Thursday, October 20, 2011

One "Long" Record of Failure: A Review of Jana Riess's "Flunking Sainthood: A Year of Breaking the Sabbath, Forgetting to Pray, and Still Loving My Neighbor"

At least three or four times a week I stop whatever I’m doing and ridicule the memoir genre.  Often without provocation.  The family will be sitting down at the dinner table, eating broccoli soup, and I will interrupt my four-year-old daughter’s energetic rendition of Beyoncé's “If I Were a Boy” to tell everyone how self-absorbed I think memoirs are. [1] “Have you ever noticed,” I’ll say, “how a memoir pretty much makes out with the first person pronoun?”

To which my wife will usually say something like, “Have you ever noticed that you write two blogs?”

And I admit she has a point.  Even now, as I’m trying to write a book review, I’m using it to make out with the first person pronoun.  So I’m just as guilty as the average memoirist, except I don’t have to travel anywhere to use the first person pronoun, which is really my biggest beef with memoirists anyway.  I hate how they always have to go somewhere.[2]

But enough about me.[3]  Let’s get back to my review. 

Memoir is a tricky genre.  For me, it too often comes off as a contrived effort at saying something universal—something “deeply profound” and “moving”—all while quarantined within the tiny confines of a hall-of-mirrors.  I know this isn’t always the case, but it often seems that way in a post-Eat, Pray, Love world.

So, up until a few days ago, I was unsure how I was going to take Jana Riess’s Flunking Sainthood: A Year of Breaking theSabbath, Forgetting to Pray, and Still Loving My Neighbor (Paraclete Press, 2011).  On the one hand, I have a lot of respect for Riess’s scholarly work, which I first encountered while researching an essay on Mormonism and Twilight.[4] Also, Riess is from Cincinnati, my hometown, which doesn’t hurt her Low-Tech cred.[5]

(NOTE TO CINCINNATIANS: Skyline Chili reference on page 136)

But smart scholarship and the hometown advantage do not a winning memoir make. For me, a really good memoir needs to be a balance of readability, personality, and authenticity.  If it’s severely lacking in any of these areas, I make like the Joad family and move on.[6]

Flunking Sainthood, by the way, is a chronicle of Riess’s attempt at spending a year tackling obscure spiritual practices from a variety of religious traditions. Like other memoirs of this ilk, most notably A. J. Jacobs’s hilarious The Year of Living Biblically, Riess devotes each month to a specific practice, often to the dismay of her family and friends. None of these practices, of course, are as zany as any Jacobs attempts—Riess never tries stoning anyone in Eden Park, for example[7]—but they have their charm.  She fasts, avoids shopping, tries lectio divina and Centering Prayer, talks to Jesus while cooking, keeps an extreme Sabbath Day holy, etc.  Of course, as the book’s title suggests, she’s never very successful at any of these practices. I wouldn’t say she outright fails at everything. But the book’s called Flunking Sainthood for a reason: It’s one long record of failure.

Except, to be honest, it isn’t that long.  

At 179 pages, Flunking Sainthood is a breeze to read. Which is good news for people who have the attention span of a dog or who inhale books like helium. In each chapter, Riess introduces her spiritual practice-of-the-month and then chronicles her failure through droll anecdotes, moments of profundity, and the occasional foray into her past.  Best of all, she provides readers with snarky commentary on the various books she uses to guide her along the sainted way.  For example, here’s Riess’s take on Brother Lawrence, a seventeenth-century French Monk, and his book The Practice of the Presence of God:

I hate it that Brother Lawrence sometimes refers to himself in the third person. That may have been a post-Renaissance man’s best shot at appearing humble, but nowadays it comes across as anything but. I’m also bothered by the relentless cheer of Brother Lawrence’s opening pages. I mean, being European in the 1600s was not exactly a cocktail party: there were religious wars, beheadings, and smallpox outbreaks, all compounded by unfriendly realities like an absence of central heating and cable TV. Add to that some of the particular unpleasantness of monastic life: the 3 AM self-flagellations, the throwback medieval spoils system, the often unreasonable abbots who were wealthy second sons with special call to the brotherhood. I’ve watched every episode of Cadfael. I know how it was. (25-26)

It’s snarkiness like this, combined with its manageable length, that makes Flunking Sainthood an incredibly readable book.  At the same time, though, I can’t help but feel that Riess’s chapters start to end at the very point when they need to be going that extra mile.  I guess because Riess is so funny and sarcastic, I found that I kept wishing that she would keep it going for a few pages more. Also, I often felt that the insights she gained from her failures sometimes came up too abruptly in the book, before I was able to get a good sense of how her monthly spiritual practice went down.

In a perfect world, Flunking Sainthood would be one hundred pages longer. Not because the book seems freakishly stunted or incomplete, but because the personality of the memoirist seems to scream out for more space. Throughout the book, after all, Riess charms the readers with a persona that is at once ironic, world-weary, and wily.   Nothing, it seems, is safe from Riessian sarcasm, including her husband, Phil, whom she describes memorably as “a classic DIYer, the kind who would gladly perform his own vasectomy using a Time-Life home surgery manual if he could save a buck” (29).[8] With a description like that one, how could you not want more?

Yet, Riess isn’t always chasing the next punch-line. At times, she can be surprisingly (possible grudgingly) heartfelt about her relationship with God and the ways certain practices, like the Jesus Prayer, help enrich that relationship. She also writes tenderly about a Sabbath Day game of Dogopoly[9] with her daughter, Jerusha, which may or may not have constituted Sabbath breakage.[10] Such passages, I think, provide a nice counterpoint to the memoir’s near-constant humor.

Of course, I’m not without Mormo-centric criticism of the book. Mormon readers will note, for instance, that Flunking Sainthood is not about them.[11]  In fact, nowhere in the memoir does Riess let on that the church she keeps talking about, or her conservative “faith tradition,” is of the Mormon persuasion.  This is not to say that Mormon readers won’t see themselves between the lines in the book.  I mean, they’re pretty conspicuous even without a name (see 22, 138, 142, 150).  Take, for instance, Riess’s comments on her church’s prayer practices:

We don’t recite the Lord’s Prayer in our church services, and as far as I know most people don’t do this regularly in family prayer either, though I haven’t exactly conducted polls. I expect that many people in my church are suspicious of “rote” prayers, which smack of Catholicism an might lead to Pharisaic vain repetition. We’re certain that vain repletion will cause dogs and cats to start mating with each other, and that will bring about the end of the world. (142)

If that doesn’t describe the average Mormon’s stance on vain repetition, I don’t know what does. Still, Riess seems hesitant to Mormon up in a book that is obviously designed for a broader Christian audience.

So, is it the right choice for the book?

Probably, since Mormons generally aren’t allowed to write books about Mormonism if they want them to be successful and win over large non-Mormon audiences.  So I can’t know for sure, but I imagine that Flunking Sainthood skirts Riess’s Mormonness because a more direct route would only distract readers from the real substance of her memoir, which is her engagement with these more universal Christian practices. Still, I can’t help but feel that this absence of open affiliation adds a touch of inauthenticity to the narrative, as if Riess is holding something back.  But maybe I’m being too much of a Mormo-centric critic on this point.  Readers of any other faith tradition are not likely to perceive any of this.

I don’t know. I can see both sides of the issue and their individual merits. Mormonism can be a hard ticket to sell, even when it’s not top billing.  Plus, as Robert Jeffress has recently noted, Mormonism is a cult anyway and should have no place in a book like this one.

So, what I’m trying to say is that Flunking Sainthood isn’t about flunking Latter-day Sainthood—and that’s okay because Latter-day Saints can still (believe it or not) benefit from reading it and likening it unto themselves and their own personal spiritual practices.  Who knows? Maybe the memoir will inspire a few of them to try a little Centering Prayer or some non-vain vain repetition.

At any rate, I enjoyed Flunking Sainthood—even though it ended much too soon. Riess not only has written a memoir that is as fun as it is thought provoking, but she has also avoided the self-absorbed hall-of-mirrors pitfall that tends to plague the genre.[12] While I doubt I’ll ever tackle any of her spiritual experiments, I at least have a greater appreciation for them and those masochists (or failed masochists) who practice them (or try to practice them) on a daily (uh…monthly?) basis.    

Note: I received a complimentary review copy of Flunking Sainthood from the publisher.

[1] I should also confess here that I have been known to interrupt my own rendition of Beyoncé’s “If I Were a Boy" to either a) mock memoir or b) offer a shrewd analysis of Beyoncé’s song.

[2] This is the green-eyed monster speaking through me. I’m fine if people want to travel. I just want them to keep it to themselves until my bank account allows me to travel too. Then I’m all ears—unless they want to tell me about the time they hitchhiked through Europe. Or found solace on the peak of a mountain in Asia. Or ground their own coffee in Colombia.  

[3] Which is what memoirists always say when they want to appear humble to their readers. Or so I’ve heard.

[4] An expert on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Riess wrote a review of Twilight for BYU Studies that was, at the time of my research, the only thing written about Twilight and its Mormon connections that was worth its weight in plastic fangs.

[5] I should probably mention here that I’ve never met Riess even though we’re both Mormons in Cincinnati. Here’s the deal: as a city, Cincinnati is split East and West and it is an unwritten rule that East Siders and West Siders never interact except on special occasions, like when the Reds or Bengals are having a great season, which is the same as saying they never interact. But the Church in Cincinnati doesn’t adhere to the East/West dynamic; rather, it splits the city North and South, and North Stakers and South Stakers don’t tend to interact unless maybe when a General Authority is in town. Or, at least, it used to be that way back when Cincinnati only has two stakes. Now that there’s a Cincinnati East Stake, made up of old North Stakers and South Stakers, nothing makes sense any more. Except that North Stakers and South Stakers still don’t talk. Unless some progressive East Staker is willing to act as a kind of mediator.
     Incidentally, this is how my sister (a South Staker) and I (a North Staker) are now able to talk after years of silence: my parents (East Stakers) convey messages between us via a complex system of tin cans, strings, pulleys, and carrier pigeons that does not—amazingly—upset the delicate North/South balance.  
     Riess, by the way, is a South Staker, At least that’s what I gather from my East Stake friends. (Cue the emoticon!) J

[6] “The migrant people, scuttling for work, scrabbling to live, looked always for pleasure, dug for pleasure, manufactured pleasure, and they were hungry for amusement.” The Grapes of Wrath, 444.

[7] Which would be, in a word, awesome. As long as she used foam rocks and apologized later.

[8] By far my favorite line in the entire book.

[9] Monopoly…but with a dog theme.

[10] Is fake money kosher? Is “kosher” even the right word to use in this context?

[11] Let me know if you need to sit down or drink a glass of water.

[12] (cough) Eat (cough) Pray (cough) Love (cough) Julie (cough) & (cough) Julia (cough) …

2 comments:

  1. .

    I wonder if a book like this --- a Mormon trying on "traditional" Christianity --- might have actually had a bigger builtin hook than a Christian doing the same.

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  2. I have to admit that I had a huge, "oh, no, he's actually going there" moment when I saw that you were reviewing Jana's book. (You know, the whole split loyalties of friend vs. brother thing.) Let's face it, you can be a little brutal sometimes. Well, maybe not brutal, but you don't go easy on people. I'm just glad that I won't need to avoid Jana at church because of your review. Maybe I'll even share this on facebook...

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