When you don’t have any personal experience of hypersensitivities but persist in writing books about them, some people ask you why you do what you do. Others go further and wonder what gives you the right to address subjects you can’t ever quite completely understand. What can I — someone who can safely expose himself to any food or environmental trigger — offer a reader that someone with actual lived knowledge cannot?
Fair questions. I have my come-backs, of course — that lack of personal experience compels me to research more widely and open-mindedly, which hopefully results in a more detailed and fact-filled book — but inevitably the end product will lack the first-person connection or ’emotional’ touch that some readers may be looking for.
Two new(ish) allergy books which do boast those qualities are, I should disclose, by two friends — Alexa Baracaia’s My Family and Food Allergies and Ruth Holroyd’s Anaphylaxis: The Essential Guide.
While they share the challenges of allergies in their daily lives, their experiences are by nature different: Ruth herself is the grown-up allergy ‘patient’ with multiple environmental triggers, whereas Alexa is the mother to a young son with several potentially dangerous food allergies.
Two writers with these differing perspectives have inevitably produced two very different books, and it has been interesting to compare and contrast them.
I’m so late to these reviews that finding new compliments for them is going to be tricky. What you may have already read about them on blogs and social media is likely to be right. I knew within minutes, a mere handful of pages in, that Alexa’s book would become a permanent fixture on my desk — a reference book I would be returning to for years to come — and that I was in completely safe hands. She gives you instant confidence.
Her research is exceptional, and the fruits of it woven into her text so clearly that the book is never a chore to read. The organisation of the material — and there is a lot of it, from diagnosis, through to family life in all its colour, and on towards increasing independence — is flawless. Despite the volume (300-odd pages) it never feels overwhelming and that’s thanks to Alexa’s readable, clear style, which blends well-explained science and medicine, gem after gem of useful information on everything an allergy family might need (be it on weaning, label reading, starting school, fail-safe recipes and far more), some friendly chit-chat and the odd moment of welcome humour (never has an egg-brandishing allergy nurse made me laugh so hard).
She has interviewed a galaxy of allergy ‘stars’ — many of them will be known to you, and each of them with something meaningful to say — and while the experts are there among them, it is the stories and tips from allergy families, the real heroes, which I imagine will be of greater value to readers.
Whereas Alexa writes from a parental perspective, naturally wanting to ensure safety and normality and enjoyment for her son and their wider family life, Ruth’s work comes from a deep need for self-care and self-preservation of her adult body and mind.
I think it was the emotional honesty that struck me the most about her book, and this shouldn’t come as a surprise to those who follow her on social media. She shares upsetting accounts of her frightening brushes with anaphylaxis, and while the practical anaphylaxis essentials are covered, her book offers an important insight into the psyche of an adult with allergy that for me personally was more important to understand.
Some might see it as ‘woke’ to centre mental health these days, but with Ruth it never feels forced or contrived or an attempt to be anything or anyone than what she is. She talks about the importance of therapy (when appropriate) and of self-compassion. She encourages you to share your mistakes, not hide them — which is wise advice, as this helps others, as well as yourself. She advises on coping with anger, and panic. She encourages creativity, and writing. She urges you to read, to self-educate — but like the kind aunt that she is, she reminds us not to overdo the scary stuff.
This isn’t to say Alexa doesn’t address psychological issues too — she has an exceptional chapter on anxiety, for instance, where her approach (as it generally is through her book) is journalistic and tightly written. Ruth’s style is more raw: not quite as much as her blog What Allergy can be, but nevertheless a real contrast to Alexa’s, albeit one which is perfectly reflective of the up-and-down journey that Ruth has been on — and continues to travel.
And she is right, of course: we should all read …
Here are two books which will teach you a lot about what it means, and how it feels, to live closely with food allergy, as well as offering practical guidance and action plans for those who need those things. I am sure many will find value in them both.
My Family and Food Allergies, by Alexa Baracaia, is published by Sheldon Press, and is available in paperback and eBook formats.
Anaphylaxis: The Essential Guide, by Ruth Holroyd, is published by Curlew Books, and is also available in paperback and eBook.
(Ruth’s book was bought, but Alexa’s was sent to me by our common publisher.)