The best books Quartz staffers read in 2017

Man, what’s in there?
Man, what’s in there?
Image: AP Photo/Mark Lennihan
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In an obsession-driven newsroom, you can expect more than a few devoted readers. This year, Quartz reporters and editors read about everything from plants (ancient ones as well as office greenery) to the history of white people and what it’s like to be an indentured servant to fairies. If you’re looking to get some more reading done in 2018, start with a few suggestions from our staff:


The Power, by Naomi Alderman (2017)

I finished this book standing on a subway platform, which I was only standing on because this book also made me miss my stop. Naomi Alderman’s debut novel rests on a simple enough premise: Teenage girls develop the ability to shoot electricity with their hands. Babies are being born with this power; older women can have it ignited in them. Then things get intense. Almost overnight, the gender dynamics of the entire world shift, and women find themselves with the ability and inclination to right centuries of wrongs perpetrated on them by men. Except when does justice veer into vengeance, and vengeance into abuse? Are our gender dynamics truly based on gender, or is it the underlying power that corrupts us? Sometimes a novel comes along at the right moment in history, and explores all the questions you didn’t even know you were afraid to ask. — Kira Bindrim, managing editor

The Three-Body Problem, by Cixin Liu, translated by Ken Liu (2014)

When 2017 began, I was a science editor with no sci-fi bona fides. I loved Blade Runner, but more for its Raymond Chandler-isms than its Philip K. Dick-isms, and unless you included Haruki Murakami or Kurt Vonnegut, you could probably count the number of sci-fi books I’d read on two hands. The epic that filled the three books of The Three-Body Problem series (officially called the Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy) was so inventive, touching, intelligent, and relevant—as I read, and afterwards, I kept seeing ideas espoused in the books in real life—that when I finished I became a believer in genre fiction. I spent the second half of 2017 getting educated, reading sci-fi classics, then moving into crime, noir, and neo-noir. The Three-Body Problem is a page-turner before it is anything else, but beyond that, it made me think, not just about the grand questions of the future of humanity, but about how I engaged with the cultural production of the humans that walk the Earth today. — Elijah Wolfson, science editor

The End of Days, by Jenny Erpenbeck, translated by Susan Bernofsky (2014)

The book that lifted me up to soaring heights this year, as it also crushed me, the one that stamped me out over and over beneath its heel, is Jenny Erpenbeck’s The End of Days. The novel was originally written in German and came out in English in 2014. The book contains five imagined outcomes for the same family living in early 20th century Austria: In the first, a one-year-old daughter dies by the time the narrative starts. Each chapter with a chapter switches between family members’ points of view as they deal with the fall-out differently. In the next imagined scenario, the girl doesn’t die as a child; she lives longer, to her teens, before she meets her end. Your heart breaks anew with each page, and then even more fully at the end of each chapter, as the family tries to cobble together a life with, without each other. Everyone should read this exquisite book. — Thu-Huong Ha, books reporter

Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders (2017)

A small boy has died, and his grieving father misses him terribly. The father visits the mausoleum alone to hold his lost child, unaware that a violent battle for the boy’s soul is raging around him. That is the plot of George Saunders’s novel Lincoln in the Bardo, but to boil this gorgeous book to a sentence or two is like summing up The Odyssey with, “Lost man goes home, eventually.” It’s a book about grief, love, Abraham Lincoln, and the things death leaves behind. — Corinne Purtill, Quartz at Work reporter

Get in Trouble: Stories, by Kelly Link (2015)

When I pulled Get in Trouble off the library shelf, I had no idea what I was getting into. I was literally judging a book by its cover. So reading the first short story in her wildly imaginative collection—which at first seems to be about the everyday problems of a rural, working-class teenager, until you realize that the main character is in fact AN INDENTURED SERVANT FOR FAIRIES—was about as surprising as getting mugged, if you could get mugged in a really amazing way. Even when I’m reading books I like, I often feel a little bit bored because I think I know what’s going to happen next. In Link’s darkly funny, utterly enthralling world of spaceship ghost stories, life-size boyfriend dolls, and modern Egyptian pyramids, nothing is predictable. Get in some trouble with Link this year—you won’t regret it. — Sarah Todd, deputy ideas editor

I Am, by Jonathan Safran Foer (2016)

I loved Jonathan Safran Foer’s I Am. I imagine a lot of it could be read as self-indulgent but I found the way he ties together the dissolution of his marriage, his path toward self-actualization, and his commitment to Judaism really compelling. He writes about loss in a way that I could really relate to. His children are precocious to the point of being unbelievable, but they’re really funny, charming characters. — Lauren Brown, special projects editor

The Sympathizer, by Viet Thanh Nguyen (2015)

The Sympathizer is a story about war, colonialism, imperialism, the pain of being part of two worlds, but ultimately rejected by both, revolution and its consequences, liberation, American exceptionalism, love, hope, and death. It’s a story I can’t recommend enough. Though slow at times and a struggle to get through, The Sympathizer is a novel that will stay with me. More than anything, I love how much I was able to relate to Viet Thanh Nguyen’s characters and their struggle to assimilate in a foreign land. Though the conflicts and wars that have dispersed people over the last century differ dramatically, the refugees’ fight to build a new home, string together a new community, and carve out a new identity for themselves is a compelling story that has touched so many of us. And one that continues to brings us together. — Aamna Mohdin, reporter

Raven Stratagem (book 2 in the Machineries of Empire series), by Yoon Ha Lee (2017)

While there were a number of series I was excited to continue in 2017, all of which lived up to, if not exceeded expectations, none so much as the Machineries of Empire series by Yoon Ha Lee. Where Ninefox Gambit, the first book in the series, completely reinvented my notions of what the “world” in world-building could be, Raven Stratagem upped the ante by making said world that much more real. Calendrical mathematics, military tactics, and high stakes diplomacy sit comfortably alongside culinary etiquette, tabletop games, and intercultural fashion sense. All the while taking the reader deeper into the thrilling adventure of the most notorious war criminal you’ll ever root for. — David Dodson, senior creative technologist

Norwegian Wood, by Haruki Murakami, translated by Jay Rubin (2000)

Norwegian Wood is the coming-of-age story of a 20-year-old Japanese student named Toru Watanabe. He finds himself at the center of a love triangle with two women, Naoko and Midori. Naoko is the ex-girlfriend of Watanabe’s deceased best friend and is now committed to a mental asylum. Midori is a feisty and sexually liberated classmate, who’s processing the loss of both of her parents. Murakami’s prose is melancholic, beautiful, witty, and dark, leaving you transfixed and mildly uncomfortable at each turn. As soon as I finished, I immediately started rereading it. — Khe Hy, Quartz at Work contributing editor

Matterhorn, by Karl Marlantes (2010)

Inspired by Ken Burns’s The Vietnam War documentary series for PBS this year, I picked up what several friends told me was one of the best novels they’ve ever read, period. It captures the near pointless futility of a few weeks of Marine company Bravo’s combat operations in the jungle, and the transformation of a green, young Ivy League reserve lieutenant into a revered leader—and jaded warrior. Through this lens, Matterhorn shows clearly the entire folly of the American campaign in southeast Asia, even as brave young servicemen and women trusted that their government and their commanding officers would never unnecessarily send them into harm’s way. Thanks to the release of the Pentagon Papers, we know that trust was misplaced. Thanks to this book, we have an intimate portrait of how that folly destroyed a generation of Americans, their faith in government and institutions, and needlessly devastated the people of Vietnam. — Paul Smalera, ideas editor

Manto: Selected Short Stories, by Saadat Hasan Manto, translated by Aatish Taseer (2012)

August 15 of this year marked the 70th anniversary of the India-Pakistan partition. It was a cataclysmic event in the history of South Asia, and as I kept reading about it over the summer, I bumped into the name of one writer who is said to have captured it better than anyone else. Saadat Hasan Manto is a revered short story writer in India and Pakistan, though his name isn’t well-known in the US. He wrote in Urdu, and translations of his work can be tough to track down. I ordered a copy of Manto: Selected Short Stories (translated wonderfully by Aatish Taseer), and it grabbed me right away. Manto is widely lauded for his stories about the partition, which are concise, ingenious tales that reveal the mix of madness and tragedy in the event. But the stories I loved most were those about life in Bombay. He had an amazing talent for writing complex, intriguing characters and for unwinding a plot in a way that keeps you engaged all the way up until it floors you at the end. — Marc Bain, fashion reporter

Mr. Fox, by Helen Oyeyemi (2011)

A sharp and unsettling speculative literary novel, Mr. Fox explores the violence men perpetrate against women in the real world as well as in art. It follows the relationship between a celebrated writer, Mr. Fox, and his young female muse, Mary. Mary’s existence flirts with the boundary between reality and imagination; though she’s killed off in a number of Mr. Fox’s stories, she keeps reappearing at his doorstep. Oyeyemi reinvents the tired figure of the mute female muse throughout her book, lifting her off the pedestal and breathing real life into her lungs. Oyeyemi’s muses are still subject to the tyranny of men, but they’re also authors of their own stories, picking up the pen to rewrite the fairy tales, literary classics, and family histories that have trapped them for centuries. Mr. Fox jumps back and forth between points of view, time periods, and reality and fantasy, and it often feels as though Oyeyemi is attempting to gaslight the reader the same way her characters gaslight one another. You may finish Mr. Fox with a headache, but it’s a book that sticks with you, continuing to inspire important questions about art and storytelling months after you shut its cover. — Jean-Luc Bouchard, deputy growth editor for new initiatives


Lab Girl, by Hope Jahren (2016)

This year, fellow Quartz reporter Corinne Purtill gifted me Lab Girl, a memoir by Hope Jahren, a geochemist and geobiologist at the University of Oslo focusing on ancient plants. Jahren’s work is a collection of stories about her path to becoming a renowned scientist in her field. I had never fully appreciated plants before reading Jahren’s work—sure, they’re pretty and green and make it nice to be outside, but Jahren paints them in a whole new light. While reading, I started seeing all plants around me as complicated living creatures who thrive in ways science has only begun to understand. In addition to writing about her scientific work, Jahren tells stories of sexism, family, friendship, mental illness, and (lightly) love. She writes with a fervent, playful curiosity about her work and her life in a way that highlights the beauty and wonder of all the things we tend to overlook—like the value of tenacity, quiet leadership, simple acts of kindness, and of course, even the grasses beneath our feet. I cried while reading this book and felt even more inspired to find wonder in the world afterward. — Katherine Foley, health reporter

The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, by Bessel Van der Kolk (2014)

Written by a psychiatrist and trauma researcher, this book explores how and why the ways we treat trauma are actually very misguided, and how the feeling of “safety” very often comes from one’s body, rather than one’s mind. Rare is the book that helps you better understand yourself, your family history, and society at large all at once. Covering the neuroscience of trauma, why the status quo around treatment is wrong, and the new methodologies of treatment that are gaining traction (yoga, theater, the practice of embodiment, and self-ownership), this book will give you a heightened sense of compassion for yourself and for society at large. While it is quite long and dense—definitely not an easy read—it’s compelling and lucid enough to get through. I’ve since noticed that people who read this book turn into an evangelist for it, and I am now definitely one of them. — Rosie Spinks, travel and lifestyle reporter

A Moonless, Starless Sky: Ordinary Women and Men Fighting Extremism in Africa, by Alexis Okeowo (2017)

From Nigeria in the West to Somalia in the East and Mauritania in the North, this is a deeply reported book from New Yorker writer Alexis Okeowo. It documents the extraordinary lives of Africans—both Christians and Muslims—who are fighting the wave of extremism that has come to define and disrupt their lives in recent years. — Abdi Latif Dahir, Quartz Africa reporter

German Business Plants, by Frederik Busch (2018)

German Business Plants is a tragicomedy about the interior life of office plants. Hamburg-based photographer Frederik Busch spent eight years peering between dusty filing cabinets to create expressive portraits of sad succulents, lonely cacti, and forgotten potted vines. The book’s genius is in the captions: “Ute suffers from daydreaming,” describing a parched dragon plant, or “Ingrid isn’t giving up,” for a droopy aloe vera on a window sill. — Anne Quito, design and architecture reporter

The Songs of Trees: Stories from Nature’s Great Connectors, by George David Haskell (2017)

This stylishly written literary nonfiction book about nature’s great communicators is an eye-opener. You don’t have to love trees to marvel at the lives Haskell describes, but you probably will see greenery (and fungus) in a whole new light by the time you’re done, and that’s what Haskell wants. He travels around the world, introducing readers to different types of trees and the creatures and people who live with them, showing the intricate cross-species relationships that arise from this proximity. He believes that if we could only understand that we really, really need trees (speaking scientifically), and that they’re beings with family lives, languages, and traditions, we’d all transform, quite naturally, into tree huggers. — Ephrat Livni, reporter

Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius, by Ray Monk (1990)

Wittgenstein often gets called the greatest philosopher of the 20th century. Yet for all of his influence on the fields of philosophy, linguistics, mathematics, and others, Wittgenstein frequently contradicted himself, and was wont to reject his previous work in favor of some new conceptualization. In this 1990 biography, Ray Monk argues that these contradictions are best understood within the context of Wittgenstein’s life, not as a philosophical project, but a spiritual one. It is this spiritual search for clarity that led him to radical conclusions other philosophers could not see. Monk’s treatment of Wittgenstein’s rich and complicated life—his homosexuality, his overwhelming desire to fight on the front lines, his many failed friendships—puts flesh on the bones of a philosophical system known for its skeletal terseness. — Nikhil Sonnad, reporter

The History of White People, by Nell Irvin Painter (2010)

“Race is an idea, not a fact…” historian Nell Irvin Painter writes in her deft, ambitious, and highly digestible project to document the invention of whiteness. (If the timeliness of Painter’s book were genuinely in question, than allow the fact that Ta-Nehisi Coates quotes the line above in the first paragraph of his October repudiation of Donald Trump, “The First White President” to settle it.) This 2000-year history is concerned with how the West came to invent race—that is, whiteness—and Painter shines a new light on the role of familiar figures (Caesar, Ralph Waldo Emerson) in that invention; the ethnic politics that expanded whiteness when it was politically expedient to do so; and the “science” that helped maintain and create that ever-expanding twinning of whiteness with political and social supremacy. It is the most important book I’ve read in quite some time. — Thomas Page McBee, senior editor

Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power, by Jon Meacham (2012)

I picked this up to find out if a politician is really all that talented. Jefferson was. Meacham records the ups and downs of the founding of the country while letting us inside the mind of one of the world’s most artful practitioners of political power. Anyone who strives to manage others can learn from this book. — Janet Guyon, deputy news editor

Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud: The Rise and Reign of the Unruly Woman, by Anne Helen Petersen (2017)

Every year a new book by a smart woman comes out that shows me a new way to think about how women have historically fit into the world. Last year, it was Rebecca Traister’s All the Single Ladies, and this year, it’s Anne Helen Petersen’s Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud. I am certainly too loud, too brash, too much of many things, but I’ve also thought these things about many of the women Petersen describes. I have thought that Lena Dunham is too naked, that Madonna is too old. This book looks at how these narratives were created and why they have persisted, and provides a new template for thinking about the women who are simply “too much.” — Kristin Oakley, growth editor for new initiatives

Raven Rock: The Story of the U.S. Government’s Secret Plan to Save Itself—While the Rest of Us Die, by Garrett M. Graff (2017)

From the dawn of the nuclear age, a rotating cast of US agencies has been tasked with ensuring that the three branches of government have the equivalent of safe houses when the missiles are launched. By the 1950s, the dream that a significant portion of the American civilian population could be saved in a nuclear attack was abandoned, Garrett M. Graff reveals in this incredibly detailed account. That did not stop the spending of billions more on plans to shelter elected and appointed officials—almost always minus their families—in a network of elaborate bunkers where the work of Congress, the courts, and the White House could go on. The underground installations carved into mountainsides and below, in some instances, resort properties, would feature access to almost anything necessary to the task, save we the people. Graff is not the first to recount how president Dwight Eisenhower told his advisers that in the event of a nuclear war, “You might as well go out and shoot everyone you see and then shoot yourself.” But he may be alone in gathering such voluminous particulars about how the US took Eisenhower’s assessment under advisement—and then went along for decades with planning for the apocalypse anyway. — John Mancini, global news editor