The best books on famine

2 authors have picked their favorite books about famine and why they recommend each book.

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The Third Horseman

By William Rosen,

Book cover of The Third Horseman: A Story of Weather, War, and the Famine History Forgot

The Third Horseman combines a discussion of climate change with a major disaster, the great famine of the fourteenth century. Vividly written and fast-paced, this well-written book makes history enjoyable. The author wears his research lightly, which makes for a rattling good story. Not a global book, but it will make you think.

Who am I?

Brian Fagan is a Distinguished Emeritus Professor of Anthropology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He is the author of numerous books about archaeology, the past, and climate change for general audiences. I was asked to write my first climate change book (on El Niños) and was astounded to find that few archaeologists or historians focused on the subject, whether ancient or modern. Now that’s all changed, thanks to the revolution in paleoclimatology. I’m convinced that the past has much to tell us about climate change in the future. Apart from that, the subject is fascinating and vital.

I wrote...

The Long Summer: How Climate Changed Civilization

By Brian Fagan,

Book cover of The Long Summer: How Climate Changed Civilization

What is my book about?

Humanity evolved in an Ice Age in which glaciers covered much of the world. But starting about 15,000 years ago, temperatures began to climb. Civilization and all of recorded history occurred in this warm period, the era known as the Holocene-the long summer of the human species. In The Long Summer, Brian Fagan brings us the first detailed record of climate change during these 15,000 years of warming and shows how this climate change gave rise to civilization. A thousand-year chill led people in the Near East to take up the cultivation of plant foods; a catastrophic flood drove settlers to inhabit Europe; the drying of the Sahara forced its inhabitants to live along the banks of the Nile, and increased rainfall in East Africa provoked the bubonic plague.

The Long Summer illuminates for the first time the centuries-long pattern of human adaptation to the demands and challenges of an ever-changing climate-challenges that are still with us today.

Red Famine

By Anne Applebaum,

Book cover of Red Famine: Stalin's War on Ukraine

This is a devastating history of the Holodomor, the Soviet state engineered famine that killed millions of Ukrainians in 1932-33. As Applebaum writes so thorough were the efforts to confiscate food from Ukrainian peasants that “just being alive attracted suspicion.” Despite eyewitness reporting at the time, accounts of the famine were denied. I interviewed some famine survivors when I was a journalist based in Ukraine but did not fully grasp the horrifying scale of what occurred. This book leaves you in no doubt of that.

Who am I?

I moved to Kyiv to report for The Independent in 1990 and fell in love with Ukraine. The beauty of Kyiv and its golden-domed cathedrals amazed me as did the vibrant culture of civic engagement that emerged. It’s not often that you witness a declaration of independence and see a new country appear on the world map. I admire the bravery of Ukrainians who have fought for both and value the warm friendships that I made. I was Ukraine’s first accredited foreign correspondent. Before that I reported for The Guardian (Budapest) and later, for the BBC (London and Kyiv). I live in Toronto and still closely follow developments in Ukraine.  

I wrote...

Picnic at the Iron Curtain: A Memoir: From the Fall of the Berlin Wall to Ukraine's Orange Revolution

By Susan Viets,

Book cover of Picnic at the Iron Curtain: A Memoir: From the Fall of the Berlin Wall to Ukraine's Orange Revolution

What is my book about?

In this adventure-packed memoir, Susan Viets arrives in Communist Hungary in 1988 and begins reporting for The Guardian, not at all prepared for what lies ahead. She helps East Germans escape to the West at a picnic, moves to the Soviet Union, battling authorities for accreditation as the first foreign journalist in Ukraine, and then watches the political system collapse. Lured by new travel opportunities, Viets shops her way across Central Asia, stumbling into a tank attack in Tajikistan and the start of the Tajik civil war. The book features people at the centre of dramatic events from Budapest to Bishkek and Chernobyl to Chechnya. It spans a period of momentous historical change from 1988 to 1998, ending with an eyewitness account of Ukraine’s Orange Revolution in 2004.

The Harvest of Sorrow

By Robert Conquest,

Book cover of The Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivization and the Terror-Famine

The British historian of the Soviet Union wrote a number of extra-ordinary books about the horrors of the Soviet Union but this was the best one. It pulls together the story of the second great man-made famine in the Soviet Union when Stalin pushed through the second collectivisation campaign. It was the first book to bring together why and how Stalin’s policies deliberately killed so many people.

He also describes how many people in the West chose to ignore the evidence and the eye-witness accounts of the suffering. Reading it inspired me to research the Great Leap Forward famine. The parallels are astonishing. Did Mao know what happened under Stalin, or did he know but not care when he followed the same path?

Who am I?

Jasper Becker is a foreign correspondent who spent decades reporting on China and the Far East. His the author of numerous books including Hungry Ghosts – Mao’s Secret Famine, Rogue Regime – Kim Jong Il and the looming threat of North Korea, City of Heavenly Tranquillity, and most recently Made in China – Wuhan, COVID and the Quest for Biotech Supremacy.

I wrote...

Made in China: Wuhan, Covid and the Quest for Biotech Supremacy

By Jasper Becker,

Book cover of Made in China: Wuhan, Covid and the Quest for Biotech Supremacy

What is my book about?

What might COVID-19 mean for, and reveal about, China's place in the world? The coronavirus pandemic started in Wuhan, home to the leading lab studying the SARS virus and bats. Was that pure coincidence? This book explores what we know, and still don't know, about the origins of COVID-19, and how it was handled in China.

We may never get all the answers, but much is already clear: China's record as the origin of earlier pandemics, and its struggle to bring contagious diseases under control; its history as both a victim of biological warfare and a developer of deadly bioweapons. When Covid broke out, Wuhan was building science parks to realise Beijing's ambitions in biotech research. Whoever achieves global leadership of the gene-editing industry stands to harvest great power and wealth.

The Charity of War

By Melanie S. Tanielian,

Book cover of The Charity of War: Famine, Humanitarian Aid, and World War I in the Middle East

During the war, Beirut and Mount Lebanon were heavily impacted by a famine because of several factors, including the Allied blockade of the Mediterranean, bad harvests, heat waves, shortage of workers, and a destructive locust invasion. As a result, even though the area did not witness any battles on its territory, hundreds of thousands of people died due to famine and disease. Fiction or real, the horrors reached to a degree that “mothers eating their children” stories carved in the collective memory of the war. Drawing on the reality of famine, the book deals with how war relief and welfare activities acted as forces that opened a new political space for civilian provisioning, eventually leading to the emergence of a new political space in the post-war period.

Who am I?

Studying unexplored topics has always fascinated me as a historian. Some overlooked aspects in history might shed a new light on many things that we consider obvious. I studied the Ottoman home front during the First World War from an unusual perspective by taking up the concept of moral crisis. Until very recently, talking about the First World War in the Middle East meant talking about only the European side of the story such as the famous “Lawrence of Arabia” and/or only political events that were attached to the Anglo-British rivalry. Instead, we need a “new” history of this watershed event that takes the local aspects into consideration. After all, the Great War was the most remarkable moment in the history of the Middle East which shaped its modern dynamics.

I wrote...

Moral Crisis in the Ottoman Empire: Society, Politics, and Gender During WWI

By Cigdem Oguz,

Book cover of Moral Crisis in the Ottoman Empire: Society, Politics, and Gender During WWI

What is my book about?

To what extent did a perceived morality crisis play a role in the dramatic events of the last years of the Ottoman Empire? Beginning in the late nineteenth century when some of the Ottoman elites began to question the moral climate as evidence for the losses facing the empire, this book shows that during the course of World War I many social, economic, and political problems were translated into a discourse of moral decline, ultimately making morality a contested space between rival ideologies, identities, and intellectual currents.

Examining the primary journals and printed sources that represented the various constituencies of the period, it fills important gaps in the scholarship of the Ottoman experience of World War I and the origins of Islamism and secularism in Turkey, and is essential reading for social and intellectual historians of the late Ottoman Empire.

Late Victorian Holocausts

By Mike Davis,

Book cover of Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niño Famines and the Making of the Third World

This book is best known for its controversial argument that not only did British imperial policies worsen the droughts-famines-epidemics that devastated India from 1876 to 1878 but that Victorian policy-makers could have intervened to save millions of lives but refrained. Yet Davis also provides a wrenching account of Brazilian droughts in 1876-79 and 1896-1900 that left millions dead, particularly in the Sertão, the northeastern hinterland. He shows the connections between climate (El Niño), economic transformations, and mass displacements, and starvation in Brazil, and how European empires, the United States, and Japan took advantage of these crises. 

Some readers will appreciate his polemical style, others not; Davis, however, is a fantastic writer and presents a nuanced and well-researched depiction of famine in Brazil. 

Who am I?

Writing my history of the 1746 earthquake and tsunami that walloped much of Peru taught me that disasters serve as great entryways into society. They not only provide a snapshot (today's selfie) of where people were and what they were doing at a given moment (think Pompei) but also bring to light and even accentuate social and political tensions. I have lived my adult life between Peru and California and have experienced plenty of earthquakes. I continue to teach on "natural" disasters and have begun a project on the 1600 Huaynaputina volcano that affected the global climate. 

I wrote...

Shaky Colonialism: The 1746 Earthquake-Tsunami in Lima, Peru, and Its Long Aftermath

By Charles F. Walker,

Book cover of Shaky Colonialism: The 1746 Earthquake-Tsunami in Lima, Peru, and Its Long Aftermath

What is my book about?

On October 28, 1746, a massive earthquake ravaged Lima, a bustling city of 50,000, capital of the Peruvian Viceroyalty, and the heart of Spain’s territories in South America. Half an hour later, a tsunami destroyed the nearby port of Callao. The earthquake-tsunami demolished churches and major buildings, damaged food and water supplies, and suspended social codes, throwing people of different social classes together and prompting widespread chaos. I examine reactions to the catastrophe, the Viceroy’s plans to rebuild the city, and the opposition he encountered from the Church, the Spanish Crown, and Lima’s multiracial population.

The Viceroy devised a classic Enlightenment plan to rebuild --only to receive the full-scale opposition of virtually all of the city's population as well as nearby Indigenous communities.

The Tale of Gwyn

By Cynthia Voigt,

Book cover of The Tale of Gwyn

When I first encountered this book in the late 1980s, it was titled Jackaroo--named for the Robin Hood-like folk hero in the non-magical secondary world called the Kingdom. However, the star of the story is Gwyn, so the renaming makes sense. The book is riveting in its action moments, but somehow I'm even more drawn to the scenes of daily toil. I have absolutely no idea how Voigt can make scrubbing the floor seem so important! (This is the real floor-scrubbing book of this list.) The Tale of Gwyn evokes a medieval European past that feels more real than the best-researched historical novel. Hopefully the series rebrand draws the wide readership it deserves--it is both exciting and thoughtful, bleak and hopeful, and I return to it again and again. 

Who am I?

I'm an American writer who grew obsessed with all things King Arthur at age 10. Trying to be the best 7th-grade Arthurian scholar in the world set me on a path of life-long learning and research. My historical fantasy novels for children have been flatteringly called "maybe the only [fiction] depiction of the complexities of feudal obligations & responsibilities I've ever seen" by a real medievalist. While that wasn't what I was going for, it speaks to the thing I seek out when I read: total immersion in another world. If you don't feel like you scrubbed pots in the Middle Ages, why would you read about a medieval scullery maid?

I wrote...

Handbook for Dragon Slayers

By Merrie Haskell,

Book cover of Handbook for Dragon Slayers

What is my book about?

Thirteen-year-old Princess Matilda, whose lame foot brings fear of the evil eye, has never given much thought to dragons, attending instead to her endless duties and wishing herself free of a princess's responsibilities.

When a greedy cousin steals Tilda's lands, the young princess goes on the run with two would-be dragon slayers. Before long she is facing down the Wild Hunt, befriending magical horses, and battling flame-spouting dragons. On the adventure of a lifetime, and caught between dreams of freedom and the people who need her, Tilda learns more about dragons—and herself—than she ever imagined.

Marching Through Suffering

By Sandra Fahy,

Book cover of Marching Through Suffering: Loss and Survival in North Korea

Economics does not always make easy reading, so stories are best told by listening to how privation is felt in everyday life. Sandra Fahy’s book is a terrific recent addition. An anthropologist, Fahy interviews famine refugees, who tell their tales. A common theme was that they worked hard and many believed at least to some extent in the regime. But they became disillusioned and defected not only because of economic conditions but for professional reasons; that they were prevented from putting their expertise and skills to use.

Who are we?

We teamed up about fifteen years ago around a common interest in the political economy of North Korea; Haggard is a political scientist, Noland an economist. Both of us had spent our careers focused on Asia but looking largely at the capitalist successes: Japan and the newly industrializing countries of Korea, Taiwan, and Southeast Asia. But what about the anomalous cases in the region that did not get on the growth train? The “Asian miracle” was hardly ubiquitous…what had gone wrong? North Korea was clearly the biggest puzzle, and we ended up researching and writing on the famine, refugees, and the complexities of international sanctions. 

We wrote...

Witness to Transformation: Refugee Insights Into North Korea

By Stephan Haggard and Marcus Noland,

Book cover of Witness to Transformation: Refugee Insights Into North Korea

What is our book about?

The North Korean famine was a train wreck of unbelievable proportions, resulting not only in starvation and death but a massive refugee outflow and heartbreaking human rights abuses. But refugees were also fonts of information, as a flood of memoirs demonstrated. Our approach was to survey refugees in a more systematic fashion, in effect polling them on everything from their views of the regime and interactions with the security apparatus to household finances and aspirations beyond North Korea. We show that in the aftermath of the famine, households engaged in entrepreneurial activity, moved around the country, and even engaged in trade with China. Although the future of North Korea does not look bright at the moment, much more is going on below the surface than you might think including a thriving market economy. 

The Graves Are Walking

By John Kelly,

Book cover of The Graves Are Walking: The Great Famine and the Saga of the Irish People

There’s a minor thread in my novel about the Irish Potato Famine, and this book was a major resource. It was sobering to learn that there was enough food to feed the Irish peasantry, but it was not distributed according to need. (Much of it was exported.) Worse still, it was a cultural moment in which the wealthy found ways to absolve themselves of the poverty of their neighbors. But I was most shocked to learn about the scientific implications. Essentially, the potato variety that failed was a monoculture. And the solution to the blight involved returning to the Andes, with its vast genetic diversity, and finding a resistant strain. 

Who am I?

I’m a novelist and a teacher of writing. My books are fueled by curiosity above all else. I have no expertise in science, so I stand in wonder at complicated systems that remain mostly hidden to me. My interest in food is similarly recreational. I’m married to a great chef and cookbook author, so I’ve learned a lot by osmosis. But when I think back on the process of writing One Potato, I have to give a lot of credit to my students. They seem to be part of a generation that’s genuinely passionate about eating in healthy, equitable, and sustainable ways. Much of my book was sparked by conversations in the classroom.

I wrote...

One Potato

By Tyler Mcmahon,

Book cover of One Potato

What is my book about?

A satire set within the biotech industry, One Potato features a bumbling but well-intentioned food scientist forced to walk a crooked line between nature and technology. Eddie Morales is quite happy as a lowly R&D man at a Boise-based biotech firm called Tuberware. His aspirations don’t reach far beyond processed foods and a simple life in Idaho. It comes as a shock when the company’s head calls Eddie into the office to discuss a situation in Puerto Malogrado—a tiny but tumultuous country in South America—where lax regulations allow Tuberware to market experimental crops. Eddie—not an expert on GMOs or PR—is dispatched to the Andes to help avert a media circus.  

All Quiet on the Home Front

By Richard Van Emden, Steve Humphries,

Book cover of All Quiet on the Home Front: An Oral History of Life in Britain During the First World War

Wonderfully readable, and full of first-hand accounts via interview and letter, this book tells you what it was really like for the people of Britain during WW1 – the rationing, the blackout, the Blitz, the shortages; how the women took over the men’s jobs, from driving railway engines to ploughing the fields; the emotional impact of dealing with the flood of wounded and the deaths; and the hardship and increasing mental problems as the war seemed never to be going to end.

Who am I?

Cynthia Harrod-Eagles is the author of the internationally acclaimed Morland Dynasty books. Five volumes of this comprehensive historical series focus on WW1, covering the military campaigns and the politics behind them. With the approach of the WW1 centennials, she was asked to write about the period again, this time from the point of view of the people who stayed at home. The result was the six-volume series, War At Home, which views the war from a more personal perspective, through the eyes of the fictional Hunter family, their servants, and friends.

I wrote...

Goodbye, Piccadilly: War at Home, 1914

By Cynthia Harrod-Eagles,

Book cover of Goodbye, Piccadilly: War at Home, 1914

What is my book about?

In 1914, Britain faces a new kind of war. For Edward and Beatrice Hunter, their children, servants, and neighbours, life will never be the same again. For David, the eldest, war means a chance to do something noble; but enlisting will break his mother's heart. His sister Diana, nineteen and beautiful, longs for marriage. She has her heart set on Charles Wroughton, son of Earl Wroughton, but Charles will never be allowed to marry a banker's daughter. Below the stairs, Cook and Ada, the head housemaid, grow more terrified of the German invasion with every newspaper atrocity story. Ethel, under housemaid, can't help herself when it comes to men and now soldiers add to the temptation; yet there's more to this flighty girl than meets the eye.

The Hungry Steppe

By Sarah Cameron,

Book cover of The Hungry Steppe: Famine, Violence, and the Making of Soviet Kazakhstan

The Kazakhs suffered a devastating famine 1928–1932 that was caused by Stalin’s collectivization campaign. Because the Kazakhs were nomadic herders, the first step was to “modernize” them by forcing them to become settled farmers. Cameron uses Russian- and Kazakh-language sources to show how Soviet communism’s obsession with creating modern nations led to near-genocide.

Who am I?

I am a historian of Russia and Eurasia at Hamilton College. I teach courses on Russian history, Central Asia, and the modern Middle East. We usually think of these as separate regions of the world, but in fact they are all connected across the vast Eurasian continent. Russians, Turks, Iranians, Mongols and more have been intertwined with each other throughout their histories. My formal research specialty is Soviet Central Asia. I have written on Stalin’s attempt to destroy Islam, on education and creating a historical narrative for Uzbekistan, and on cotton and manual labor under Khrushchev.

Many people are fascinated by the ancient Silk Road, but don’t know much about how we got from there to the “Stans” that emerged out of the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. These books showcase the most recent scholarship on how Central Asia was gradually taken over by the Russian and Chinese empires, and how the republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan were created, as well as Xinjiang Province in the People’s Republic of China.

I wrote...

Russia and Central Asia: Coexistence, Conquest, Convergence

By Shoshana Keller,

Book cover of Russia and Central Asia: Coexistence, Conquest, Convergence

What is my book about?

Russia and Central Asia provides an overview of the relationship between two dynamic regions, highlighting the ways in which Russia and Central Asia have influenced and been influenced by Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. This readable synthesis, covering early coexistence in the seventeenth century to the present day, seeks to encourage new ways of thinking about how the modern world developed.

Shoshana Keller focuses on the five major "Stans": Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan. Cultural and social history are interwoven with the military narrative to provide a sense of the people, their religion, and their practices – all of which were severely tested under Stalin.

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