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Hunger: An Unnatural History

3.78  ·  Rating details ·  403 ratings  ·  55 reviews
Every day, we wake up hungry. Every day, we break our fast. Hunger is both a natural and an unnatural human condition. In Hunger, Sharman Apt Russell explores the range of this primal experience. Step by step, Russell takes us through the physiology of hunger, from eighteen hours without food to thirty-six hours to three days to seven days to thirty days. In quiet, elegant ...more
Paperback, 272 pages
Published September 5th 2006 by Basic Books (first published 2005)
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3.78  · 
Rating details
 ·  403 ratings  ·  55 reviews

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Apr 01, 2012 rated it really liked it
Shelves: science-fact
Another depressing book, though this time I have no excuse. I can't remember how I had this recommended to me, though I suspect it was through the Guardian's books pages. This is a well-written exploration of the biology and sociology of hunger: what happens as you go without food for a day, a week, a month; and some socially constructed mass starvations from the Warsaw Ghetto to Ethiopa via Mahatma Gandhi.

Takeaways are as follows.

Chapter 1: "hunger artists" are performance artists who work in t
When I told people I was reading a book about hunger, they kept asking, "Hunger like being hungry? Or hunger like world hunger?" The answer is simply "yes." Russell covers hunger in all its myriad forms, providing a 10,000 foot overview of the subject that nonetheless manages to be astonishingly personal.

I loved the writing best when it was personal, or at least smaller scale. The passages discussing how Russell dealt emotionally with the information she uncovered while researching the book wer
Feb 24, 2014 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
This is a bit of a strange one. I got really excited about the premise of the book, but after reading three first chapters that describe the physical signs of hunger and further changes to the body it causes I had no desire to read it anymore. I found the semi- poetic language used in those descriptions quite pretentious and off-putting. I was expecting a cultural history of hunger, not this.

Then the book gained its pace: the chapter on Minnesota Experiment is a real page-turner; the same can be
Jan 11, 2015 rated it really liked it
Most of this book was quite good, especially the parts discussing hunger in very specific terms - it started with chapters split into different time periods discussing what happens when a person has been that long without food (36 hours, 3 days, 7 days, etc.) Later on, the author starts to discuss hunger in more general terms and sort of loses track of what she's talking about. The chapter on how to best start a refeeding program for people suffering from starvation, for example, is interesting ...more
Jul 06, 2017 rated it really liked it
this book start of slowly, but the chapters on the Minnesota experiment and the anthropology of hunger are brilliant.
the writing style has poetic almost hallucination parts. like Sven Lindquist's non fiction. these work well on this topic I'll read more books by her.

I think the chapter on the Irish famine is inaccurate. "Throughout the famine, ships of corn and barley left ireland to be sold elsewhere. Although imports of food donated or brought by relief organisations exceeded exports"

Food Expo
Ann Cooper
Jan 17, 2019 rated it really liked it
Interesting and unsettling, and very guilt-provoking from this personal, well-fed place and time. It includes: amount of 'hunger' throughout the world and throughout history; starvation in wars; starvation in 'hunger strikes;' research on the effects of starvation on the body, and whether it can--or when it can--be reversed. Grim, but weirdly fascinating.
Liz Greenwood
May 20, 2017 rated it liked it
An interesting mix of biological, social, and historical information about hunger.
Jul 26, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2017, fun
I really just enjoy microhistories. This did, in places, feel like two books brought together but I so enjoyed the detailed analysis that I could easily overlook it.
May 13, 2009 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Somehow, somewhere America's version of giving thanks became stuffing ourselves with food and then collapsing into an easy chair to watch football. Sharman Apt Russell's Hunger: An Unnatural History provides an excellent counterpoint to that mindset. Before you start backing away, this isn't book about famine in the third world (although that is unquestionably part of it). Instead, Hunger is a broad and wide-ranging exploration of and exposition on the subject, one that will make you think of ...more
Krista Danis
Mar 16, 2016 rated it liked it
Sharman Apt Russell offers this comprehensive analysis of hunger as it spans both the political and personal, intertwining its causes and effects within and amongst our locatedness as private and public bodies. Some "choose" hunger based on personal or political motivations, while others suffer starvation due to the abusive ramifications of local/global inequity around particular othernesses.

Her opening chapters invite the reader to examine hunger from the lens most likely occupied by dominant
Aug 08, 2008 rated it really liked it
Shelves: nonfiction
Sharman Apt-Russell’s book Hunger: an Unnatural History is a compelling study of an intimidating topic. Apt-Russell approaches her subject matter methodically; her poetic use of language engages the reader on every page despite the large sections of text devoted to scientific study and research.
The combination of research and personal commentary is a daunting undertaking. As is the combination of scientific jargon and emotional reaction to information, and yet Apt-Russell does so skillfully. Pe
Jun 17, 2008 rated it it was amazing
Excellent book on, never read anything like it. From the medical benefits of fasting, to political prisoners dying from hunger strikes to eating disorders, to the warsaw getto this is a fascinating study of the medical and cultural aspects of hunger. The most eye opening chapter is on the anthropology of hunger - how starvation affects the way individuals think and act, and how a society that is slowly starving functions and then falls apart. Amazing part about the Ik tribe in Africa, and how th ...more
Nov 09, 2007 rated it really liked it
Shelves: book_club, science
Russell mixes in social science, biology, pop culture, in a fairly quick and engaging read on such a broad topic. The most fascinating (and at times horrifying) parts were, for me, the studies conducted by Jewish doctors imprisioned in the Warsaw ghetto and by conscientious objectors in the US who at the same time volunteered to starve themselves so that the US could plan how to effectively refeed survivors once freed. Russell tends to believe what anyone tells her - at times, I'd like to see a ...more
Apr 13, 2015 rated it it was ok
Shelves: dumped
I didn't finish. Looking at the reviews makes me want to skip to the middle chapters. But so far, in the first three chapters, I'm dying here. So much use of the passive verb. This book seems to be the author's attempt at poetic prose, but it's unbearable. It's vague at best, confusing and pointless at worst. The author makes lovely assumptions about weight and health that shows me she hasn't read up on recent findings. A couple of things she said regarding syndromes made me want to throw the bo ...more
Apr 27, 2008 rated it it was amazing
A fascinating airplane read. She took what can be a dry and clinical topic and turned it into a real page turner. Everything from the physiology of hunger to voluntary fasting for religious, health, and political reasons to involuntary hunger and the WWII Warsaw ghetto studies and the Minnesota experiments along with examinations of societies suffering from chronic food shortages and political famines. My own weekend experiences of visiting the Greater Boston Food Bank and viewing Free Trade fil ...more
May 07, 2008 rated it liked it
Just finished Hunger: An unnatural history by Sharman Apt Russell. Very interesting and readable. Although, it was repetitive in places and labored occasionally, I would read more of her stuff. She also has a very ill-informed idea of what anthropology is, which given her standing as a writer, is slightly unforgivable - if you can have something slightly unforgivable. I suppose what I mean is that I feel like cutting her some slack because I enjoyed the book and her work but as a potential anthr ...more
Oct 07, 2009 rated it it was amazing
Most of us never think about going without food beyond the necessary calorie deprivation to slim down. But this fascinating book will change your perspective on food, make you grateful for it, and expose you to the miraculous work of the body in keeping us alive. The author carefully and scientifically explains what happens to the body during self-imposed fasts as well as circumstantially imposed starvation. She includes research conducted in the Warsaw ghetto by the Jews that were imprisoned th ...more
Jun 24, 2007 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: people who are or will be fasting
Shelves: non-fiction
I'm reading this book in conjunction with doing my own fast and it has been incredibly helpful. I fast for health reasons. In the past, I have quit mid-way because I don't understand what is happening to my body and why. It is very easy to believe that the negative side effects one experiences are more harmful than helpful. Russell's book begins by explaining exactly what happens in the body when one quits eating food. She goes in depth about our hormonal, digestive, and metabolic processes in a ...more
StephenEmily Stacey
Jan 15, 2008 rated it really liked it
I definitely enjoyed reading this book. It gives new insight into the sensation of hunger. It deals with hunger from many perspectives, including physical, emotional, spiritual and societal perspectives. It shows how hunger has been dealt with in the past and how it is currently being dealt with, and shows how it has been used as a method of health, protest and spiritual advancement. It's a high quality book that deals with a subject both ubiquitous and largely ignored by most people who don't l ...more
Jan 13, 2009 rated it really liked it
This book was my first non-fiction book in a long time, and it was very informative. I love learning about all of the ways the human body defends itself against disease, and all the in's and out's about hunger itself. The chapters about the people who starved themselves for justice, as well as for experimentation purposes, were especially captivating, (albeit a bit gory and unsettling). I've always been interested in the idea of hunger, and how long we can go without food, and it really did give ...more
Jul 05, 2011 rated it really liked it
This was a whole lot of information for 230 pages, however Russell does a great job of transitioning between the issues of hunger as art, hunger and religion, hunger and war, hunger experimentation and hunger diseases. As someone who sees food security as one of the greatest, most difficult issues of our time, I was surprised that she touched very little on the economic and political structures that allow so many people to go hungry. At the same time, I realize she was primarily interested in gi ...more
Aug 22, 2009 rated it really liked it
I'm a total nerd. When I'm interested in a topic (say, intermittent fasting) I have to research it to death. I like knowing how things work. This book is a very measured, poetically-written, scientific history of hunger. It's tragic, illuminating, and successfully reduces humanity (our dreams, our desires, our weaknesses) to our stomachs. Definitely a great read, but slow-paced, so unless you have an obsession with the topic or simply want a unique book to read, I can see this one being by-passe ...more
Jun 12, 2010 rated it liked it
Shelves: nonfiction
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.

To read the rest of my review, visit Sophisticated Dorkiness.
Jul 25, 2015 rated it liked it
Hunger is an interesting topic to explore, which is what made me pick this book up, but the book was disjointed and left me wondering what the author's point was. The last part of the book was heavily focused on world hunger, especially as it relates to war, famine, and political ideology and the author seems to make a call to action, bit even this doesn't really seem to be the defining theme of the book. I would have enjoyed it more had there been some cohesive theme or central idea.
Jan 04, 2010 rated it it was ok
I just saw this at the library and thought it looked interesting. It started out good - telling how our body responds physiologically to not having food for 24 hours, then 3 days, then 7, then a month and more. The author explored some history of starvation in instances of war and famine... but that's when it started going downhill for me. She touched on cannibalism, hunger strikes and anorexia and it got way too depressing for me.
Jun 15, 2008 rated it really liked it
This was fascinating look at the biological and social implications of hunger, the function of hunger and what happens when things go wrong. I appreciate the lack of definitive answers to the social problems at the end. I think coming up with a pat answer would have done the book a big disservice.
Mar 19, 2011 rated it liked it
Recommends it for: ma
A survey book on starvation. Physiology and sociology of fasting and famine, synthesized history of hunger mostly in the past century or so, anorexia nervosa, religion, humanitarian aid work. This is the kind of book I'd give my mom: see, ma, this is what I want to know. But for me, I want to know more.

[Read in Addis Ababa.]
Jan 02, 2008 rated it it was ok
I was extremely excited to read this book. To be honest, I never finished it. Completely lacking in the detail that would make it great, this book travels through the history of "hunger" focusing on all the wrong parts. Maybe the last few chapters would have made me reconsider this poor rating, but I doubt it.
Jun 06, 2016 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2016-read
Covers so many different aspects of hunger and situations causing hunger very well, while remaining readable. Well done. I wish some of the chapters could have been longer but they fit with the overview style of the book. Lots of summarized case studies and selected stories from field work and other research are well placed.
Elise Goubet
Oct 29, 2016 rated it liked it
I enjoyed most of this book, but some chapters didn't hold my attention. I think that she could have developed the psychological aspects of hunger more - instead this book was mostly cold and factual.
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I am pleased to be considered a nature and science writer and excited that my recent Diary of a Citizen Scientist was awarded the WILLA Award in Nonfiction, as well as the 2016 John Burroughs Medal for Distinguished Nature Writing. The John Burroughs Medal was first given in 1926 and recipients include writers like Aldo Leopold, Rachel Carson, Barry Lopez, John McPhee, and many others. To be in su ...more
“In famine, a focus on women and children highlights biology: here is a mother who cannot feed her child, a breakdown in the natural order of life. This focus obscures who and what is to blame for the famine, politically and economically, and can lead to the belief that a biological response, more food, will solve the problem.” 5 likes
“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.” 2 likes
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