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.

Read Users' Comments (4)

What Makes A Book Great?

First, let me talk about what makes a book bad.  Bad is a broad category but I was pulled into it recently when an author I liked moved to a different publisher and then released a new book which appeared to be of a different genre than he had used previously.  I was excited to read where he was headed now, but the book was disappointing.  Errors kept stopping me.  Missing words, wrong words, words repeated too frequently and used inappropriately.  Each one brought the flow of the text to a halt and forced me to consider what happened.  I decided that the move to a new publisher came with a sub-standard editor.  Editors are supposed to catch those sorts of things before the book is released.  Next, the book was a type of mystery.  I thought I knew from the start the identity of the evil-doer, but I hoped I was wrong.  We all want to be surprised.  The end was a disappointment because I was right.  I don’t put a lot of thought into reading fiction, so only poor writing could have caused this.  Finally, I found the characters so unrealistic that I could not believe in the story.  What do I mean by that?  It is the author’s task to create an environment where we can believe what is happening.  This author failed to do that.  I really liked his last series of books, so I will not mention his name here.  Everyone has a flop at some point and I hope this will be his only one.

Next, I’ll move on to books that are memorable for one or more reasons.  A contemporary author who has created some of the most memorable scenes for me is Ted Dekker.  No, he is not what I would consider a great writer, but there are places in his books, where I need to stop.  Not because of poor word choice or bad editing, but because he has described something so transcendent that I don’t want to forget it.  That makes him an author whose books I remember and refer to in years to come.  Not all of his books do that for me, but certainly his Circle Trilogy did.

Black/Red/White (The Circle Trilogy 1-3)

Other authors cause me to question life as I view it.  Madeleine L’Engle has singularly done that for me since childhood.  Any one of her books, at some time of my life, has pushed me into places I needed to go and restored me from the depths.  I have read every one of her books, many of them more than once.  She is the writer whose writings I most want to emulate.  My only regret is that I never met her in person. 

Annie Dillard is another writer who has made a difference in my life.  The first time I picked up one of her books, I could not get through it because I was stopped short by a scene she depicted.  It moved me so greatly that I could not continue.  In the years since that time I have tried to find that same scene and failed.  Did that scene exist or did something she wrote create an image in my mind that was different from her words?  I don’t know the answer.  Her use of language is something I try to emulate.  She paints pictures with words.  It is my goal to read all of her books in my lifetime.  I am grateful she hasn’t written many because her books take time to read and ponder.

Flannery O’Connor wrote letters, book reviews, short stories, and novels.  I own her collected works because it includes her novels, short stories, and letters.  Flannery wrote many letters by typewriter to readers and other writers and friends.  She used carbon paper to keep a copy for herself.  I find her letters easier to read than her novels and short stories which have given me images that cannot leave me. 

What books move you?

Read Users' Comments (1)comments


(a reflection on Gustav Courbet’s Burial at Onan and his exchange of romanticism for realism)

The corpse: clay-molded

tint and timbre of living being,

gaspless, tearless, hidden,

like life’s mourners stolid, lifeless

obscuring thoughts of self-demise.


The priest alone cradles hope

but repetitious, death fatigues

like the Christ of the crucifix

A cruel staccato rat-a-tat-tat

until, in our numbness,

we give up our own souls

to the pit


And one kneeling at the grave looks up.

Is that all you have:

dirt and dust and soul in the sky?

No tear for loss,

only the book and crucifix

and another who dies as we.


Even the dog looks away

but you, your darkened tones

speak your melancholy melody

Orphaned, distanced,

darkness is all you know.

Your heart bangs shut

in violent storm

Scattered shadows locked within

a heart that will not see.


Read Users' Comments (1)comments

A Poem Inspired by My Review of WITH

Prepositional Truth

(Prepositions are insignificant words that we are unable to exorcise from the English language.)

of, in, by

What do I

desire, fear, battle


to, for, with

One who holds

complete, secure


at, down, from

spirit rub spirit

flesh press flesh


over, under, against

evil, famine, drought

sickness, ruin, death


between, above, before

time and space

expand eternity.


Of the Father,

In the Son,

By the Spirit


Read Users' Comments (1)comments

With by Skye Jethani

I was initially disappointed with With.  At first glance it was another one of those one-word titled manuscripts that are a fluff of common facts and anecdotal yarns spun in a way to tickle the minds of those blind to the emperor’s new clothes and designed to land on the bestseller’s list. Malcolm Gladwell did it with Outliers and Blink. And now Skye Jethani, is doing it with With, taking one-word titles to a new low by using a preposition, one of the English language’s lowliest parts of speech containing only a singular meaning. If it seems as though I’m tired of one-word book titles, you have it right. However, my initial reservations were blown to pieces by the time I reached the halfway point in the book. Despite his overuse of prepositions, Jethani has crafted an expose worth reading. Jethani confronts the comfortable mindsets of believers and non-believers in Jesus, exposing those mindsets as deficient to satisfy our deepest longings and relieve our deepest fears. Drawn from his experiences as a pastor and his research into current events, Jethani points to four attitudes that deprive us of intimacy with God and fail to relieve our fears.

Jethani’s four approaches to life are named, defined, and expounded in the first five chapters using personal anecdotes, observations from his life and ministry, and quotes from contemporary literature. Life Over God, the easiest to of the concepts to understand, is life lived apart from God; God is not part of the picture of daily living. Life Under God, is the second least difficult to understand. Commonly termed “legalism”, it is the belief that adhering strictly to a set of rules will provide blessing from God.

The next two approaches hit closer to home. The person living Life From God views God as a means to an end, perhaps not overtly, but holding an interior view that God’s gifts, His blessings, are more valuable than relationship with Him. Here, Jethani discusses consumerism and its contained spiritual lie, but his most valuable illustration is the wayward son in Jesus’ parable in Luke 15. There we see the son valuing his inheritance and his way of life over relationship with his father. Indeed, don’t we all sometimes feel that our relationship with God just doesn’t cut it and we’ll go out to eat, enjoy a movie, or indulge in some other pleasure to fill the void, while feeling secure in our salvation?

Finally, Life For God, is a life lived for the mission, the life-purpose, rather than for the One who created your life. It is a life lived for the purpose and authentication provided by accomplishing the mission or goal, rather than remaining in relationship with God and letting Him provide our value. The most poignant story Jethani related in this chapter is his encounter with Christian students at a Christian college who believed that God was disappointed with them because of their struggles. They weren’t living up to God’s standards; They felt that they had failed God. As I continued to read this chapter, I suddenly felt like I had gained understanding of the preceding chapters.

Everyone, everywhere, at some time, stands with their soul’s arms and feet stuck in one or all of these non-relational positions, like a cruel game of Twister, never able to reach the goal because the goal changes with each turn of the wheel. That’s exactly what I’ve found life to be like with a God who is spirit, interpreted by imperfect humans. I’m writing here about myself and the preachers in my life, from my parents to my friends to the ones in the pulpit. What God wants is relationship and we want it too, except we get scared and fall back to our fall-back positions which end up being one or more of these mindsets, Life For God, Life From God, Life Under God, or Life Over God, where we become users of God instead of people who value God. What is the solution? How do we move from these destructive attitudes to the faith and assurance we desire?

The lastl four chapters of With tell us the value and method of living Life With God, a Life With Faith, a Life With Hope, and a Life With Love. Life With God teaches us to treasure, unite with, and experience God. How do we do this? First, we must learn to practice prayer as communion with the Father, in constant connection with Him, even if no words are exchanged. Examples from the life of Mother Theresa and Billy Graham show how they prayed in just this way.

A Life With Faith is a life without fear. It is trusting surrender to the One who holds us. Not cited in this book, the 2nd Chapter of Acts song “Nobody Can Take My Life Away” (from the album Rejoice) illustrates this for me. “Nobody can take my life away, because I gave my life to You.” It’s that simple: we surrender our lives in trust and He holds our lives securely against all forces and foes and turns a dangerous world into a safe one. Jethani presents a modern example of this: the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., whose trust in God enabled him to walk into the dark places free from fear for himself or his wife and children.

Life With Faith is extremely important because it influences our entire vision of the world around us. With sobering words, Jethani writes: “An unaltered vision of the word means most other elements of the Christian life will fail to make sense to us as well.” The Christian life as Jesus posited it will seem unrealistic, impossible, and foolish.

Why is it so difficult for self-identified Christians to believe, let alone obey, [everything that] Jesus said? Well, if they still see the world as a fundamentally dangerous place in which their well-being is in constant jeopardy, then the call to love your enemy, give freely, and not worry can only be dismissed as ludicrous.
It is only when we live with God and come to experientially know his goodness and love that the shadows break and these commands begin to make sense. If I am eternally safe in the care of my Good Shepherd, and I come to see the world as a safe place, then I am set free from my fears. I am free to give rather than hoard. I am free to enjoy each day rather than worry. I am free to forgive others rather than retaliate against them. And I am even free to love the person determined to harm me.
In Life With Hope, Jethani discusses our search for meaning and significance and how we seek to satisfy ourselves with external constructs such as our career, our family, or deriving order and meaning from religion or morality. But they all may fall like a house cards as the squalls of life blow through our lives upsetting our careful constructs. We attain meaning and significance from God, not from what we do for God.
Are you married? Then engage your marriage with God and learn to love your spouse as God has loved you. Are you single? Then be single with God and devote yourself to him. Are you a mechanic? Then commune with God in your work and repair cars as an act of devotion to him. Are you an office worker? Then welcome Christ to your desk as you serve your employer. . . In other words, the fullness of Christian life can be lived anywhere, in any circumstance, because God is with us. No condition of life is more honorable than another, because nothing God does lacks value.
Jethani gives us the moving example of the African slaves brought in chains to our country, and specifically of a slave in Maryland called “Praying Jacob.” No one had worse circumstances than the slaves, but more hope in Jesus. As Praying Jacob said to his owner, “I have two masters—Master Jesus in heaven and Master Saunders on earth. I have a soul and a body; the body belongs to you, but my soul belongs to Jesus.” Jethani advises us to encourage our hope through regular corporate worship and snatched moments during the day when we can commune with God.

Life With Love starts with love that quelled a prison riot and focuses on filling ourselves with God’s love by practicing silence and solitude that we might more fully commune with God. God’s love binds us to him in a way that lets us see Him as He is and to see ourselves as we truly are: Beloved of the Creator.

At the end of the book are two short appendices. The first, Communing With God, contains some practical exercises and references. The second contains group study questions. And finally, the notes. My constant quibble with end notes is the inability to easily find them while reading. Because they are labeled only by chapter number and not name, you must first locate the chapter you are in, find its number, then the note. How difficult would it have been to include the chapter name in the notes?

If you, like me, abhor one-word book titles, get over it and take a look at With by Skye Jethani. Ignore the prepositional title and chapters and the difficult beginning and read it to the end for a look at renewed community with God and others, renewed faith, renewed hope, and renewed love.

NOTE:  the publisher has provided me with a complimentary copy of this book for review.  I am glad they did; I might not have read it otherwise.
With: Reimagining the Way You Relate to God

Read Users' Comments (1)comments

Free (or almost free) Tools

For your pictures:  Ever take a picture and when you looked at it later, there was a fire hydrant or a satellite dish or a billboard that marred the beauty?  InPaint is a small free program which lets you remove unwanted objects.  I first experimented with removing a satellite dish that is on the lawn of my vacation cabin.  No, I didn’t post it that way on the website, I just wanted to see if I could do it.  And I could.  It worked perfectly.  The picture on the left is the “before” picture.  The new dish is on the roof; the old one is on the ground.  In the second picture, I have removed the one on the ground, because I plan to remove the actual dish in the near future.


cabin 042cabin 042inpaint

InPaint picks color values in the area around the object you are removing and fills the space with those values.  It works well where it is a simple background such as the grass and drive in this picture.  It did not work as successfully to remove a large blue and white ice chest from a picture of the kitchen where very different color values surrounded the ice chest, from the white of the sunlit window to the red, orange, green curtains to the brown table and chairs to the counter in another shade of brown—you get the picture.  So for simple changes, InPaint is a simple program to use and works well.  For more complex changes, spending time with Photoshop is the only answer.  As for me, I’ll just reshoot the picture that showed the ice chest and make sure before I do that there are no unwanted objects visible.

For education and organization:  MobileNoter is a note taking app that works on IPad, IPhone, and Android devices.  It will let you take written or typed notes which you can then sync to the web or to Microsoft OneNote on your computer.  I use OneNote extensively for research and non-publishable writing (journaling, recipe notes, etc.)  Here’s a screen shot of some of my OneNote open to my research for my novel about Elijah.  It’s like a file folder full of pages that I can easily search, copy, email, sync to the web. . . you get the idea.  It is what I consider the most useful Microsoft productivity program.image

For efficiency:  Fences is a useful and free program which separates your desktop clutter into useful categories.  Here are screenshots which give you examples.  The free version works fine for most people, so give it a try.

For fun and education:  Stellarium is a free planetarium for your computer.  You can learn more about the stars you see outside your window.  If you have wanted to explore the heavens, this is a good place to start.  You’ll need to take a little time to set it up after you download it, but once you do, you only need to click on it to see what’s going on in the sky near your locale. 

With the exception of MobileNoter, these are all programs, I have tried and used successfully.  All of them work with Windows 7, Vista, and XP; some also work with Mac.  Try them out and make your computer efficient, educational, and fun. 

Read Users' Comments (0)

Turn Back Time

Many people believe that using the built-in system restore program in Microsoft Windows will restore their computer to an earlier time when all worked well.  However, what system restore does is restore only your Windows system files.  Anything else that has lost, changed, or destroyed will not be restored.  Would you like a program that restores everything to a particular point in time?  Did you ever permanently delete a file or email or something personal to you and right away wish you hadn’t?  Have you ever done something and then wanted to go back and undo it, but you can’t?   RestoreIT is a low cost program (under $40, but contact me for discounts) which takes snapshots of your computer and can restore everything on your computer to a particular date and time. Unlike the restore program built into Windows which only restores Windows’ own system files, RestoreIT restores EVERYTHING, even things you may not want restored to a previous date or time. I tested it by deleting an email, a picture I did not care about, and changing a Windows system file. I set RestoreIT to take a snapshot every 15 minutes (yes, I’m paranoid, one hour or more is fine for most people.) Later that day, I returned and used RestoreIT. It successfully restored the email, the picture I had permanently deleted, and the system file I had renamed. I checked RestoreIT for the load it placed on my system resources. It used a nominal amount of system resources and ran unnoticed in the background. WARNING: RestoreIT does not retrieve one file; it changes your whole system. So, use it with care only to remove the effects of a recent mistake.

Read Users' Comments (0)

Time Outside of Time—In White Space of Life

On my walk this morning, with my IPod cranked to drown out the traffic sounds, I heard greetings in the musical pauses.  Some were planned pauses when I pushed “pause” as someone approached.  Others were pauses in musical phrasing or between songs.  What did I hear?  Nothing of substance.  A “good morning” or “hello” or “hi.” But after the second one, my mind leaped (when I’m caffeinated it roams in leaps and bounds) to a correlation between musical phrasing, marginal white space, and kairos. 

Are you confused yet?  That’s the beauty of a disorganized mind.  Utter confusion.  So I’ll define by example.  What do you hear/see/feel between the notes?  This morning before my walk I had almost finished reading Revelation.  During my walk I listened to this song (here are the words if you don’t want to listen) and it took me to that time and place described in that chapter of Revelation, even though it was not directly related, and suddenly, in the pauses, I was there with the saints and angels around the throne.  Now, that isn’t usually what happens.  Usually, it’s more mundane.  Today was special.

When you read, what do you hear/see/feel between the lines?  I judge books on how well they are written and how well they move between the lines.  I recently read a book which taught me something I didn’t know before.  But what was between the lines?  Nada, nothing.  A book that moves between the lines, strikes you at the heart level.  It makes you sit up and pay attention.  It plants something in your mind that will not leave you.  I rarely read poetry, but the title of this poem and the words that followed struck me in this way:  between the lines.  Every Riven Thing.  Why did it affect me this way.  I think it’s because the poet put so much between the lines.  This poem is not at the beginning of the book with the same name, but in the middle, just as it was an experience of the poet’s in the middle of suffering.  I’m not suffering, but it affected me between the lines.

Every Riven Thing: Poems

What is in this white space of life where we live between the lines and the notes?  That’s where kairos and chronos come in.  These are two Greek words which help us define time.  Chronos is clock time.  Tick-tock, second by second, it passes through our lives.  Kairos is that time outside of clock time where a minute may seem like an hour or an hour may seem like a minute.  It is the aha! moment, the light in the darkness, the explosions of grace and beauty which interrupt our lives.  How do you get it?  You can’t.  It comes unbidden, unexplained, and unexpected.  Your only participation is to be aware of it and to grasp it.  Not a grasp that you would use to catch a grackle, but a tender grasp that shows your awareness of the moment and your willingness to follow.

I thought about titling this “Between the Lines” but that was too visual. I thought about “In the Pauses” but that was too aural.  I thought about “The Kairos and the Chronos” but that was too esoteric.  Time Outside of Time more clearly defines what happens in the musical pauses or the white area of writing where our lives change just a little.  It also describes Kairos, our life spaces where we become most human and most aware as we experience time outside of time.

Read Users' Comments (0) Christian Blog Network