Friday, July 29, 2011

Review: Don't Kill the Birthday Girl

Summary:  A beautifully written and darkly funny journey through the world of the allergic.

Like twelve million other Americans, Sandra Beasley suffers from food allergies. Her allergies—severe and lifelong—include dairy, egg, soy, beef, shrimp, pine nuts, cucumbers, cantaloupe, honeydew, mango, macadamias, pistachios, cashews, swordfish, and mustard. Add to that mold, dust, grass and tree pollen, cigarette smoke, dogs, rabbits, horses, and wool, and it’s no wonder Sandra felt she had to live her life as “Allergy Girl.” When butter is deadly and eggs can make your throat swell shut, cupcakes and other treats of childhood are out of the question—and so Sandra’s mother used to warn guests against a toxic, frosting-tinged kiss with “Don’t kill the birthday girl!”

It may seem that such a person is “not really designed to survive,” as one blunt nutritionist declared while visiting Sandra’s fourth-grade class. But Sandra has not only survived, she’s thrived—now an essayist, editor, and award-winning poet, she has learned to navigate a world in which danger can lurk in an unassuming corn chip. Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl is her story.

With candor, wit, and a journalist’s curiosity, Sandra draws on her own experiences while covering the scientific, cultural, and sociological terrain of allergies. She explains exactly what an allergy is, describes surviving a family reunion in heart-of-Texas beef country with her vegetarian sister, delves into how being allergic has affected her romantic relationships, exposes the dark side of Benadryl, explains how parents can work with schools to protect their allergic children, and details how people with allergies should advocate for themselves in a restaurant.

A compelling mix of memoir, cultural history, and science, Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl is mandatory reading for the millions of families navigating the world of allergies—and a not-to-be-missed literary treat for the rest of us. -- Crown

If you follow my blog much over the past few years, you probably already know that my almost seven year-old son has life-threatening food allergies. He's allergic to eggs, dairy, peanuts, tree nuts, and shellfish; and needless to say, it's a pretty major part of my family's life. So many of the things we used to take for granted like eating in restaurants, attending (or hosting) birthday parties, traveling away from home, going to school, soccer, karate, etc. take on an entirely new meaning when you have to think about food and potential contact with allergens.

But before I go any further, I want to stress that I hope this post doesn't come across as me complaining about my son's condition because that couldn't be further from the truth. Every single day, I thank God that all of the members of my family are healthy. While food allergies can be extremely serious, I do feel as if we have some control over my son's health. We just do what we have to do to keep him safe. Not all families have that option or are that lucky.

Now, back to my review....

When I learned that there was a new book out called DON'T KILL THE BIRTHDAY GIRL: TALES FROM AN ALLERGIC LIFE by Sandra Beasley, of course I wanted to read it. Ms. Beasley is a woman who has been living with horrific, life-threatening food allergies for her entire life. Needless to say, I was very anxious to read it for a number of reasons. First of all, I had heard that her memoir was a very insightful (yet funny!) look into what it is like living with food allergies. Secondly, I was hoping to learn a thing or two about food allergies and potential treatments/cures. In addition, I thought I might learn a few things about how to help my son navigate a world filled potential life-threatening foods. And finally, I was excited that a book like this might educate some people about the severity of food allergies and allow an open discussion about food allergies in our society. So, I guess you could say I had pretty high expectations for this little book!

In many ways, DON'T KILL THE BIRTHDAY GIRL accomplished those things. I loved the first few chapters where Ms. Beasley described her allergies and how they affected her life. I could relate to so much of what she said, and I totally got how hard it is to explain the severity of food allergies to a "normal" person. Lord knows, we have our share of close calls at parties when people hand him food not understanding that even a small taste could mean a trip to the Emergency Room. In addition, I appreciated her quick and dirty lesson about the history of food allergies -- some of the possible reasons why food allergies are growing at an ever-increasing rate. I even learned a thing or two about the ongoing studies that a few universities are conducting. So I would definitely say that this book was worth reading, both for people who are dealing with food allergies on a regular basis and for those who might just come across someone with food allergies whether it be through their job, as they travel, or when they have over a guest to their house.

While I hesitate to say that I enjoyed this novel (because of the subject matter), I do commend Ms. Beasley for writing such an honest and heartfelt account of her situation. I am thrilled that this book has generated so much press and discussion about food allergies, and I will be forever grateful to Ms. Beasley for getting this information "out there." I appreciated that she tried to maintain a sense of humor (or maybe I should say perspective?) about her condition, and I did see that there are other ways to handle food allergies than the philosophy that I currently adhere to.

I was surprised to learn that there is a reading guide for DON'T KILL THE BIRTHDAY GIRL; however, I'd love to think that people will be talking about this book. The questions are pretty interesting and I admit that I'd love to hear what people think, not only about this book, but about food allergies in general. Some of the topics you might want to explore include how (or if) food allergies affect your life and whether restaurants or other places have an obligation to accommodate people with special dietary needs.

I definitely found DON'T KILL THE BIRTHDAY GIRL interesting and I do recommend it. While I did have a few issues with some of the author's messages, I think Ms. Beasley wrote a very honest and eye-opening book and I'm very grateful to her for bringing the issues of food allergies to light.

Thanks to the publisher for sending a copy of this book.


bermudaonion said...

I can only imagine what it would be like to grow up not being able to enjoy the foods your friends do. I admire you and your vigilance in monitoring Booking Son - I know it's not always easy. I'm eager to read this book to learn more about food allergies. Your review is fantastic!

Sandy Nawrot said...

Haha! At first I thought this was one of those cozy mysteries that involved pastry chefs and murder. I'm a goon. Anyway, I'm going to send your post link to one of my high school friends whose granddaughter is like your son. Her allergies completely dictate their lives. Weird, though, as I don't remember kids with these issues when I was growing up. I wonder if something is causing it to be more prevalent?

craft brag said...

This would be an interesting read. I will consider it for future purchases.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the fabulous review! I own a preschool and we see just about every single severe allergy there is. It's at some point heartbreaking but at another point, now that people are so well rounded and informed about allergies none of our kids WITH food allergies really stand out. It's more just a given that wer'e a nut free, fish free campus.

Chrisbookarama said...

I thought the book was interesting too and even learned a few things. I had a few issues with some of what she says too but overall I'm glad she chose to write the book.

joanna said...

I'd love to read this - I don't have allergies, but I do have food intolerances and this subject has been on my mind lately.