Monday, January 2, 2012

Book Review: Flunking Sainthood by Jana Riess

Title: Flunking Sainthood: A Year of Breaking the Sabbath, Forgetting to Pray, and Still Loving My Neighbor
Author: Jana Riess
Enjoyment Rating: 7/10
Source: Ordered new from Amazon
Referral: I've heard about this all over the Bloggernacle
Books I've read this year: 158

I've read a lot of books over the last few years where an author devotes a year to a goal, breaks it down into twelve month-long mini-goals, and then writes a memoir about he or she did or did not reach those goals, on both a micro and a macro level. Gretchen Rubin did this in The Happiness Project, and AJ Jacobs has done it multiple times, most notably in his book The Year of Living Biblically, which resembles Flunking Sainthood in many respects. In fact, I couldn't help but compare the two books almost constantly as I read Flunking Sainthood.

While AJ Jacobs sets out to accomplish his goal of growing his beard or not having sex or whatever he had to do for a month, I always felt as a reader that Jacobs was looking for the weird and quirky things that happened to him so he could tell funny stories about it. He wanted to entertain us. Riess is also funny, but it's a wry sort of funniness. The humor comes out of her analysis of the situation, not out of the weirdness of the situation itself. Most of all, Riess is earnest-- almost painfully so at times. I found the title of the book, Flunking Sainthood, to be a little bit disingenuous. Riess sets the bar too high for herself at times. If she only prays the matins 40% of the time, she considers that a failure. At one point, while she's trying to keep the orthodox Jewish sabbath, she comments that she's broken it twice in the first three minutes of her morning and is therefore a failure. By the end of the year, Riess has established lasting spiritual practices and had some important epiphanies, but she chooses to see the experience as a failure because she hasn't accomplished all that she hoped to. Jacobs, on the other hand, would have called the experience an unqualified success if he'd been the one writing about it.

Flunking Sainthood is also a book that I think would have benefited from an introduction. Just a few basic things like-- I'm Jana, I live in Cincinnati with my husband and daughter, and we decided to embark on this experiment for _____ reason. Instead, I had to intuit some of that information in the first few chapters and I felt a little bit unmoored as I worked to figure everything out.

As a Mormon reader, possibly the most interesting and curious part of the book is that Riess doesn't own up to her own Mormonism. I can understand why she would do this-- the book has a larger reach if she doesn't pigeonhole herself as a Mormon, and some readers might feel that she has more credibility if she doesn't self-identify. Furthermore, as a convert with degrees from Princeton Theological Seminary and a PhD from Columbia, she might not be the person you'd pick out of a lineup and say "She's the Mormon." But it was interesting to read a book written by a Mormon that doesn't allude to that fact, especially since she talks about attending church and fasting with her congregation and all that stuff, and we as Mormons tend to be publicly proclaiming our Mormonness from billboards lately. I kept wondering how her experiments were colored by her specific faith, but the book was written to address faith more generally.

Overall, Flunking Sainthood was an interesting read, and a thoughtful approach to a format I generally don't like in books (the one goal per month memoir). At times, I found myself wishing that her chapters were longer, and I definitely wanted her to go give herself more credit for the things she did accomplish, but the end result is a thoughtful and thought-provoking read that has made me want to test out certain facets of spirituality in my own life.

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