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The Art of Starving Hardcover – July 11, 2017
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From School Library Journal
Gr 10 Up—The less Matt eats, the more control he has over his body. The more control he has, the stronger his powers get. And he needs his powers strong if he's going to find out what the bullies did to make his sister run away. And punish them. This is a compellingly narrated magical realism exploration of eating disorders, isolation, and desire. The first half makes for compulsive reading as teens watch Matt's war with his own body and the mysterious unfurling of his abilities. There are some well-crafted dives into how eating disorders are experienced by young men, and young gay men in particular. Unfortunately, the book's denouement falls largely flat, with pat resolutions and didactic twists, although it avoids the simple recovery trajectory trope. VERDICT A serviceable title for readers seeking an unconventional look at eating disorders and complicated gay romance.—L. Lee Butler, Hart Middle School, Washington, DC
“Matt toes the line between expiration and enlightenment, sparing no detail of his twisted, antagonistic relationship with his body. [His] sarcastic, biting wit keeps readers rooting for him and hoping for his recovery. A dark and lovely tale of supernatural vengeance and self-destruction.” (Kirkus Reviews (starred review))
“Matt is an admirably strong character who is out and proud, brilliant, creative, and determined to survive... Miller’s creative portrait of a complex and sympathetic individual will provide a welcome mirror for kindred spirits.” (Booklist (starred review))
“Matt is a master at suppressing his urges, but there is nothing romantic about debut novelist Miller’s portrayal of anorexia... discussion of Matt’s future is brutally honest. As Matt’s body deteriorates and his ‘powers’ reach new levels, readers must decide for themselves what is and isn’t real.” (Publishers Weekly (starred review))
“One of the most important books of the year… How different, and how beautiful, our world would be if we could take its lesson of empathy to heart.” (B&N Sci-Fi & Fantasy blog )
“An extraordinarily vital and necessary book that deals with underrepresented characters, discussions of toxic masculinity, and the effects of bullying in raw and effective ways . . . the overall message of devotion and self-acceptance is beautifully told.” (Romantic Times BOOKclub)
“Funny, haunting, beautiful, relentless and powerful, The Art of Starving is a classic in the making.” (Book Riot)
“Miller’s powerful, provocative and daring work forces readers to question reality and how much of our world is shaped by what we see.” (Shelf Awareness)
“This book is an ache, a bruise, a slaughterhouse of a love story; every word is a blow, but every blow is an anthem. This is what truth feels and smells and tastes like, and it’s one magnificent monster.” (Margaret Stohl, bestselling author of the Beautiful Creatures series)
“Beautifully rendered. This novel will break your heart and heal it again.” (Coretta Scott-King Award and Newbery Honor winner Jacqueline Woodson)
“As gritty with salted wounds as are all great fairytales, The Art of Starving is The Outsiders with superpowers. It should be shelved alongside the classic stories of unexpected salvation.” (Maria Dahvana Headley, bestselling author of Magonia)
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For those not interested in short stories here’s the lowdown on the book.
What it Is:
The Art of Starving is told from the perspective of Matt, the main character, a gay teenage boy who suffers from an eating disorder (and is in denial about the fact that he has an eating disorder). The book takes the form of, well, a book, that Matt is writing FOR the reader. The idea being that Matt is writing to people who might want to follow in his footsteps. It gives us a look into Matt’s life, both at school and at home, as he tries to figure out why his older sister up and left the family one night. In that way it is part detective story, part revenge flick, part Sci-fi superheroness, and all of it under the umbrella of a modern coming of age tale. At times it is strange, hostile, gentle, heartfelt, dark, and funny. So, that is to say, it captures the life of a teenager pretty well. It is also not for the feint at heart as it dives head long into the mind of a troubled teenager.
What it Isn’t:
The Art of Starving is not a traditional feel-good story. The characters here struggle. They struggle financially, they struggle socially, and perhaps more than anything else they struggle with identity. I wouldn’t say the book ever gets graphic (at least not OVERLY graphic) but you are reading a book about a boy suffering from an eating disorder written by a talented writer who knows what he’s talking about. Miller, in my eyes, is able to walk the tightrope between not pulling his punches and being open and honest about his subject matter while not resorting to writing something shocking simply for the sake of it. He is able to walk that same line with the sexual content, violence, and other risque aspects present in his book. Art of Starving is also not what I would call a “traditional” story. While I don’t think it ever gets confusing we do get hallucinations, fever dreams, regular dreams, and, of course, superpowers in what is otherwise a very grounded story.
What WILL They Say? / Conclusion:
Many readers might be turned off by the fact that this book chooses to involve the supernatural instead of just sticking to what is already a fairly unique tale (A gay teenage boy coming to terms with who he is in a not-so-progressive small town while he also comes to terms with the fact that he has an eating disorder). And, certainly, some people may also be dismayed by the fact that, if an impressionable young kid were to only read the first 40 or so percent of the book, they might come away thinking that harboring an eating disorder ain’t so bad.
But that, for me, is the power of this book. Like the majority of Miller’s writing it takes you on a journey. That’s the highs and lows. The deep, dark, scary thoughts we all have as well as the powerful, breathtaking revelations that sometimes follow. Like I said above, the book does not pull punches. We are in the head of a troubled young boy as he tries to take control of his life. The themes and messages, like his life, are complicated. And often messy. At times you’re likely to sympathize with Matt, at others you might hate him, and then at others you might just want to give him a hug. And sometimes you may need to put the book down and walk away.
These types of books aren’t for everyone because (in this case) they actually put you in the head of someone who thinks (foolishly) that self-harm is a good idea. So, yes, stretches of this book include Matt thinking that starving himself is working out great. But Miller is a very gifted writer and a careful reading of his book shows that everyone of his decisions comes with a purpose.
The characters in The Art of Starving have to work to find hope and acceptance (especially self-acceptance). Like them, we too, to a degree, are asked to work. Are Matt’s powers real? What is this book saying about self-harm? About coping with loneliness and identity? About fighting to find yourself? How much you “work” depends on you. It’s easy to say that this book, at times, glorifies Matt’s eating disorder. But for those who look deeper, I believe they will find something truly special.
But, beyond that, I am blown away by Sam’s writing. His short story, “The Heat of Us: Notes Toward an Oral History,” is the only other piece of his that I’ve read, but this novel cements him as one of the most profound artists whose work I’ve ever read. His craft is unbelievable.
As a whole I’ve been immediately talking to anyone and everyone about this book, as much as I can, and recommending it. It’s that good. If you’re finding yourself anywhere on the gender or sexuality spectrum that is not textbook normative, then by all means, please make this a priority read. There’s insight into gender nuances which are so small that had me immediately raising my brow and nodding along; there’s such rich thought and critique of sexuality, particularly for youth, that pushes the boundaries of the stereotypical YA, and means so much to me to read as an adult.
This book will stay with me. I know I’ll be rereading it, and that that will result in more tears.
Please read it.
I am trying to figure out how to make everyone I know read it.
If you loved Roxane Gay's _Hunger_, this book is exactly like it but also the exact opposite. It starts out as realistic lit, but it has magic in it. If you are a parent who has worried that you are failing your kids, this book is for you. If you are a queer kid who didn't know how to tell your parents, this book is for you. If you have a complicated relationship with weight and food, if you have been desperately in love and maybe a little self-destructive with it, if you are a human being, this book is for you.
I'm going to leave this out somewhere for my kids to find, when they're a little older. Not too much older, though. I want to be sure they have it when they need it.