The best books that lie to tell the truth

Elise Blackwell Author Of Hunger
By Elise Blackwell

Who am I?

Three of my five novels have largely tragic historical settings—the siege of Leningrad, the Great Flood of 1927, and Hurricane Katrina—and I’ve always been fascinated and awed by how people survive the things they do. The origin of “May you live in interesting times” is disputed, but undoubtedly it's more curse than blessing. I’m also just fascinated by the way writers bring real people and events to life in new ways. As the daughter of scientists, I’m often drawn to works of fiction that feature scientists, real or invented. 


I wrote...

Hunger

By Elise Blackwell,

Book cover of Hunger

What is my book about?

Scouring the world, a scientist has spent his life collecting rare seeds for his country’s premier botanical institute. Even at home with the wife he loves, he remembers the beautiful women and strange foods he has tasted from Afghanistan to Abyssinia. When German troops surround Leningrad in 1941, food supplies dwindle and residents eat bark, barter pianos for flour, and trade sex for food. In the darkest hours of the siege, the institute’s scientists make a pact to leave untouched the storehouse of seeds they believe is the country’s future. But such a promise becomes difficult to keep as the siege continues. Based on true events, Hunger is the story of a man wrestling with his own morality and learning what it means to survive.

The books I picked & why

Shepherd is reader supported. We may earn an affiliate commission when you buy through links on our website. This is how we fund this project for readers and authors (learn more).

Coming Through Slaughter

By Michael Ondaatje,

Book cover of Coming Through Slaughter

Why this book?

As a Louisiana native and music lover, I grew up knowing Buddy Bolden’s name. Yet I knew almost nothing of his life and was elated to find that one of my favorite writers had written about Bolden’s life in New Orleans. This slim, elegant novel taught me how creative a work of historical fiction can be—and how to tell a large story in compact form.

Coming Through Slaughter

By Michael Ondaatje,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Coming Through Slaughter as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Discover Michael Ondaatje's debut novel, 'a beautifully detailed story, perhaps the finest jazz novel ever written' Sunday Times

Based on the life of cornet player Buddy Bolden, one of the legendary jazz pioneers of turn-of-the-twentieth-century New Orleans, Coming Through Slaughter is an extraordinary recreation of a remarkable musical life and a tragic conclusion. Through a collage of memoirs, interviews, imaginary conversations and monologues, Ondaatje builds a picture of a man who would work by day at a barber shop and by night unleash his talent to wild audiences who had never experienced such playing. But Buddy was also playing the…


The Farming of Bones

By Edwidge Danticat,

Book cover of The Farming of Bones

Why this book?

This book is a beautiful and heartbreaking work that blends real and fictional characters to tell the story of a historical tragedy in a manner that respects its victims. (Danticat’s The Generalissimo is based on Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo.) The novel narrates the story of a young Haitian woman living in the Dominican Republic and who survives the 1937 Parsley Massacre. Though the story of survival it tells is very different from the one I tell in my own book, Farming of Bones also uses a first-person narration woven with memories to tell its tale.

The Farming of Bones

By Edwidge Danticat,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Farming of Bones as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

It is 1937, and Amabelle Desir is a young Haitian woman working as a maid for a wealthy family in the Dominican Republic, across the border from her homeland. The Republic, under the iron rule of the Generalissimo, treats the Haitians as second-class citizens, and although Amabelle feels a strong sense of loyalty to her employers, especially since her own parents drowned crossing the river from Haiti, racial tensions are heightened when Amabelle's boss accidentally kills a Haitian in a car accident. The accident is a catalyst for a systematic round-up of Haitians, ostensibly for repatriation but in fact a…


Measuring the World

By Daniel Kehlmann,

Book cover of Measuring the World

Why this book?

This book features a scientist traveling the world—but this one has a comic tone. It fictionalizes the true story of Alexander von Humboldt’s and Carl Freidrich Gauss’ competing efforts to measure the globe—one by exploring it and the other using mathematics from his home. One of the reasons I read, including fiction, is to learn. This book taught me a great deal about scientific passion in the post-Napoleonic world. It also inspired me with the liberties it took in characterizing two historical figures, with its ability to lie to tell the truth.

Measuring the World

By Daniel Kehlmann,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Measuring the World as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Measuring the World recreates the parallel but contrasting lives of two geniuses of the German Enlightenment - the naturalist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt and the mathematician and physicist Carl Friedrich Gauss. Towards the end of the 18th century, these two brilliant young Germans set out to measure the world.

Humboldt, a Prussian aristocrat schooled for greatness, negotiates savannah and jungle, climbs the highest mountain then known to man, counts head lice on the heads of the natives, and explores every hole in the ground.

Gauss, a man born in poverty who will be recognised as the greatest mathematician since…


Ship Fever: Stories

By Andrea Barrett,

Book cover of Ship Fever: Stories

Why this book?

I’m the daughter of two scientists, and this book was deeply important to me when I first read it. It helped me understand my parents’ passion for and pursuit of botanical knowledge. Many of the characters in this collection (a novella and stories) are fictional botanists, but historical figures appear in several stories. For instance, “The English Pupil” features an elderly Carl Linnaeus and explores themes of botany and regret.

Ship Fever: Stories

By Andrea Barrett,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Ship Fever as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The elegant short fictions gathered hereabout the love of science and the science of love are often set against the backdrop of the nineteenth century. Interweaving historical and fictional characters, they encompass both past and present as they negotiate the complex territory of ambition, failure, achievement, and shattered dreams. In "Ship Fever," the title novella, a young Canadian doctor finds himself at the center of one of history's most tragic epidemics. In "The English Pupil," Linnaeus, in old age, watches as the world he organized within his head slowly drifts beyond his reach. And in "The Littoral Zone," two marine…

Love in Infant Monkeys: Stories

By Lydia Millet,

Book cover of Love in Infant Monkeys: Stories

Why this book?

Each of the mostly very short stories in this collection features at least one animal and at least one real person—from Madonna to Thomas Edison and from David Hasselhoff’s dogwalker to Nicola Tesla. It’s funny, sad, and textured, uniting my interest in scientists with my love of animals. Often funny and often sad, each story is a gem of craft, sentence by sentence. As a writer, I admire the audacity of the project and the exuberant skill with which is carried out. This is not a book I could write, and I love it for showing me such a radically different approach to lying to tell the truth.

Love in Infant Monkeys: Stories

By Lydia Millet,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Love in Infant Monkeys as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in jazz musicians, celebrities, and scientists?

6,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about jazz musicians, celebrities, and scientists.

Jazz Musicians Explore 21 books about jazz musicians
Celebrities Explore 23 books about celebrities
Scientists Explore 32 books about scientists

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like In the Time of the Butterflies, But Beautiful, and Forces in Motion if you like this list.