Thursday, August 25, 2011

My Review of Surprised by Oxford: A Memoir by Carolyn Weber

Surprised by Oxford: A Memoir
Surprised by Oxford encompasses Carolyn Weber’s first year of graduate studies in literature at Oxford University. From this Canadian native’s mishaps with British busses, to the memorable professors, colorful students, and descriptions of student life at Oxford, there is never a boring chapter. Weber shows us her search for a true life course, rather than her coursework. From time to time the linear pattern based on the sessions at Oxford, digresses to reveal her less than perfect childhood, but never to the point of self-indulgence. Brief glimpses of her family show a selfish and absentee father, balanced by a tight-knit family of mother, sister, and brother. From the time she arrives at Oxford, Carolyn “Caro” Weber’s world view is confronted by the literature she reads and by her fellow students and professors. Reluctantly she sees her life change in a way she had never imagined.
Now, before I continue I must state that I don’t read memoirs. Why would I want someone else’s memories when I cannot fully appreciate my own? I would not have read this one were it not for the word Oxford in the title. Oxford summons for me all the mystery of cloistered halls inhabited with the characters and spirits of, among others, C. S. Lewis, (“and now the bridge is breaking. . .”); J.R.R. Tolkien (“A man that flies from his fear may find that he has only taken a short cut to meet it.”); Thomas Hobbes (Appetite, with an opinion of attaining, is called hope; the same, without such opinion, despair.”); John Locke (“The end of law is not to abolish or restrain, but to preserve and enlarge freedom.”); and John Donne (“More than kisses, letters mingle souls.”) How could I refuse such a book, if it would, only in snatches, put me in the presence of such as these. I love Oxford for the writers it has nourished, who have then nourished me.
But, on to the book. I fully expected to hate it as a memoir, but the more I read the more I wanted to read. I soaked up every quote at the beginning of each chapter and the quotes within, quotes from U2 and the Beatles to poets, poets, and more poets. I found myself laughing at her mishaps and cringing at her pain. When I finished reading, I found myself wanting to stand in Oxford with her. I wanted to eavesdrop on her conversations. I wanted to know her friends. Beyond every pain and the paradox, she found joy. And when it all came to a close, it became a small love story within a larger love story that overcame the author’s doubts as she learned to live with paradox and promise. It very much reminded me in some intangible way of Surprised by Joy by C.S. Lewis.
Surprised by Oxford makes you want to stop and listen; to ask questions along with the author, the same questions she was asking. Why does God let babies die? Why do horrible things happen if there is a loving God? Why are people so evil? Why does everyone else have it all together and I can’t seem to catch up? How does Christian faith work in real life, in academia? These are questions I have asked, and some that I ask still.
Surprised by Oxford is a book written by a writer who loves the English language and shows it. She uses British terms and spelling but never without an explanation. Some other reviewers found this to be a problem, but I enjoyed experiencing Oxford life, Briticisms and all. I recently read another memoir by another literature grad student and found it so dull I could barely finish it. Surprised by Oxford
Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life
is in a different class, one that instead of dragging the reader down, lifts the reader up and inspires the reader to ask questions. If you wonder whether Jesus is for you, this is the book you should read. If you love literature, this is a book for you. If you want Jesus and literature, this is the book.
I received this book free from the publisher through the BookSneeze®.com book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.


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