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Don't Kill the Birthday Girl: Tales from an…

Don't Kill the Birthday Girl: Tales from an Allergic Life

by Sandra Beasley

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My daughter has a severe peanut and tree nut allergy and a fairly serious egg allergy. I'm a worry-wart by nature (just ask my kids!) but worrying about her allergies has added a whole different dimension to worry-warting. I am working hard, though, to be realistic and constructive, and to train her to navigate as safely as possible in a world that is not and should not be nut and egg free. The biggest challenge is finding the right line between taking precautions and being prepared--and figuring out what's reasonable to hope for or expect in terms of accommodation. I have never seen a topic attract as much vitriol as this one on comment threads: I get really depressed about the people who feel there's no sacrifice to their convenience worth making to help protect someone vulnerable in this way. Happily, in real life I have found pretty much everybody would rather be helpful than not. We don't try to create a safe bubble for our daughter, but it sure makes her life more fun and ours more relaxing if, just for instance, the cake at a birthday party is not laced with peanut butter. We always send along safe options for her, though, and she brings benadryl and her epipen along at all times. Now that she's older, she takes more responsibility herself, including reading lists of ingredients and declining food if someone can't show her that list. "Don't assume," is our number one safely rule, and "no epi-pen, no food" is the other.

But it's one thing to convince yourself (and her) that she'll be OK if she's sensible and prepared, and another to control the anxiety. So there's lots to appreciate about this memoir, including the author's frank descriptions of how difficult her allergies made her life, and her parents'. She has a much wider range of allergies than my daughter, and reading her story I felt selfishly grateful that my daughter's are fewer and more or less easier to control for. The technical stuff about allergies was not that interesting because we're more or less familiar with it. The author is rightly emphatic that people who claim to have allergies but don't aren't helping people with life-threatening ones get taken seriously. At the same time, she makes some good arguments about problems with attempts to create allergen-free zones--she is, or at least positions herself as, an advocate for good information and sensible policies, a moderate (despite the severity of her own allergies) amidst extremists on both sides.

This all seems like a good way to go forward, except that I felt, reading along, that her repeated insistence that she knows the world does not revolve around her allergies (e.g. she can't and shouldn't try to control other people's choices, homes, air plane snacks, lunch boxes, etc.) is undermined by her many, many stories of derailing outings, vacations, parties, and so on by having reactions severe enough to require trips to the hospital. Her determination to get out there and live with everybody else has clearly had consequences for everybody else and I wondered if eating out a lot (she spends a lot of time talking about restaurant food) and either having reactions or sending plates back that weren't prepared quite as specified is really as non-confrontational as all that. Is it really better to end up curled on the floor ill and needing rescue from parties than to negotiate safer food choices with your friends? In her case, given the range of her allergies, maybe there's just no degree of compromise possible and I can see resolving that it's worth some risks not to live like a hermit. But couldn't you ask your boyfriend to give up milk if the option is not kissing you? Which would he really prefer? Live and let live sounds like a good policy but it doesn't really operate as 'let live' in practice. But these are really tough choices and negotiations.
  rmaitzen | Feb 7, 2014 |
This is a very enjoyable read! The author's style is both witty and good-humored while managing to instill true empathy in the reader, and help them gain perspective on something usually taken for granted and not given a second thought. It's incredibly hard to truly explain an invisible disability without someone managing to stand in your shoes, so I was truly impressed by how effortless the author made this possible. With eye-opening views on food culture and the terror of an "allergy epidemic", it's wonderful to see someone who is not only able to describe what some of the problems we face with food allergies today, but has some clear solutions to them as well. ( )
  Trundlebear | Jun 1, 2013 |
I don't know how I ended up on a list from Crown Publishing to receive Proof and ARCs, but I did. So far I have just given them away or chucked them, because they were NOTHING I would have wanted to read. But, this one looked interesting. I hung on to it to see if it would talk to me.

It was great! I really enjoyed it. And, for an uncorrected proof, I have to say the writing/editing was better than most books I buy off the shelf!

Sandra Beasley is a poet who decided to write a memoir based on her life as a person with severe food allergies since birth. She is smart and knowledgeable, thankfully, but also funny. Her humor, even in the face of trauma (or in hind sight of it) makes what could be a very dry and sorrowful story engaging and entertaining. I recommend this book for just about any one with any interest in the topic, or just a wonderful story from a very talented writer. Certainly if you know anyone with severe food allergies or for sure a parent of a child with severe food allergies this book should be recommended, if not bought out-right and handed to them. ( )
  Ameliapei | Apr 18, 2013 |
Sometimes you can be won over by a combination of a cover and a thought. In this case, the cover was the little display copy of this book, light pink with a cupcake complete with a little death's-head ornament on it, and the thought was of my friend Kit, who recently moved to town and is allergic to around 3/4 of everything under the sun, it seems. Beasley's book promised tales of life from someone with just about as many allergies as Kit has, along with some scientific discussion of how allergies work, and why they seem to perhaps be increasing.

On the whole, this was indeed a cute and fast read. The little looks in at the science of how allergens work and set off terrible reactions, why some allergens are classed together, and the social and political implications of how people deal with allergies and the rising awareness thereof were interesting, although I could probably have used a bit more detail on some of it. But you do get a good taste for the way it works and how people are trying to deal with it. The amount of legislation in place, and awareness in restaurants and among common folk, has definitely increased.

But that said, if you're as allergic as Beasley, the world still has a ways to go, and the most interesting parts of the book are really the tales of her life and trying to deal with it. For most of her allergies, they're very severe; her dairy and egg allergies, for example, meant that if someone ate cake at a birthday party for her, and kissed her on the cheek after, she'd get hives. A knife being used to cut cheese, and then her salad, is enough to make her curl up and gasp for air. Much of the story tells of how her parents had to deal with her, the choices she makes to avoid using Epi-pens and just suffer through as much as possible, still trying to navigate relationships with friends and her boyfriend where she's careful, but still trying to live life as full as possible. Just all the realms in which her family and then she have to be cautious, because a tiny slip means a whole lot of misery, definitely get described and communicated well.

It's still a light and fast read, though, and you'll come away with a new appreciation of what it means to be highly allergic to food (and other objects), even if it's not directly applicable to you or those close to you. That's not always the point of reading though, is it? I liked the style well enough, and it was enjoyable, if not particularly memorable. If you're interested in the topic, it won't take you long to read through, and you'll probably like it fine. It does have some catchy bits... and it makes you glad that the allergies themselves aren't among them. ( )
  Capfox | Sep 25, 2012 |
It was the title that caught me. I was just going to skim through it to get an overview, but I quickly got pulled in by Beasley's honest and quirky writing style as well as the amazing amount of information that she's packed into this book. I've been affiliated with the food industry for a big chunk of my life, and the issues covered in this book address that side of things, as well as the terrifying realities of living with multiple and severe food allergies.

Beasley really got the short end of the stick when it comes to allergies--the title refers to the idea that she can't even eat her own birthday cake at her parties, she can't even be kissed on the cheek by someone who did without getting a kiss shaped hive from it. Her salad, cut up special for her but, alas, with a knife that had also been used to cut cheese leaves her curled up fighting for breath and consciousness on a secluded couch at a wedding reception. Nightmare scenarios abound. But she's got a great attitude about it, though she must always, always, always be hyper vigilant and questioning of just about everything to keep herself safe. Despite all of this, she was a food writer for a couple of years, and she's very good about adding all sorts of background to the foods and why they cause allergic reactions in some, as well as just a general history of food that I found very interesting.

This book really opened my eyes to a whole lot of dangers and difficulties suffered by the allergic, and has increased my compassion level and sensitivity significantly. It's very well written, and very worthy of a read by just about everyone. ( )
  JackieBlem | Jul 15, 2011 |
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Describes the impact of the author's food allergies on her childhood while tracing the cultural history of food allergies, relating such experiences as her short-lived job as a restaurant reviewer and dates that ended in trips to the emergency room.

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