Horrocks bookends her masterful second collection of stories with contrasting visions of what a new kind of life on earth could be. In the first, “The Sleep,” a few families start hibernating to get through the difficult winters, entrusting their property and well-being to their waking neighbors. Rather than divide the community, the plan, built on mutual respect, builds unity. In the title story, however, the six pioneers of NovaTerra—an experimental project reminiscent of Biosphere 2—struggle to stay alive as crops fail and animals die; eventually, they turn on each other. Between these two poles, Horrocks vividly evokes ordinary life in places ranging from the Midwest to Prague to a Cuzco tourist resort. Writing with empathy and prose studded with striking, dynamic images (behind a ramshackle farmhouse “old acreage spread out…like a taunt”), she takes us inside the mind of an elderly widow falling into dementia, follows a young gay woman hoping to find a model for her own life in her grandmother’s, and charts a middle-aged man’s flailing efforts to build a new life in a foreign city. Throughout, Horrocks excels in rich portraits of both individuals and the larger communities they’re part of—however unsure these characters may be of their roles.
Jensen’s powerful essays can be read both as a moving memoir of a strong and gifted Métis woman growing up in violence and poverty, and as a composite portrait of the nation whose history and values foster such difficult circumstances. The book opens with a stunning report from the Bakken fracking territory near Standing Rock; while extraction companies ravage the land, their workers menace the area’s Indigenous women, and Jensen traces these twin assaults to the country’s history of attempted genocide of Native peoples. She finds a similar trajectory in place after place she’s lived and visited, from her childhood with an abusive father in Audubon County, Iowa, to the “ordinary, everyday” workplace misogyny in Kingman, Arizona,—where Timothy McVeigh planned his attack—St. Paul, where the woman next door later murdered a cousin; and Pittsburgh, site of the 2018 Squirrel Hill mass shooting. Jensen further deepens this focus on origins with deft etymological research, and she manages to convey everything in steeled and impassioned prose, channeling her outrage and anger—as well as a deep humanity that reaches out to the perpetrators of violence as well as the victims—into sharply cadenced sentences that have the force—and grace—of litanies.
Sherman, an American who lived in Tokyo for several years, describes the city as “one vast timepiece,” but on the evidence of her captivating memoir, it’s more of a living diorama, exhibiting the various ways time has been kept—and told—throughout the metropolis’s long history. During the centuries Tokyo was Edo, its rulers marked time with the daily tolling of nine bells, and Sherman has organized her book around a search for these relics. As she visits the various temples, castles, and other sites—such as a notorious prison—where the bells were once struck, she builds a rich narrative of cultural history that encompasses Eastern and Western notions of power, wealth, art, and, in the moving sections about the 1945 firebombing, war. Her prose is spare and lyrical—a perfect setting for an exploration of mutability that ranges from the shoguns’ mythic origins to the apportioning of hours by the animals of the zodiac, from clocks meant to be “more than just a machine” to atomic lattice clocks “accurate to within a second of the birth of the universe.”