The BookBrowse Review

Published January 22, 2020

ISSN: 1930-0018

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The Wrong Heaven
The Wrong Heaven
by Amy Bonnafons

Paperback (14 Jan 2020), 256 pages.
Publisher: Back Bay Books
ISBN-13: 9780316516181

For fans of George Saunders and Karen Russell, an "amazing, wildly inventive" collection of stories that straddles the line between the real and the fantastical.

In The Wrong Heaven, anything is possible: bodies can transform, inanimate objects come to life, angels appear and disappear.

Bonnaffons draws us into a delightfully strange universe, in which her conflicted characters seek to solve their sexual and spiritual dilemmas in all the wrong places. The title story's heroine reckons with grief while arguing with loquacious Jesus and Mary lawn ornaments that come to life when she plugs them in. In "Horse," we enter a world in which women transform themselves into animals through a series of medical injections. In "Alternate," a young woman convinces herself that all she needs to revive a stagnant relationship is the perfect poster of the Dalai Lama.

While some of the worlds to which Bonnaffons transports us are more recognizable than others, all of them uncover the mysteries beneath the mundane surfaces of our lives. Enormously funny, boldly inventive, and as provocative as they are deeply affecting, these stories lay bare the heart of our deepest longings.

The Wrong Heaven

Evidence in Favor of Jesus Being on My Side:

  1. Word of God, as appears in Bible (obv.)
  2. Tomatoes
  3. Pipe organs
  4. Meditative feeling brought on by needlepoint
  5. Rodgers & Hammerstein
  6. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis (existence)
  7. flowers/constant renewal of life cycle
  8. Billie Holiday (singer)
  9. Billie Holiday (dog)
  10. Theory that everything exists for purpose, pain and trouble sent as trials, all to bring us closer to God, etc.
  11. Way students say "Oh!" when pet caterpillars turn into butterflies

Evidence Against:

  1. Genocide/wanton destruction
  2. Insomnia
  3. Evolution
  4. Animal cruelty
  5. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis (world's treatment of)
  6. Dimpled thighs
  7. General lack of love in life
  8. death of Billie Holiday (singer)
  9. Early death of Billie Holiday (dog)
  10. Dream in which I slap Jesus's face
  11. Dream in which Jesus slaps my face
  12. Dreams in which Jesus and I sit mutely on folding chairs in a blank room, as in group therapy, but with no therapist, wanting to slap each other's face but unable to rouse ourselves to action
  13. Looks on students' faces when caterpillars die unexpectedly
  14. Looks on students' faces when caterpillars die expectedly (different and somehow worse)

Evidence Against seemed to grow longer every day. Plus, a growing number of items appeared on both lists.

So on my lunch break, I went and bought some new lawn ornaments. Neither Home Depot nor Safeway had the kind I wanted; the Safeway guy referred me to a place called Tony's Catholic Bonanza, on the East Side. I arrived back at school out of breath, four minutes late, carrying an Electric Jesus and a Flashing Virgin.

My class was waiting for me at their little desks with folded hands, like anxious orphans. They're the "remedial" class (as opposed to "regular" or "gifted"), and they know it; they're always afraid of being one step behind, of discovering that something that seems like a joke will turn out not to be.

"Who's ready for marine-life dioramas?" I sang. I placed the lawn ornaments on my desk and hung my purse on the back of my chair. Then I plugged in Jesus and Mary, because I thought this would cheer them. But two of the children immediately started to cry.

I unplugged the statues, and made a mental note to add this to Evidence Against.

I stayed late to grade spelling tests, but I couldn't focus. Jesus and Mary kept staring at me.

It's not that they were lifelike—they were made of shoddy translucent plastic, their features colored in with already-flaking paint. But there was something about them. Mary had a calm, serene expression on her paper-white face, her large imploring eyes floating above her swimming-pool-blue robes, her palms folded demurely across her middle. Jesus, on the other hand, had a sort of intense, burning stare. He held His white-robed arms out to the side in a way that could have been an embrace or a pantomime of crucifixion—I wasn't sure. I'd never thought about how similar the two looked.

I leaned over and plugged them in. The electric glow shot through their translucent skin, and they lit up like fireflies against the dusky room.

"You are loved," said Mary.

"Probably," said Jesus.

"We know you have questions," said Mary. "And we have answers."

"But we're not just going to give them away for free," said Jesus. He held out His palms. "Look at the marks where the nails went in."

I grimaced.

"Come on," said Mary. She shot Jesus a reproachful glance. "We've talked about this." Then she smiled sweetly. "So," she said. "How can we help you today, Cheryl?"

Full Excerpt

Excerpted from The Wrong Heaven by Amy Bonnafons. Copyright © 2018 by Amy Bonnafons. Excerpted by permission of Little Brown & Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Enormously funny and boldly inventive, these stories lay bare the heart of our deepest longings.

Print Article Publisher's View   

The narrators of the short story collection The Wrong Heaven are plagued by critical talking lawn ornaments, earworm song lyrics (see Beyond the Book), dolls that have come to life, and beautiful angels of death, but amid these layers of weirdness there is a pulsing dissatisfaction that is more existential in nature. Relationships end, families dissolve, sex is unsatisfying, death inevitable. One narrator, in particular, puts this crisis plainly when she declares herself tired of the present state of her affairs: "What I wanted was something not offered by human existence at all: the wild, unfettered life of the body."

The narrator of "Horse," the collection's third, and, perhaps, most arresting story, speaks these words. She has decided to enroll in an experimental medical program using horse DNA to turn human women into horses. Once the procedure is complete, the transformed horse-women are transported to an island off the coast of Florida where they live out their days running wild and free on a ranch. The narrator's desire to become a wild horse is a metaphor for the desire to be free of the constrictions of contemporary urban life, particularly those endured by women. "My boredom had never really been boredom," the narrator realizes, "but rather a deep, deep anger." She explains responding to catcalling and inappropriate touching on the subway by "snarling, flashing my eyes, baring my teeth." What woman hasn't imagined responding to sexualized microaggressions with animal rage? The story is deep and psychologically meaningful, but it is also an opportunity for Bonnaffons to display her humor. Interspersed with the narrator's story are passages ostensibly from a promotional brochure for the horse transformation program containing Q&As like "Q: What are the potential side effects? A: Sterility, seizures, centaurism."

In another exceptional story, "A Room to Live In," a woman with intimacy issues finds that two of her miniature figurine creations, a boy and girl doll, have become sentient, and she feels she must hide them from her husband. Bonnaffons' excellent idiosyncratic descriptive work shines here (though some of it borders on non-sequitur), as the narrator admires how her husband "believes in the dream life of penguins, in the quiet longings of plants, in the muscles and heartbeats of prehistoric fish. He eats oranges slowly, out of respect."

"Alternate," one of the only stories that does not involve magical or supernatural elements at all, is another standout. This story begins with the narrator deciding the only way to win her girlfriend back is by procuring a giant photograph of the Dalai Lama (of whom the girlfriend is a devoted fan) and ends with a phone call to then-president Barack Obama, whom she implores to help her make sense of her life. In the capable narrative hands of the author, this plot has a surprisingly cogent logic.

The Wrong Heaven may be filled with uncanny proxies, doppelgangers, cursed objects, and unsolved mysteries, but its central longing is very human. Bonnaffons occasionally strips away the bizarre facade for a stunning moment of genuine beauty and despair. One of these moments occurs at the end of "Horse," when the narrator describes a certain kind of touch that is "like the universe catching its breath." In another story, the loneliness of a widow is captured with heartrending and poetic precision, "...the lonely length of a life, the way new moments kept arriving like empty boxes on her doorstep. Each day, a fresh nothing."

There are moments when the collection seems to be merely quirky for quirkiness' sake, and some readers may find these eccentricities grating. (The titular story featuring the talking lawn ornaments, for example, is aimless, a mere device for delivering something strange.) When all systems are firing, however, the magical elements in The Wrong Heaven are very effective tonally, providing a touch of sinister menace or even silliness to stories that read like fairy tales for world-weary adults.

Reviewed by Lisa Butts

New York Times
With its talking statues, miniature carvings that spring to life, angels and human-to-animal metamorphosis, much of Bonnaffons’s collection reads like children’s stories for adults...Bonnaffons riffs on a few of Life’s Big Questions: identity, consciousness, procreation, freedom and wildness. Her writing is bright and lively, though sometimes she explains too much.

In her first collection, Bonnaffons dazzles and cuts with 10 hilarious and cathartic short stories...Bonnaffons' first collection presents a powerful and fresh new voice.

Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. This is an outstanding, exciting debut.

Library Journal
Starred Review. At once goofy, poignant, and edged with the fantastic, the stories in Bonnaffons's debut collection initially surprise, then turn into one long, delicious rush.

Author Blurb Aimee Bender, New York Times bestselling author of The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake
Incredibly fun to read but also full of these frank and wise observations that stuck in my head long after.

Author Blurb Kevin Wilson, author of The Family Fang and Perfect Little World
In her amazing, wildly inventive collection, Amy Bonnaffons writes about transformation, each story further complicating the world as we know it. With a style that blends humor and sincerity in such strange, perfect ratios, Bonnaffons reveals the mysteries inside of us, just waiting to make themselves known. The Wrong Heaven, so wondrous, will alter you in all the necessary ways.

Author Blurb Darin Strauss, National Book Critics Circle Award-winning author of Chang and Eng and Half a Life
Amy Bonnaffons is the real deal. She's a woman of impossible juxtapositions. Funny and wise, thrilling and disciplined, strange and masterful. Do yourself a favor and read this: you'll be surprised where you find yourself, but you'll never feel lost.

Author Blurb Boris Fishman, author of Don't Let Me Baby Do Rodeo
God, these stories. I wanted to stop people on the street. I know contemporary writers who can lacerate, and I know others who are funny, and I even know some who can pull off pathos. But I don't know any who can do all three at once - with mastery, mischief, and meaning - like Amy Bonnaffons.

Author Blurb Kayla Rae Whitaker, author of The Animators
Like the best storytelling, The Wrong Heaven feels like a gift - warm, intimate, and very, very funny. The characters are messy and vibrant and gloriously flawed, and their transformations are absolutely enthralling. This energizing collection will stay with me - happily so - for a long time. Read it.

Author Blurb Leni Zumas, author of Red Clocks
These stories are eerie, enthralling, and hilarious. Women grow hooves, carve dolls who talk, have sex (or almost) with angels. Bonnaffons is a masterful chronicler of female desire and its discontents.

Author Blurb Stephen O'Connor, author of Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemings
Amy Bonnaffons surprises her readers with the truth...There are many stories in this brilliantly inventive collection that I will never forget, and that I will read again and again over the course of my life.

Print Article Publisher's View  

Earworms: Why Do We Get Songs Stuck in Our Heads?

EarwormIn one of The Wrong Heaven's most memorable stories, the narrator feels she is gradually losing her mind when she cannot get the song "Hand in My Pocket" by Alanis Morissette out of her head. This phenomenon is commonly referred to as an "earworm." The word has a multi-strand history: Apparently, in ancient times, dried and ground earwigs were used to treat ear disease, and became known as auricula, which is the Latin name for the outer ear. This practice became misunderstood to mean that earwigs - or earworms as they were also called - crawled into people's ears. Later the definition of earworm shifted to refer to a moth larvae that burrowed into corn. At the same time, the German word for the insect earwig is ohrwurm - ohr ("ear") +‎ wurm ("worm") which is likely the inspiration for the modern English usage of the word to describe a song stuck in one's head--the earliest known reference in this context is in author Desmond Bagley's 1978 novel Flyaway.

Experts have not come to a precise consensus on the cause of earworms, but there are some elements of the phenomenon on which most agree. One scientist has noted that the songs most likely to get stuck in one's head tend to be "simple, repetitive, and have some mild incongruity." Another echoed that statement, explaining that songs that become earworms have a certain balance of predictability and a few novel elements. In a survey conducted by the 10th International Conference on Music Perception and Cognition, 91% of responders reported being affected by an earworm about once a week. At the same conference two years later, researchers determined that the most likely songs to become earworms tend to be those with long notes and short intervals of pitch. A 2016 survey asked participants to name the songs most likely to get stuck in their heads, and the responses included Lady Gaga hits like "Bad Romance" and "Poker Face," along with classic rock standards like Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'" and Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody."

The earworm phenomenon seems to cause or relate to activity in several regions of the brain, including the Heschl's gyri, a region associated with "auditory perception and musical memory" and the right inferior frontal gyrus, which is responsible for "pitch memory." Studies suggest that those with obsessive-compulsive disorder may be more likely than others to experience earworms, possibly due to their minds being particularly attuned to repetition. Research also demonstrates that earworms are "more likely to bite when the victim is tired, stressed, or idle."

Scientists believe that listening to a song in its entirety can help to dislodge the offending earworm fragment. According to the Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, gum-chewing can decrease the likelihood of being infected with earworms in the first place. A more informal survey by writers at Psychology Today found that readers had success ridding themselves of earworms by engaging in verbally or otherwise mentally challenging tasks, like reciting a poem or solving a crossword puzzle.

Bonnaffons is certainly not the first writer to explore the concept of earworms. Mark Twain wrote about a catchy tune that got stuck in his head in an 1876 story called "A Literary Nightmare," and they also appear in stories by Arthur Clarke, E.B. White, and Fritz Leiber.

Filed under Medical, Science and Tech

By Lisa Butts

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