance of choosing the right accessories, and the right pieces of clothing over which we had some degree of control (i.e. shoes).

My favourite part of this book by far is the relationship between Morrisroe and her mother, told through the lens of their constant battles over footwear. It’s a relationship other women may remember with their own mothers or daughters, and again, the lighthearted comedic touches of heated debates over shoes belie the deep bond between them. The tone of these segments stand out as well — in a mostly amusing series of anecdotes, there’s a poignancy to her encounters with her mother that tell a tale far beyond a story of shoes.

The book reminded me of a shoe-related skirmish I had with my own mother, over the height of the heels I could wear to my high school prom. Having been constrained by a school uniform all my life, I had Disney princess-ish visions of glamour for prom night, and those, in my mind, equated to high heels. I wanted four inch stilettos, my mom wanted nothing higher than an inch. We compromised with 3 inch chunky heels, and I was feeling like a glamourous princess for maybe the first hour, until I realized why my mom had been so adamant about low heels. Limping around at the end of the evening, I was grateful that she’d forced me into rounded toes and chunky heels.

That memory is one in a series of many memories of high school and of my mother, yet even now, whenever I see a pair of four inch stilettos, or otherwise wobble around in heels wishing I were in flats, I remember my mom and my high school prom. It’s fascinating, the impact footwear has on us, and Morrisroe captures this feeling wonderfully in her memoir.

Whether Morrisroe is arguing with her mom over a particular type of shoes, or falling in love with her husband over another pair, shoes play such a big role in our lives, and our choice in footwear tells so much about us. There are shoes I associate with particular friends or family members, and shoes I associate with particular moments in my life. And by framing her life in shoes, Morrisroe succeeds in drawing us into her life, and helping us visualize precisely the type of footwear that got her to where she is today.

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Thank you to Gotham Books for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | Better than Before, Gretchen Rubin

betterthanbeforeApart from a brief stint of Dr. Phil fandom, I’m not a big fan of self-help books. They usually strike me as saccharinely optimistic at best, and rigidly authoritarian at worst. This may explain why I was both intrigued and slightly turned off by Gretchen Rubin’s Better than Before.

Rubin explores the idea of habit formation, and proposes that we all fall into one of Four Tendencies, depending on how we respond to obligation: Upholders stick to both external and internal obligations, Questioners do things only when it makes sense to them, Obligers need external accountability, and Rebels do what they feel like. According to Rubin, each of these tendencies can lead to success — the trick is to understand your own tendency and structure your habit formation along those lines.

I admit bristling at these classifications when I first read about them, mostly because I realized I was a textbook Obliger. In North American society, today, where individuality and self-governance are so highly prized, it seemed to be that Upholders were the most suited to success, and being an Obliger was the surest path to failure. Ironically, just a few pages after I felt this, Rubin writes that of the four Tendencies, Obligers are the most likely to dislike their own tendency.

Fortunately, as I read on, Rubin spoke at length about her sister — an Obliger — who is diabetic and who succeeded in getting her blood sugar down by changing her eating and exercise habits. For Rubin’s sister, it helped for her to tell co-workers that she no longer ate cupcakes, because they then helped hold her accountable to that resolution.

Rubin also gives various examples of friends and family members with other Tendencies, who successfully formed new habits based on her techniques. Honestly, I think her friends and family were a lot more polite than I would have been, if someone offered to make me a “guinea pig” in their habit formation theory. Rubin claims to understand that what works for her (an Upholder) will not work for most other people (most people are either Questioners or Obligers), but apart from a nominal split second of reluctance, she seems to have no problem dictating habits that her friends and family should form. Still, it is gratifying to know that even Rebels and Questioners can be successful at forming habits.

Also of interest are other classifications Rubin posits. One can be a Lark or an Owl (work best at daytime or at night), as well as an Abstainer or a Moderator (give up chocolate entirely or limit oneself to a square of chocolate a night). Again, alongside the Tendencies, these are useful in determining how to form new habits. For example, Rubin’s sister couldn’t commit to giving up all carbs to help her blood sugar, but she committed to abstaining completely from French fries, and that in itself has improved her health.

Rubin also calls us out on relying on loopholes — e.g. the “tomorrow” loophole, where we plan to begin a new habit “tomorrow” and in the meantime, splurge for today. Or the “false choice” loophole, where we set up a false dichotomy between two competing values that may not necessarily be in opposition (e.g. I can’t exercise because I work so hard).

I wish Rubin had spent more time talking about strategies for the other Tendencies, rather than relying on personal anecdotes sprinkled throughout. I also wish she had expanded the scope of the habits she chose to speak about — she mostly focused on habits she deemed important for herself, e.g. a low carb diet and exercising.

Finally and most problematically, I thought that at times, she framed concepts and redefined terms in a way to suit her arguments. For example, she says we can’t use rewards to help us with our habits because then we’re doing things for the reward and not viewing the habit itself as a reward — this strategy may work for Upholders, but likely not for everyone. Worse, she then says we can have treats, as long as they’re not tied to a particular habit or seen as a reward — this strikes me as just semantics, and is disingenuous. For example, when someone suggests that Rubin give up her diet soda habit to be healthier, Rubin emphatically declares that diet soda is her treat, and because she doesn’t smoke and barely drinks, she is entitled to it. I couldn’t care less if she drinks diet soda or not, but her tone struck me as defensive, and makes me wonder why her drinking diet soda as a treat is justified whereas her sister eating carbs beyond French fries is given the side eye.

Still, I thought the classification of Tendencies was useful, as were the details on loopholes and strategies we use that may hinder our habit formation. Rubin’s strategies for herself will definitely not work for me — she may thrill in structuring her days to such an extent, but I would chafe under such rigidity (e.g. scheduling a time each night for her and her husband to talk about their day) — but understanding that I’m an Obliger will definitely help me with my own habits. For example, it now makes sense why my whole strategy of going to the gym without a fixed schedule didn’t work for me — I enjoy the solitude of working out alone, but may need the accountability of a group class where people know me and would know if I skipped a class or two. Whatever your Tendency is, you can form a strategy for success, and Rubin’s book — particularly the first few chapters — can help you form that strategy.

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Thank you to Random House Canada for an advance reading copy of this book ine xc

Review | The Fangirl’s Guide to the Galaxy, Sam Maggs

22926684Are you a fangirl? Do you geek out over Star Trek, know every YA novel headed for the big screen, or wish Sherlock and John Watson would just hurry up and get it on already? Let’s be real: when you heard the title of this book, you either squealed with joy or said “meh” and moved on. If you are a fangirl in any way, shape or form, this book is for you.

Here’s a quick proviso: The Fangirl’s Guide to the Galaxy is not an in-depth analysis of all things geeky. Rather, it’s a light-hearted primer into how awesome geekdom can be. Did you know that Disney fans are called “Disnerds”? Me neither, but Maggs’ description of them having “big dreams, big eyes, big hair” made me laugh. I also wish I’d read this book before going to my first convention — the tips on bringing water, a charger, and cash would’ve come in handy. (“Sure, cons have ATMs, but the lines typically stretch all the way back to Narnia.” And worse, by the time you get to the front, the machine may already be out of cash. I’m never making that mistake again.)

I especially love the informal Q&As with celebrity geek girls — and my own fangirly little heart skipped a beat when I saw Kate Beaton was included! Maggs also includes some girl power type chapters on contemporary feminism, which in the light of things like Gamergate, is particularly relevant to any geek girl. Maggs’ message is simple: don’t let anyone ever tell you that you’re not geek enough. And that’s a message worth hearing.

Maggs includes a variety of geeky topics in this book, which is particularly useful for anyone who wants to try out another geekdom. For example, I’ve been intrigued by superhero comic books, but I never knew where to begin. I’ve always found comic book stores pretty intimidating. It’s hard to ask for advice about where to start, when everyone around you appears to know exactly what they’re looking for, and even when you find a series you’d like to try, it’s hard to find a good issue to start with. Fortunately, Maggs includes some book recommendations in her introductions to Marvel and DC fangirls, so maybe I’ll give those a try.

She also includes a chapter on kickass heroines to check out in various media, as well as a list of geek girl-type websites. There are a lot of books, movies, TV shows and websites I haven’t tried out yet, and I can’t wait to get started!

It’s a wide galaxy for fangirls out there, and Maggs provides us with a fun roadmap into what we can do with our fandom.

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Thank you to Random House Canada for an advance reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.