Don't Kill the Birthday Girl: Tales from an Allergic Life Hardcover – Jul 12 2011
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"A sufferer's witty, sobering account of living with life-threatening food allergies." —People
“Charming…Beasley is a warm and lively guide to the quirky world of allergies… a vital call to arms for allergy awareness.” —Boston Globe
An “honest and amusing medical memoir that’s also a patient-written primer on food allergies. This birthday girl doesn’t kvetch, though she has every right to. She doesn’t consider herself a victim, just someone who has to experience the world differently from the rest of us.” —Washington Post
“Beasley shares surprisingly delightful stories about her own fraught relationship with food.” —Prevention
“An unself-pitying meditation on what it’s like to live without goodies most of us consider essential. What’s more, she somehow manages to make the whole thing hilarious.” —Self
"This information- and anecdote-filled book will be a welcome antidote to the worries and fears endured by families with food allergies."—Booklist
“Intelligent and witty…enthralling…thoughtful and well-written.” —Publishers Weekly
"Award winner Beasley (e.g., Barnard Women Poets) offers a cultural study of living the “allergic life.” —Library Journal
“Fascinating…humane and informative.” —Kirkus Reviews
"[A] fun read...Beasley is certainly inspiring to anyone who's suffered from allergies or other medical conditions that make you feel like you're on the outside looking in. But her memories of a supportive family who stuck with her through hard times, friends and lovers who accommodated her needs, and her narrative of independence and self-sufficiency will strike a chord with any reader—even those whose gustatory options are endless." —SeriousEats.com
"For readers who suffer from allergies, or care for someone who does, for parents who wonder why they can no longer send their child to school with the American staple, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, or for anyone curious about how Sandra Beasley handles a lifelong challenge successfully, this book is for you. Winning, wise and humorous, you'll think twice when someone says, ‘Pass the peanuts.’” —Adriana Trigiani, bestselling author of Don't Sing at the Table
“Sandra Beasley’s memoir—so bright and lucid and compelling, so intelligent and affecting—is even more than a gripping tale of living with numerous, potentially deadly allergies. Brilliantly combining her personal narrative with medical research and cultural analyses, Beasley’s memoir is ultimately an exploration of how we negotiate our vulnerable, permeable selves in a world that is filled equally with joy and harm.” —Richard McCann, author of Mother of Sorrows
"Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl is much more than a compelling examination of food allergies—it’s a meditation on human fragility. Sandra Beasley has made visible the potential hazards of what so many of us take for granted and moves away from the body’s rejection of allergens into the story of what it means to live and love. In sparkling prose, Beasley has written a memoir that becomes a remarkable mélange—undeniably informative, and a real pleasure—both hip and wickedly smart." —Alex Lemon, author of Happy: A Memoir and Fancy Beasts
“Sandra Beasley's book is both hilarious and moving. It's about what it's like to live in fear of hidden parmesan, but it's also about teenage rebellion, romance and George Washington Carver. Recommended for everyone, no matter what their immune system is like.” —A.J. Jacobs, author of My Life as an Experiment and The Year of Living Biblically
“Don't Kill The Birthday Girl is a compelling and enlightening exploration of what life is like for someone with life threatening allergies. Thoughtful and witty but most important, educational, this book is a must read for anyone who has or knows someone with severe allergies—which means everyone.” —Jill McCorkle, author of Going Away Shoes and Carolina Moon
About the Author
SANDRA BEASLEY is the author of the poetry collections I Was the Jukebox, winner of the 2009 Barnard Women Poets Prize, and Theories of Falling, which won the 2007 New Issues Poetry Prize. Her honors include a DCCAH Individual Artist Fellowship, the Friends of Literature Prize from the Poetry Foundation, and the Maureen Egen Writers Exchange Award from Poets & Writers, Inc. She lives in Washington, D.C., where her prose has been featured in the Washington Post Magazine.
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With no shortage of humor and wit does the author give the story of her life with allergies. Some, such as dairy, pollens, eggs and nuts, are those we've all heard of. But honeydew melons? Cucumbers? It was interesting to see how some people have allergies to foods most of us would never even consider putting on a list of allergy inducing items. Her reactions to these items also ran the gamut from a mild reaction easily taken care of with Benadryl (which gets a huge plug in this book) or a race to the ER to prevent full anaphylactic shock. I also came away from this book with much more understanding of the isolation that must be felt by those with severe allergies. As a child, could you imagine how it would feel to be left out of a birthday party because the child's parents arranged for a petting zoo? I remember living in Michigan and taking a trip to the JIFFY factory, which as a third grader was very cool. As an adult, I can't imagine being the only child in all the third grade classes unable to go because of an allergy. Yet I don't feel pity for the author, but rather empathy, and I think that is one of the author's goals in writing this book. She leaves the reader wanting a better understanding of the life she and millions of others lead every day instead of making the reader feel sorrow and evoking the old "Oh, poor thing" response.
Today, stories of children and food allergies are not at all uncommon. However, when the author was a child over thirty years ago, many people, including doctors, were much less educated and understanding of what someone with food allergies went through. People didn't understand that just touching a peanut, let alone taking a bite of a pb & j, could kill. If it were the 1970's - 1980's and someone told you they were allergic to cucumbers, how many people do you think would believe that person was serious? Most restaurants would have just picked off the cucumbers and re-served the salad. Until the last decade, manufacturers were not required to list on packaging if the product inside the box or bag was exposed to or contained allergens such as tree nuts, soy or dairy. Every meal not carefully prepared at home would have been a life threatening gamble.
I enjoyed the author's trip through time to the present as she describes the advances in recognizing and treating allergies. She skillfully drops in scientific information alongside a humorous anecdote so the information is presented in a way that doesn't feel as if the reader is being lectured to via dry, sleep inducing text. I also didn't get the sense of "oh, woe is me" while reading this book, which is utterly refreshing. Miss Beasley does express her exasperation with the whole ordeal, but tempers it with self-effacing jests. For me, it was like listening to a science lesson from that favorite teacher or professor in school.
But Sandra Beasley illuminates the terrors and complexities of the allergic life in such a winning way that you might just let go of your resentments. Until I read this book, I just couldn't imagine how allergies can shut down a person's life so completely. Ms. Beasley is allergic to everything you could imagine, from dairy foods, beef and shrimp to melons, mustard, cucumbers and nuts. "That's not somebody designed to survive, now, is it," opines a nutritionist in her fourth-grade class.
With humor and pathos, Ms. Beasley shows how allergies put many of the things we take for granted out of her reach. The food rituals of childhood that she couldn't share, the spontaneity of love that is denied her, the deadly perils that lie on every plate put before her. Her life is one tenuous day after another, her survival continually in the balance.
Ms. Beasley interweaves her personal story with research and data about allergies and allergic reactions. If you're not a fellow-sufferer, you might choose to skip over some of this very detailed information. But slow down when you come to her life story, because she tells it well.
I particularly cheered for Ms. Beasley when she goes alone to Galatoire's in the French Quarter of New Orleans and studies the menu carefully for something she can eat. A solicitous waiter assists her, and after a slight misstep, she has a meal to savor and remember. "The pleasure of each bite was intensified by the risk of trusting an unfamiliar city to take care of me," she writes. The reader comes away glad that she's being taken care of and that she is enjoying herself at last.
I read about three fourths of the book (some parts just didn't interest me) but don't really remember her talking about any good meals that she had fixed for herself.
I suffer from multiple food allergies also (chili, cinnamon, peanuts, tumeric, etc.) and still eat delicious meals at home. I would have had more sympathy for her plight if she appeared to be doing more to help herself.
Overall, the book packs in a ton of information in a pretty painless package. I would imagine it would make good reading for anyone--allergic or not.
A few words of caution:
1. I can entirely relate to the impulse not to take an Epi-Pen. I've done it on far too many occasions, and it often saves hours of hassle (ambulance fees, IV drips, emergency rooms, doctors who keep you there hours beyond resolution "to be safe," or worse, doctors who ignore you because you "look fine"). I can also relate to the author knowing that this is a terrible idea, as anti-histamines are often powerless to dismantle a systemic reaction even as they mask it. I hesitate to endorse her story, however, because so many incorrect assumptions about severe allergies revolve around the idea that a reaction can easily resolve with a little Benadryl. I worry that readers may use this knowledge to dismiss the severely allergic. I also worry that teens, already so cavalier with their allergies, might try this method with tragically mixed results.
2. As a peanut allergic individual, I understand how peanut allergy awareness has gone too far. Isolating kids, policing schools for airborne traces of allergens, all seem hysterical reactions that ultimately make kids feel like outsiders, make them the objects of scorn, and do nothing to train them to deal with a world that will in no way be peanut-free. I fly on airplanes and eat in restaurants and, although vigilant, am no worse for the wear after a childhood that featured NONE of these precautions. I am also extremely lucky. In 5th grade, a friend alerted me at the last minute that someone had put a peanut in my sandwich "just to see if I was really allergic." I understand the need to distance oneself from these hysterical parents, to make it seem as though we are the enlightened allergy-sufferers who see how silly all these precautions are. To staunchly claim that these precautions are ridiculous, however, misses the point entirely. These measures would not be necessary if allergic kids were treated as though their needs were manageable, not singled out, and not painted as a lunatic fringe by their allies. We must advocate sensible solutions, yes, but not by presenting concerned parents as quacks.
3. Finally, there is no such thing as a "cautious bite." Tasting something to gauge your response is something we've all done, but it sent me to the hospital one too many times for me to continue doing it.
The strength of this book is its communicating just how desperately we all want to be normal growing up, and how we still want to be. I was recently almost utterly reduced to tears at the thought of finding a me-safe wedding cake that wasn't some specialty food that felt like a compromise. Allergy sufferers need your vigilance, your patience, and your understanding. We'd almost always prefer to go out of our way to help you help us. Treat us that way.