Most of us have never been hungry, I mean really hungry the way many of the people in this book have been hungry. What Sharman Apt Russell does is show the reader just what it is like in a physical, mental, political and medical way to be hungry, very hungry.
She begins with the so-called "hunger artists" who performed feats of fasting for audiences while sometimes up in cages overlooking traveled boulevards. It seems fasting was a bit of a fad in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. She mentions literary fasters like the protagonist of Kalka's story "A Hunger Artist" and that of Knut Hamsun's splendid short autobiographical novel Hunger (1890). She also gives us the all-time champ, holder of the record in the Guinness Book of Records (last acknowledged in 1971; Guinness no longer records fasts because of the dangers involved). His name is Mr. A.B. and he weighed 456 pounds when he began. 382 days later he weighed 180 pounds.
Next she shows how our digestive system works and how it changes during food deprivation--what happens after 36 hours, 7 days, 30 days. The details about ghrelin and leptin, glucose and ketones are fascinating. Then she recalls famous hunger strikes including some very interesting material on the suffragettes, the Irish Republicans and Mahatma Gandhi. Then comes the horror of the Warsaw Ghetto and, amazingly enough, the work of Jewish doctors in the ghetto who took that gruesome opportunity to measure and study the steps toward death by starvation.
Russell reports on "The Minnesota Experiment" during World War II in which young male conscientious objectors volunteered to go on an extended starvation diet so that doctors would know how to treat those in Europe and elsewhere after the war was over. After awhile these healthy young men cared nothing about sex or social activities. All they thought about was food. The academically inclined turned from scholarly books to cookbooks and found that the only conversations that interested them were about food, food, food. This reminds me of some of the episodes of TV's "Survivor."
In "The Anthropology of Hunger" (Chapter 9) Russell explores "hunger frustration" among some tribes in Africa and Papua New Guinea. People tend to get a little testy when they don't have enough to eat, and when they have a culture that admires thinness and detests gluttony, they tend to eat on the sly, as do the Kalauna of Papua New Guinea. In this chapter Russell revisits anthropologist Colin Turnbull's famous book The Mountain People (1972) about the Ik people of Uganda who seemed to lack in common human decency. She argues that it was semi-starvation that drove the psychology of these people, and that Turnbull failed to adequately appreciate this.
There is a chapter on "Anorexia nervosa" and attendant psychology, Karen Carpenter and the distorted body images of adolescent girls.
And then come the chapters entitled, "Hungry Children" and the "Protocols of Famine." Now it really gets ugly, and the pages no longer turn themselves. The technical words become "dysentery" and "cholera" and "marasmus" and "kwashiorkor," words that describe starvation in children. Now the book is hard to read: Somalia, Ethiopia, the Sudan, famine all over the world, in China under Mao 1959-1962, in Guatemala under the military backed by the US, in short the words are about the geopolitics of hunger.
Russell ends with a chapter on the potato famine in Ireland in 1845-50 and how that too was as much the result of political failure as it was the result of the potato blight. Her last words are about St. Patrick who went on a hunger strike against God, "a troscad until death."