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Book Review: Hunger – An Unnatural History by Sharman Apt Russell

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People say I have a bonne fourchette, “good fork”, which implies I have quite an appetite. And it’s true. I live in a food-town and the variety alone will drive you to eat. Plus I have such a disposition. I know so well how hunger tortures me into eating despite knowing I shouldn’t. So reading the book Hunger by Sharman Apt Russell was a given for me, a matter of time, since my appetite for reading is equal to my appetite for food.

Hunger is one of those books that looks at things we would rather not. It stares into our own humanity’s eyes and pass judgment. The book starts out with the author’s own failed attempt at fasting. Who can blame her? Fasting for a day can be a lesson in our slavery to this bag of meat and bones.

I do quick and dirty fasts on a monthly basis, which means from bed to second rise, where I go to bed one night and don’t eat until the morning following the next one. It’s torture for me, but it just cleans out the system. And the book reveals this as fact by pointing that children, not yet encumbered with cultural habits, will stop eating once sick, and also that animals, when sick, will refuse to eat. Starve your illness, let your body fix itself; don’t bother it with digestive chores.

The book takes us through all the facets of hunger. From fasting to anorexia to world hunger; and it’s no holds barred. It continues from Russell’s fast with a history of the practice. She begins with the religious fasts, those “hungry maidens” who fasted for holiness, for God, in the Middle Ages. Seems it was what honorable young maidens did to get close to God. This ultimately leads to hunger-striking and fasting for political reasons. These chapters are the easy ones.

It’s when the book gets to the starved victims of war and she goes deep into the Jews who suffered at the Nazis’ hands in Poland. And if this chapter doesn’t leave you with a deep need to vomit, it’s because you have no heart. Nurses killing newborns so the Nazis won’t experiment on them or torture them; mothers lying dead in the streets with her children still clutching on to her; and it goes on with other human atrocities.

There are also some interesting chapters of studies of hunger, starvation, and famine done in the U.S. with volunteers. It shows how our behaviors change when faced with limited food or no food at all. How we revert so easily to animals, hovering over our small plate of gruel, playing with it for hours, to make the eating last longer; the coveting of unnecessary stuff; volunteers wanting to become chefs or read books about food; stealing trinkets in stores, etc.

The studies take us inevitably to the paradox that is anorexia nervosa. Hungry people tend to become immobile, inactive, while anorectics, on the contrary, seem to have so much energy. An interesting parallel is established between the starving maidens and anorectics. How “the complexity of one woman’s self-starvation might yet be a mix of chemistry, Vogue, Father’s expectations, and ancient imperatives.”

The book finishes off with famine and refeeding the famished. So we get a fast-track trip through all the major famines up to this day. And there is plenty of talk on the trials and errors of refeeding, which are even more difficult with complex types of starvations. (Yes there’s more than one). Basically, famine is easier than refeeding. The refeeding process is so complex, it covers the last section of the book. And this is where the book begins to fall apart.

The book follows what the title says it does; it offers us the unnatural history of hunger. But by the final chapters you feel duped. The book then feels like a manifesto pamphlet. I wanted to learn about hunger, to understand it better. I didn’t want to be conned into feeling guilty for the life I live and get my arm twisted into becoming an aid worker for the Peace Corp.

I have all the respect they deserve for the insane work they do to help, but don’t try to con me into it. It’s not for everyone, as the book tells us about a photojournalist who took pictures of a dying child. She died on the pictures. The photojournalist was criticized for doing so. They asked why he didn’t help the child. He could only argue that it was impossible to save them; there were too many hundreds dying each day. He still won accolades and prizes but ended up taking his own life once he crumbled under the crushing guilt of his inaction.

Not everyone can do this. I can’t deal well with suffering children, even adults. But I could dissect humans as a coroner without ever losing my lunch. It’s all about perception and where your heart is I guess. We can’t all Schindler our way through life. So when a book about the history and the science of hunger turns into a war cry from relief workers, I feel like I’ve been lied to.

The writing style is good but isn’t my forte. It feels like reading, and I exaggerate, a much-extended PowerPoint file, due to all the shrunk-down and vulgarized scientific information. But for an information junky like me, it’s still a satisfying read despite its manifesto aftertaste.

I give it a 3 outta 5.

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About David Desjardins