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Hunger Paperback – April 1, 2008


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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

An elderly Russian emigrr reminisces about love in the shadow of war in this quietly effective, poignant debut. The opening chapters find the anonymous narrator ensconced in his New York apartment, waxing poetic about his life as a botanist during the siege of Leningrad, as he and his colleagues struggle to save the city's rare collection of plants in the botanical gardens. Deeply in love with his wife, Alena, another botanist, the narrator nonetheless embarks on a series of affairs, with a fellow worker named Lidia and with sexy, exotic Iskra. Both affairs become more difficult and tortured as the siege progresses and the city's population begins to starve. Blackwell wisely steers clear of the horrors that have been chronicled in many previous historical novels. Instead, she offers gemlike observations ("With Alena, who needed neither to find nor to lose herself, sex was only sex") and sensory detail ("one fat, perfect potato in salted water"). The juxtaposition of the gnawing torment of starvation with the narrator's memory of the exotic foods he collected and ate on his travels around the world before the war furnish the novel with many of its tensions and delights. Plotwise, there are some intriguing twists and turns as the war progresses, but the climax is rather tepid, with Blackwell underplaying her narrator's unusual and immoral survival tactics as food becomes increasingly scarce. Still, this is a well-crafted novel that works largely because of its small, evocative moments.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Booklist

An unnamed scientist, now safely ensconced in New York City, looks back at the "hunger winter" as German troops surrounded Leningrad in the fall of 1941. In a voice made weary by having seen the worst side of human nature, he describes the 900-day siege that left the city without food and its inhabitants desperate. His own colleagues, all of whom work for an institute that collects rare seeds, split into two groups: those who preserve their principles (including his quiet but steely wife, Alena) and those who use any means available to survive. When the institute's director is incarcerated for political crimes, Alena signs a petition in his defense while her husband begins to pilfer seeds from the collection to assuage his hunger. A man of large appetites, he also comforts himself by recalling his extensive travels before the war, the many exotic foods he sampled, and his numerous infidelities, all the while comparing his wife's brave idealism with his own sneaky pragmatism. Blackwell's debut is a lyrical, haunting story about the cost of survival. Joanne Wilkinson
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 146 pages
  • Publisher: Unbridled Books; 1st edition (April 1, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 193296150X
  • ISBN-13: 978-1932961508
  • Product Dimensions: 8.3 x 5.5 x 0.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 7.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (14 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,357,470 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Elise Blackwell is the author of four critically hailed novels: Hunger, The Unnatural History of Cypress Parish, Grub, and An Unfinished Score. Her books have been chosen for numerous "best of the year" lists, including the Los Angeles Times, Sydney Morning Herald, and Kirkus. For more information about Elise and her books, please visit her website: http://eliseblackwell.com/

Customer Reviews

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

13 of 14 people found the following review helpful By Larry L. Looney on April 2, 2004
Format: Hardcover
This is such a small book to contain so very much. Elise Blackwell has created something very special indeed with this, her first novel. With eloquence and empathy, she transports the reader back in time to Leningrad in 1941 - the German army approaches, and the people in the city prepare for the attack, but it comes in a form they do not expect. The Germans simply cut the city off from the outside world, and sit and wait for the inhabitants to starve to death.
Blackwell's narrator is an elderly Russian botanist living in America, looking back at his time in the blockaded city, remembering his wife and coworkers - remembering the choices that he and the others made in order to survive. Before and during the war, he traveled the world with his colleagues, collecting specimens of plants and seeds from every continent in order to study them and find ways to better feed people in need. The institute where he works - like every facet of Russian society at the time - is caught up in the political upheaval of a country being painfully reborn. The director of the institute, once widely revered and respected both as a scientist and a human being, falls out of favor with the authorities and is sentenced to die. Those who are left behind must choose to bend and survive or resist and perish - professionally, physically or both. Once the German blockade of the city begins, however, they realize that there are far more pressing choices to make. Do they open the storehouses of the institute and distribute the grain samples to the people, or do they preserve them in the name of science, for future generations? The scientists at the institute agree to preserve the samples, to starve before they touch them - but it's a difficult promise to keep.
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12 of 13 people found the following review helpful By Bookreporter on May 10, 2003
Format: Hardcover
"It is not so uncommon for those near the end of their lives to run their mind's hand over the contours of those lives."
HUNGER, Elise Blackwell's first novel, begins with this sentence, elegant in its simple statement. And from there an anonymous scientist, the narrator, endeavors on his personal recollection of one of the most horrific periods in history.
The narrator lived through the "hunger winter" that began in 1941 in Leningrad. For 900 days, he witnessed the city fall around him and the deaths of the city folk at the hands of Nazis. Following a lifetime of exotic travel that took him to Mexico, Afghanistan and other welcoming places in search of rare seed and plant specimens, he now finds himself trapped with his colleagues protecting the botanical institute they've worked so hard to build. A pact is made --- the scientists will not eat their collections, no matter how desperate for food they may become; they will preserve their store for future generations, even if they perish in their attempts. Only our narrator cannot truly accept this agreement. Directed by his appetites, he watches his colleagues barter their bodies and their few material possessions for scraps, for tree bark to make soup, for a single potato. Ultimately they die, as he indulges in the institute's seed supply behind their frail backs.
Among his colleagues is Alena, his wife, a woman of great principle. He also watches her dwindle away to nothing, while he feeds his appetite. He tries to rationalize his secret meals by saying he must do anything to survive at any cost. But his explanations are selfish; he is an indulgent man whose every choice in life has been dictated by his wants, his desires.
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13 of 15 people found the following review helpful By Paul Campos on May 22, 2003
Format: Hardcover
A book about people in extreme situations is always in danger of descending into melodrama or outright sensationalism. Elise Blackwell avoids this danger by employing two strategies: A prose style that avoids the merely decorative adjective, and a protagonist who is too true to be good.
"Hunger" reminds us that much of what we think of as humanity simply disappears when people are starving (as most people have for at least part of their lives throughout much of history). Yet it also reminds us that humanity is often at its most heroic when heroism consists of something as simple as behaving decently in the midst of barbarism.
Reading this book brought to mind something that Bertrand Russell said about how the 20th century destroyed the comfortable optimism of 19th century thinkers that history was essentially the march of progress: "Our age calls for greater energy of belief than was needed in the 18th and 19th centuries. Imagine Goethe, Shelley and H.G. Wells confined for years in Buchenwald; how would they emerge? Obviously not as they went in . . . Most philosophers have more breath of outlook when adequately nourished than when driven mad by hunger, and it is by no means a general rule that intense suffering makes men wise."
Blackwell's novel is short, because it's the right length for what she was aiming to accomplish. She succeeds in making a protagonist who is in many ways utterly unsympathetic someone we can understand as an example of what happens to a talented and admirable person who is placed in situations that tempt him beyond the limits of his virtue.
It is worth considering in just what ways this same thing is happening to oneself.
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