≡ Menu

Review: Hunger – An Unnatural History by Sharman Apt Russell

Review: Hunger – An Unnatural History by Sharman Apt Russell post image

Title: Hunger: An Unnatural History
Author: Sharman Apt Russell
Genre: Nonfiction
Library (upon @BibioEva’s Twitter suggestion)
Rating: ★★★½☆

One Sentence Summary: Hunger: An Unnatural History is an overview of the science, sociology, and moral implications of hunger and it’s impact across the globe.

One Sentence Review: This book covers a little too much territory for my tastes, but it still provides a well-written and important overview of the impact of hunger on an individual and society.

Long Review: As someone who grew up never hungry, I don’t know that I’ve ever realized how melodramatic and insulting it is to whine, “I’m starving” at the end of a long day when all I want to do is eat dinner. Starvation is not something to take lightly, as many of the people (but not all) in Hunger: An Unnatural History help illustrate.

The book is divided into two themes. In the first half, Russell explores what happens to the body after a nights sleep, eighteen hours, thirty-six hours, seven days, and thirty days without food. The second half involves more of the sociology and history of hunger, looking at the use of hunger strikes, hunger studies, hunger diseases, and hungry children. She ends with a few chapters looking at what is currently being done to help solve the hunger problems across the globe.

The first half is much more science heavy that the second, but it’s not science-heavy in a bad way because the descriptions are easy to read and easy to understand. Here, Russell describes what it’s like for the body to skip a meal:

We will have varying responses to skipping a meal, based on our metabolism and psychology. In a few ours, as the level of our blood sugar continues to drop, we might also experience a drop in energy. That might make uas anxious or irritable. We might develop a headache. We might have a gnawing sensation below our rib cage. We might rumble embarrassingly. Who knew the body could make such sounds? Borborygmus is the onomatopoeia for the increased activity of the intestines as they squeeze every bit of old material through, all the way to the rectum, causing the collision of water and air pockets, bubbles and gurgles. We might feel some mild cramping. TO be hungry is to be uncomfortable, and most of us experience hunger in the same way we experience pain, as a signal to do something.

What’s striking about the second half — focused on history, sociology, and anthropology — is the very different attitudes people have on hunger. Magician David Blaine, for example, voluntarily starved himself for 44 days while being hung in the air in a clear box as a sort of publicity stunt. On the other hand, Jewish doctors  in the Warsaw ghetto conducted studies on the physical impacts of starvation on people in the ghetto who were actually starving. Many of the participants (and doctors) died because of lack of food or being executed by Nazi’s.

These opposites — from cavalier to contemplative — are a feature of most of the book. Russell does a good job of pointing out these different attitudes and sharing her opinion on them without being too forceful about it. But really, it’s hard to not think that hunger is an awful thing. The question, and one that she raises frequently, is how much are we willing to sacrifice to solve the problem?

Near the end of the book, when talking about a volunteer working to solve education issues in Guatemala, she writes,

I will help — but only so much, only so far. It is not that I believe these children are less than my own. it is not that I believe I do not have a responsibility for them. It is just that in a world of haves and have-nots, I do not want to give up too much of what I have. I do not want to diminish the complexity and diversity of my life. Instead, I will choose to spend another seventy-five dollars on myself rather than send another child to school, and I will choose to do this over and over again. I no longer think of myself as a good person. I have adjusted to that.

That was the most hard to swallow quote of the entire book for me because, at the core, it’s completely true and I am the same way. One of the challenges we all face is the balance of what we can and cannot do, what we will and will not do, and how to accept the selfish (and not selfish) limits we have to put on ourselves.

Hunger and The Great Starvation Experiment

I read this book pretty soon after I read The Great Starvation Experiment by Todd Tucker. TGSE was about the Minnesota Starvation Study conducted by Ancel Keys in the mid-1950s. Russell devotes one chapter in Hunger to talking about the study, and I found the differences in their perspectives on the event quite interesting.

The biggest difference was their idea about Subject Number 20, the young man who lost it for a little while and ended up chopping off three of his fingers in a hunger-crazed attempt to get out of the study. Tucker is sympathetic to #20, and throughout the book portrays him as a leader of the group who was well-liked and well-respected by his fellow participants and the scientists of the study. #20’s breakdown was a shock to everyone, Tucker argues, but didn’t diminish the character of #20 himself.

Russell, on the other hand, is much less sympathetic. Through the researcher’s notes, she says that in the last weeks of the study, #20 became “one of the weakest and most aggravating members of the group” and “his air of suffering irritated everyone.” After chopping off his fingers and received treatment at the hospital, she says “the scientists theorized that the extra care had substituted for the ‘mothering’ his immature personality required.”

What this shows me is that even nonfiction, something we tend to rely on for factual accounts or the “truth” of an experience often involves some interpretation. I’m not sure whether Tucker or Russell is correct in their interpretation of events. I can only look to their research to try and decide who might have a more accurate idea. In her reference and notes section, Russell doesn’t indicate that she did any interviews for this chapter, but instead relied on print and video sources for her quotes. Tucker, on the other hand, interviewed a number of participants in the study (including, I think, #20 himself, although I don’t have the book to check that for sure or get his real name).

Given that information, I’m more inclined to trust Tucker’s interpretation, but that might not be fair either. He might have been too close to his interview subject influences his biases of what happened in this study. In any case, my point is that reading two books that mention the same subject close together provides some good, concrete evidence about the potential fallibility of even well-researched nonfiction to truly get to the truth of an event.

But that’s really a digression from my impressions of Hunger: An Unnatural History. In general, I felt like the book covered a lot of issues related to hunger, but never went into them as much as I might have enjoyed. However, for someone not as interested in food as I am, this book is probably more than enough information to be a satisfying read.

Other Reviews: Rebecca Reads | A Progressive on the Prairie | A Striped Armchair |

If you have reviewed this book, please leave a link to the review in the comments and I will add your review to the main post. All I ask is for you to do the same to mine — thanks!

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Aarti March 9, 2010, 10:01 am

    Wow, these sound like really fascinating looks at a very important subject. That quote you share is powerful, but I also feel that looking at it in terms of “selfishness” is unfair to yourself. It’s hard to find a balance sometimes.

    • Kim March 11, 2010, 4:03 pm

      Aarti: That’s true; not giving everything you can give isn’t always selfish. But I did like that she got at the idea that many people who live comfortably make excuses about why they can’t do certain things, which in many ways isn’t true. It’s a complicated issue, that’s for sure.

  • bermudaonion (Kathy) March 9, 2010, 1:34 pm

    This does sound interesting and I like that different attitudes are explored.

    • Kim March 11, 2010, 4:04 pm

      bermudaonion: I did too. Some of the more cavalier attitudes really bothered me, but I think that was part of the point — hunger impacts everyone in various ways but that needs to be recognized too.

  • Gwen March 9, 2010, 2:53 pm

    You make the book sound intriguing, if only for it’s different viewpoints. It is really hard to imagine, thank god, is going without myself.

    Going to check out TGSE now…

    • Kim March 11, 2010, 4:04 pm

      Gwen: I agree. I’m not even sure I can conceptualize what going hungry really feels like.

  • Nymeth March 9, 2010, 3:37 pm

    Thank you for reminding me of this book! I added it to my wishlist after Rebecca reviewed it, but I’d forgotten about it. It sounds absolutely fascinating.

    Also, I absolutely agree that even in non-fiction it’s sometimes inevitable that the facts will be interpreted or filtered through someone’s perspective.

    • Kim March 11, 2010, 4:05 pm

      Nymeth: No problem, I was excited to read it after Eva and, I think, Rebecca too, mentioned liking it. It was a good companion to the other much more specific book I read on hunger.

  • nat @book, line, and sinker March 11, 2010, 8:51 am

    i love, love, love nonfiction and this one sounds great! your review format is great, too–concise overview and then a deeper synopsis.

    i’d be interested to read this to see the effects of hunger on the human body. i never realized that so many studies had been done on hunger. thanks for reviewing a book that’s new-to-me and so interesting! 🙂

    • Kim March 11, 2010, 4:06 pm

      nat: Thanks, I’ve been working on a review format for a long time. I like having to condense my thoughts into a couple of sentences — it’s a good exercise in focus.

      I didn’t know there had been so many hunger studies either. Some of them are pretty hard to read about, but I’m glad I did.

  • Maphead March 13, 2010, 10:03 pm

    Thanks for the great review ! Last summer I read her book on pantheism. After reading your review I might have to read her newest one.

    • Kim March 15, 2010, 3:37 pm

      Maphead: I’m certainly going to look for more of her books in the future. Her style was quite lovely most of the time.