"The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid." — Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

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

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Summary: A woman's recounting of life and food allergies.

Initial thoughts after reading this book: I'm so glad we're not Catholic. Also, could my prenatal vitamins have caused my daughter's wheat allergy?

Sandra Beasley is lucky to be alive. Given the types of food she's allergic to (egg, beef, shrimp, milk (even goat's milk), soy, pine nuts, cucumbers, cantaloupe, honeydew, mango, macadamias, pistachios, cashews, swordfish and mustard) she takes many risks with her diet and constantly recounts her allergic attacks in this book. She doesn't ask what's in drinks, preferring instead to be a good sport, then vomits and spends the night huddled on the couch in a Benadryl-induced haze. Her reluctance to manage her significant food allergies annoyed me, as if she kept trying to prove how normal she was and how she's suffers, just by bravely going along.

But Beasley, along with many people with food allergies, doesn't use her epi-pen, because she doesn't want to be a freak. She also doesn't want to automatically go to the E.R. It also made me wonder if perhaps Beasley's symptoms are psychosomatic, that she enjoys drawing attention from whomever is the star of the day - a new bride, an engaged friend, a birthday girl. It's so unsympathetic, I know, but her reactions, combined with her food allergies and her reluctance to use effective medicine, makes me suspicious.

As Dr. Phil would ask, "How's that working for ya?" It works quite well, because Beasley simply does NOT take care of herself, instead preferring the coddling and special attention she gets.  My daughter does have allergies, and we are VERY careful to avoid exposure, bringing instead special cupcakes to birthday parties and always providing safe, fun snacks. But Beasley will take "one bite" pretending that she's being polite, but then undergoing a reaction.

I thought the book lacked structure, hopping from subject and time period, with little cohesiveness. We are introduced to her childhood allergies, then college, years, then her current boyfriend, then a previous boyfriend, with an unclear narrative direction. It surprised me to find out that Beasley was actually a writer, since this book was not an easy read. Perhaps her food reviews (yes, we all appreciate the irony of an allergic food writer) require only a few words, and not the smooth transitions required in a book.

I did like the part on wheat allergies and the Catholic Church's stand on the gluten in the communion wafer the best. Apparently, the body of Christ can only be found in wheat wafers, and the Catholic church suggests taking only part of the wafer as gluten-free wafer, are not acceptable according to the Catholic Church. This was the part that made me glad we're not Catholic.

The other fascinating part of the book, for me, focused on Beasley's visit to a food allergy conference. She encounters charts displays, diagrams and giveaways. I wanted more discussion about the link between the increase of prenatal folic acid and allergies, or the Hygiene Hypothesis or other suggested causes of food allergies. Case studies of adult she knows, and how they manage their  own food allergies with their children in the house did redeem the book slightly, but seemed thrown in at the end. I wish I could recommend this book, but the poor writing and the author's self-abuse by eating allergenic foods bothered me too much.

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