What It's Like To Starve In Writing
March 16, 2012 9:47 PM   Subscribe

I need the most accurate or visceral or affecting or convincing description of starvation written.

Not something medical, something firsthand. Doesn't matter the reason for starvation; could be forced, trapped in the woods, anorexia, medical illness, anything. It just needs to get the feeling across and be well-written.

I'm speaking of actual starvation, not "Omg it's lunch, I'm starving!" - the process of the body starving to death, the physical sensations and pains, the emotions, the whole shebang. There were great visual examples of this in the the movie Into the Wild. Just for reference for what I'm looking for. I'm sure someone will recommend the book to me, and I appreciate that - however, I'm looking for shorter reads.
posted by jitterbug perfume to Writing & Language (27 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Knut Hamsun's "Hunger", maybe?
posted by vetala at 9:54 PM on March 16, 2012 [5 favorites]

Elie Wiesel's Night talks about the terrible pain of hunger and the depths that people will sink to in order to assuage it.
posted by runningwithscissors at 9:55 PM on March 16, 2012 [3 favorites]

It's fiction, but the Bronze Horseman by Paulina Simons had the most affecting description I have ever read.
posted by yogalemon at 9:59 PM on March 16, 2012

The Human Race by Robert Antelme is another Holocaust memoir with some unforgettable passages about starvation. Wasted by Marya Hornbacher is a firsthand account of anorexia and bulimia.
posted by gentian at 10:02 PM on March 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

Grapes of wrath, especially the final chapter.
posted by u2604ab at 10:30 PM on March 16, 2012

nthing The Grapes of Wrath...also The road by Cormac McCarthy.
posted by virginia_clemm at 10:37 PM on March 16, 2012

Nothing to Envy - Barbara Demick (ISBN 0385523904)
About starving in North Korea.
Okay it's not "about" starving, but people who are starving have a tendency to see that as their greatest problem, thus is is a large portion of the book.
posted by Seamus at 10:50 PM on March 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

you might check out the Minnesota starvation experiment conducted during WWII...
posted by sexyrobot at 11:01 PM on March 16, 2012

Yes, Cormac McCarthy's The Road.
posted by mleigh at 11:20 PM on March 16, 2012

Angela's Ashes by Frank McCourt has some very memorable passages about extreme, lasting hunger from the perspective of Frank as a small boy.
posted by mochapickle at 11:50 PM on March 16, 2012

posted by philip-random at 11:55 PM on March 16, 2012

Living Dead Girl by Elizabeth Scott has some great lines about starvation; a girl is kidnapped and her abuser keeps her under a certain number of calories a day so her brain is foggy and she doesn't menstrate, so he can fantasize about her being his little girl. It's really creepy and scary.

Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson is more about anorexia, but also has some great lines about starvation and eating disorders.
posted by spunweb at 11:57 PM on March 16, 2012

In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick. Extremely vivid descriptions of what happens as people slowly starve to death (or almost death.) Freaked me out so much when I read it that at one point I actually got out of my warm bed and went to take a magnesium supplement.
posted by DestinationUnknown at 4:20 AM on March 17, 2012

Best answer: The Shortest Story by Harry Chapin

I am born today, the sun burns a promise in my eyes
Mama strikes me and I draw a breath and cry
Above me a cloud softly tumbles through the sky
I am happy to be alive

It is my seventh day, I taste the hunger and I cry
My brother and sister both cling to mama's side
She squeezes her breast but it has nothing to provide
I am weak, I fall asleep

It is twenty days today, mama does not hold me anymore
I open my mouth but I am too weak to cry
Above me a bird slowly crawls across the sky
Why is there nothing now to do but die?
posted by Lokheed at 6:16 AM on March 17, 2012 [3 favorites]

Seconding Barbar Demick's "Nothing to Envy", very good book indeed.

Also see "Starvation Heights" by Gregg Olsen, the true story of a really creepy so-called health clinic in the Pacific Northwest in 1911.
posted by easily confused at 6:35 AM on March 17, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks everyone, these are great suggestions. I will look into each and every one. Any specific passages anyone can link directly to? My description of starvation - hard to find and read all these books but would like to explain it to my loved ones.
posted by jitterbug perfume at 7:11 AM on March 17, 2012

Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand. There are two separate incidents of starving - on the raft and in the Japanese POW camp. Incredible incredible book.
posted by Sassyfras at 8:00 AM on March 17, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Marya Hornbacher's Wasted has been recommended to me by several ex-ana friends as the best account of 'what it's like'. There's a short excerpt on the author's website, and another on the publisher's website.

David Piper's I Am Well, Who Are You? describes his experiences in a Japanese prison camp, where he nearly starved to death:

Acute hunger, stretched over the years, is beyond the normal scope of Europeans and Americans. In practice, it becomes quite quickly paramount; it strips the body to a bleak anatomy, and dissolves mind and spirit within one ravenous physical appetite. Below a certain subsistence level, other considerations vanish -- for three and a half years, for example, the needs of sex were nil. On the other hand, the urgency of hunger was the essential governor of survival, its insistent concentration surely the reason why so few prisoners went mad. Only when it faded could despair overwhelm fatally; known in all Far Eastern prison camps was that stage in a prisoner's illness when hunger failed; then the man would turn his face to the wall, and simply surrender life and die -- not necessarily for pathological reasons, but because he had no longer any incentive to live. But twenty years later, I can no longer feel, even remember, this state of being hungry, of living as hunger.

I still have my rice bowl, three and a half inches across, two and a half inches high; at bad times this, filled with boiled rice three times a day, was our total food ration. I use it as an ashtray.

posted by verstegan at 8:02 AM on March 17, 2012

Response by poster: I read Wasted a few years ago. It is very accurate.
posted by jitterbug perfume at 8:52 AM on March 17, 2012

I'd be interested in reading this, too, having experienced starvation due to medical reasons. It had a huge effect on my life.
posted by ambrosen at 8:53 AM on March 17, 2012

Response by poster: Medical reasons here, too. It is currently having a huge effect. Message me with any advice.
posted by jitterbug perfume at 8:57 AM on March 17, 2012

David Benioff's "City of Thieves" set in the besieged Leningrad during WWII is a very hungry novel.
posted by zzazazz at 9:07 AM on March 17, 2012

Meantime, read this account of a young man's experience in and escape from a North Korean prison camp. It's excerpted from a book, which might belong on your list.
posted by zadcat at 11:20 AM on March 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Orwell's Down and Out in Paris and London describes prolonged and intense hunger. It's been years since I read it, but I still remember the feeling of reading those parts of the book.
posted by poissonrouge at 3:22 PM on March 17, 2012

Best answer: Another one not to miss: Jasper Becker's Hungry Ghosts: Mao's Secret Famine, especially the chapter titled "The Anatomy of Hunger." It describes exactly the misery of starvation. The next chapter is, inevitably, "Cannabilism." Even the hungriest humans struggle desperately to cling to some shred of humanity -- instead of eating their own children, they first exchanged children with their neighbors, because it's just a tiny bit less painful to kill and eat a child that isn't your own. Like one of the reviews said, "horrifically captivating."
posted by Corvid at 3:27 PM on March 17, 2012

Here Be Monsters is a story about three teenagers who spend 51 days adrift in a small boat and nearly starve to death. Discussed here.
posted by salvia at 1:22 AM on March 18, 2012

Best answer: Starvation Heights by Gregg Olsen.

Two sisters travelled to a "sanatorium" (one of those health retreats back when they were all the rage, around the time of Kellog's crazy health obsessions) for a "cure" to all of their physical problems.

So starts the most harrowing book of history I've ever experienced. Part of that may have to do with me listening to it via audible. The cure was a starvation cure. It's an excellent book that is hard to get through, but well worth it. If you're looking for the most basic, visceral understanding I'd recommend the audiobook version.
posted by f_panda at 7:26 AM on March 19, 2012

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