Review: Surprised by Oxford

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Who am I? What is my purpose? Why did ___________ happen?

Surprised by Oxford, written by Carolyn Weber, documents one woman’s honest grappling with those questions. Weber’s tale is full of surprises indeed.

Arriving at the old English university to pursue a Masters degree in literature, Weber encounters TDH (Tall, Dark and Handsome). Discovering that he is a Christian after viewing an unfortunately-worded email (one of many humorous scenes), she, an avowed agnostic, sets out to poke holes in his faith. Bitter – understandably so – after a rough home life, Weber finds it difficult to understand how anyone could possibly believe in a good and loving Father.

That first late-night conversation with TDH, recounted in Chapter 7, generates the momentum for the rest of this fascinating and refreshingly real journey of faith. Weber doesn’t pretend to be perfect, nor does she present her cast in rose-colored lighting. Reading her story made me feel as if she were someone I could sit down and have a cup of coffee with; she is an “ordinary” woman with issues and struggles.

As an Anglophile, I ate up every glorious detail about Oxford. (The scene where she and TDH stand atop a church spire… Amazing!) Weber’s style is wonderfully descriptive, though occasionally disjointed. A Ph.D-holding professor of literature, some of her words and phrases were a bit too academic for a book that appears to have been aimed at a general audience. I don’t think that these minor flaws hold the work back in any way, however.

I highly recommend this book, especially to those who are skeptical of Christianity. There are no sugar-coated answers, no cliches allowed to stand unchallenged. This is a tale for anyone brave enough to truly examine the faith.

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I received a free electronic copy of this book in exchange for my fair and honest review.

United Kingdom Trip: For All You Jane Austen Fans

_UK Trip

Gentle Reader,

5 a.m. comes way too early.

Morning people make absolutely no sense to me, but, then again, neither do night owls. Why can’t we all exist happily in the inbetween times?

Today I took my very first overland train ride. It’s been a whole week of firsts for me: first international flight, first subway ride, first taxi ride. I must say, I enjoyed the train the most. It was fun to watch the city give way to green countryside – for the little bit that I could keep my eyes open. Perhaps I need to invest in a train when I get home. Put me right to sleep!

Bath was exquisite. I was able to step into Georgian/Regency England, superbly frozen in time. THIS was what I came to see. It was easy to imagine myself as the quite elegant friend of a certain Miss Austen, equipped with clever wit and genteel style. I could also picture Chris dressed in Mr. Darcy fashion: wide cravat, tall boots, sharp walking stick. While we did not “take the {putrid} waters,” we did see the Roman Baths, and that was amazing. To be walking in buildings erected near the time of Christ was…indescribable. You can almost hear the echo of days gone by, and you can certainly still feel the heat rising from the spring.

By far, though, my favorite stop was the Royal Crescent. Going into #1 made me feel so excited! I now want to completely redecorate my home in Regency style. Vivid blues, deep greens, crystal. It was funny to see the dining table laid out with an array of fruits. We think nothing of biting into an apple or peeling an orange, but even that was an art-form to them. There was such a sense of style and elegance that we are sorely lacking today. They took the time to enjoy life. They walked, took tea, wrote letters, danced. Yes, many people indulged in scandalous entertainment and affairs, but that’s true of any century.

This period was the great last stand before the Victorian age really picked up on the Industrial Revolution. Since then, we’ve been running hurry-scurry, and it gets worse with each passing year. Chris and I were greatly affected with the desire to slow down and take a breath.

We stopped by the Jane Austen Center, contained within the building where she lived for awhile with her mother and sister, directly following the death of her father. Though Bath figures prominently in two of her novels, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, the time she spent here was unproductive and is considered a dark time in her life. It was a short slide from the genteel poverty of Gay Street to the overcrowded tenements of Trim Street. It was after this period that she focused professionally on writing, achieving success in the few short years before she died of Addison’s Disease in 1817.

I write so much of Jane Austen because she is truly a hero of mine. An astute observer of human nature, I appreciate her keen insight and her sly wit. Shakespeare may be considered the national hero of letters, but Austen surely vies for the honor.

That is it for England! Tomorrow we board the train for Edinburgh, and in three short days we’ll be winging our way home. I’m saddened to see the trip end, though I confess my own, quiet home sounds lovely.

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United Kingdom Trip: Final Day in London

_UK Trip

Gentle Reader,

I can’t believe that we’ve really spent the last 6 (technically 5.5) days in London. The fact that the time has gone by so fast is simply unreal to me. Tomorrow, Bath, and then on to Edinburgh early Friday. We’re looking at the tail end of our trip, and it just doesn’t seem fair! In other ways, however, I am longing for home.

Today was positively perfect. We finished out absolutely everything and then some that we wanted to do in London. The British Museum was great icing on the cake. I can see why the guidebooks say that you can spend a whole day in there. As it was, once again there was too much for us to take in, and so we mostly just wandered. A few things got great amounts of attention from us, like the room containing bits from the Parthenon, the Egyptian mummies and the Sutton Hoo burial. But, really, how do you fit a few thousand years of historical artifacts into your mind? Perhaps most fascinating to me were the objects from Roman Britain. The combination of Celtic, Pictish and Roman artistic styles created a unique blend that can be seen down through today.

That was our final planned stop of our days in London. We spent the afternoon wandering a few markets; at the Camden market a Middle Eastern gentleman got upset with me when I refused to buy the coat he insisted was perfect for me. Whatever. We had better luck in the Protobello Road area. Gap jeans for Chris and a Topshop dress for me, rounding out at 4 pounds. Can’t beat that. Finally sat down to a proper English tea and not-so-proper gelato. Both were quite scrumptious…

…except, now my stomach is rebelling. I think, perhaps, I am simply not used to eating out so much. Not sleeping regularly doesn’t help, either, but that’s okay. We’ll sleep when we get home.

TTFN.

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United Kingdom Trip: Monday and Tuesday

_UK Trip

Gentle Reader,

Well.

Overwhelming. Scrumptuous. Awe-inspiring. Exhausting. Fascinating. Thrilling.

Those are just a few of the words I could choose for the past couple of days. Yesterday we made a large square encompassing some of London’s most famous landmarks on both sides of the Thames. Shakespeare’s Globe was an eye-opening romp through a bygone era. While it wasn’t shocking to hear again that only men could act in the plays, it was disconcerting to learn that none of the clothes could be washed. True to form, none of them can be washed today. Shall we say, “ew?” Our guide was extremely enthusiastic about her subject, and that helped us to get involved in her story. It was interesting to me to know that if I were a “groundling” (someone who views the plays standing in the yard) I would actually be part of the action. The actors would ask me questions and require my involvement.

I could absolutely picture myself in Elizebethan dress, coming out of the Globe in praise of Master Shakespeare’s latest. The crowd from the rival Rose would be pouring out at the same time. A fight would break out between opposing patrons. The smells. The sights.

On to St. Paul’s Cathedral. Though not as imposing as Westminster Abbey, it was every bit as beautiful. Here we saw golden-flecked mosaics, marble floors, high lecturnes. We had the option of going up into the dome gallery, but…I’d rather not, thanks. It was enough to just be able to wander around. We were introduced to the peculiar art of placing a luncheon cafe in the church crypt. I may be able to walk on graves, but I can’t sit and enjoy a snack among them. It was, however, neat to see the tombs of the Duke of Wellington and Lord Nelson, heroes of the Napoleonic Wars, as well as the tomb of Christopher Wren, the architect of St. Paul’s.

I can barely describe our next stop. The Tower of London. Actually composed of three separate layers built over hundreds of years, the Tower still houses several hundred soldiers – Yeoman Warders, also known as Beefeaters. (Nobody knows why they’re called Beefeaters, and they don’t like being called that.) Anyway, the weight of history was all around me, particularly seeing the Bloody Tower, Traitor’s Gate and Tower Hill. Elizabeth I came through the gate, as her mother Anne Boleyn before her, and feared she may be awaiting the same fate.

Chris really enjoyed the exhibition of Henry VII’s armor in the White Tower, the oldest part of the complex. It was interesting to see how the armor changed throughout the years to properly fit the monarch’s expanding girth. I positively LOVED looking at the Crown Jewels; so much so, I went through twice. That…oh, just all the sparkle and all the color. Queen Victoria’s special crown was so ridiculously small, I could hardly believe it was real. The Imperial State Crown, created for the ill-fated Edward in 1937, has graced the head of the current sovereign. Again, the history. Breathtaking.

We fit in the Sherlock Holmes Museum on a whim, and I actually think that that was my favorite part of the day. I’ve been reading about Mr. Holmes since I was a little girl, and so to be in his lodgings was a dream come true. The creators of the museum actually have bullet holes in the drawing room wall in the shape of a VR: Victoria Regina. Holmes was nothing if not loyal! To see all the Victorian clutter – including Watson’s desk and medical bag, and Holmes’ violin – left me reeling.

Today was no less intense. We were unable to go into all the rooms of the British Library because we don’t have “reading passes,” but we were able to walk around the King’s Library (a tube running through the center of the massive building, containing all the volumes collected by King George III) and we were able to go into the gallery contained several hundred years of illuminated manuscripts (including the Lindsfarne Gospels,) Shakespeare’s First Folio, and the Magna Carta. I was glad to see so many people milling about, stopping into the different rooms to peruse books; makes me think that my own library could do some things differently and really turn the place into a community center.

Next up was the National Gallery on Trafalgar Square. THAT was intense. Michelangelo, Botticelli, Caravaggio, Copely, Klmit, van Gogh, da Vinci, Fra Angelico, Holbein, Monet…. I am partial to Carivaggio and Monet, and so immediately gravitated toward those works. Chris was, to his surprise, drawn to the Dutch school painters – Rembrandt, Vermeer, Claude – and liked landscapes the best. We walked through all the rooms available to us, and left with jaws to the ground. There was just no way to process everything.

Lunch. Blessed lunch.

We popped into the National Portrait Gallery after lunch, and that was my absolute favorite of the day. Beginning with the earliest Tudor paintings, we were taken on a historical tour of Britain. Chris and I both loved the Regency era portraits the best. George IV was such a fop, and it showed in all of his portraits. I felt sorry for his poor wife – er, second wife – Caroline. She was a pleasant figure in her portrait, and there was no reason for him to hate her so. Then again, he was already married to Mrs. Fitzhurbert, though illegally, and was already balancing a few mistresses….

I got to see an original (but unfinished) portrait of William Wilberforce, whose grave I saw on Friday. He had such an amazingly kind face. Even now, close to two hundred years after his death, the light of Christ shines through his eyes. Somehow, the artist captured that. I was nearly brought to tears.

The London Eye. I never want to do that again, so it really will be a once in a lifetime experience! I will admit that we got some really cool pictures, but I probably would have been okay without them. At least the little carriages we were in didn’t rock like regular Ferris wheels do. Chris had a ball, running around, chatting with people. He convinced me to get up a few times, but I mostly just stayed in my seat. At least I got ice cream later for doing it.

Now we’re relaxing, watching British soap operas (I swear that’s all that’s ever on.) Tomorrow’s our last day here in the city, and it’s totally devoted to the British Museum (and whatever else we might like to do!) On Thursday we’re headed out to Bath for the day and then up to Edinburgh for the last leg of our trip. It’s gone a lot faster than I imagined it would.

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