There is no frigate like a book
To take us lands away,
Nor any coursers like a page
Of prancing poetry.
~ Emily Dickinson

Literature is my Utopia. Here I am not disenfranchised. No barrier of the senses shuts me out from the sweet, gracious discourses of my book friends. They talk to me without embarrassment or awkwardness. ~ Helen Keller

Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Review: Surprised by Oxford

Surprised by Oxford Surprised by Oxford by Carolyn Weber
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I added this memoir to my TBR list several years ago, writing in my diary that I had come across a book with such promise that I was afraid to read it. The epigraph to chapter one is from John Donne's "Satire III", with the injunction to "doubt wisely". The chapter continues to brilliantly incorporate Donne, as Carolyn tells of her experience as an unbelieving Canadian undergraduate, asking an evangelical professor for his opinion on her paper on Holy Sonnet XIV. With salty language, he challenges her to truly understand the "subtle knot... [of] Donne's spiritual pilgrimage". "The truth is in the paradox," he tells the young agnostic. (Read the first chapter here: )

It's no secret that I love John Donne almost unreasonably. Add to this the "dreaming spires of Oxford" for setting, and the promise of romance, and this memoir seemed crafted perfectly to inspire and delight me.

And it did. Caro, as she is called by her friends, overcomes a broken home and poverty to earn a full scholarship to Oxford. Her poetic memoir is a treasure-trove of literary allusions, quotations, and insights, many of them from my own most beloved writers, such as T.S. Eliot and Gerard Manley Hopkins. Caro tells her experience of coming to Christian faith with honesty, vulnerability, and joy. (One expects the latter, of course, because of the title's allusion to C.S. Lewis' memoir, "Surprised by Joy".)

However, something was missing for me. Perhaps it was simply because I read the memoir in a time of spiritual darkness and uncertainty that made Weber's experience seem a little too easy, a little too connected to the suave and sophisticated Christianity of her group of friends. Perhaps I needed a less impressionistic approach to struggling with questions of feminism and a God portrayed as male. Perhaps I needed to own the book rather than borrow it from the library, so I could read more slowly, marking each epiphany and question. In short, I think it's a book I'll return to someday, perhaps before or after visiting Oxford myself.

Maybe Karen Armstrong's memoir, which apparently uses T.S. Eliot's "Ash Wednesday" as a "spine", is the book I'm really looking for. For that I'm going to rest in hope. (Yes, the irony of the word "hope" in relation to that poem is intended.)

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  1. Sounds like an interesting read. Reminds me of a book I read earlier this year, Not God's Type by Holly Ordway. I had a post on it on my blog somewhere. It too is a conversion memoir by a literature professor, and she uses lots of literary allusions. I don't know how Ordway's experience compares with Weber's in terms of "too easy." Ordway was a committed atheist until she was walked through the logic of Christian faith and then reflected in the beauty of literature, and then she had a conversion moment.

    1. Hi Manny, Interesting! Actually, I'd heard of Ordway even before Weber, but for various reasons Weber's memoir interested me more. From your description it sounds like I should give still give Ordway's memoir a go. (Going to head to your blog to see if you wrote a review.)

    2. I'm glad you found my review. I should have provided you a link. Thanks for your comment there. Here's the link if any of your readers are interested in my post on the Ordway book.

  2. "It's no secret that I love John Donne almost unreasonably." I love this. :) And, as always, great review.

    1. Thanks for dropping by, Esther! Have you read any Dorothy Sayers mysteries? I'm a little like Peter and Harriet about Donne.