Posts Tagged ‘J.R.R. Tolkien’

all souls college oxford radcliffe square

It’s no secret: Oxford is my very favorite place. In the world.

I fell in love with it more than a decade ago, when I stepped off the bus (after an overnight flight) as a wide-eyed college sophomore, who couldn’t believe her luck at getting to spend an entire semester in an ancient, lovely university town.

The ensuing four months, and the year I later spent there earning my master’s degree, only made me love it more.

all souls towers oxford england

I’ve been back to visit a few times, most recently a year and a half ago, but I’m always itching to go back. Until the next time, though, I always love (re)visiting it on the page. So here are my favorite Oxford books:

Gaudy Night by Dorothy Sayers is the first Oxford novel I ever read, and still the best. It’s a mystery, a love story, a feminist novel and a brilliantly rendered evocation of Oxford in the 1930s. Many of the streets and buildings have not changed, so the descriptions still feel utterly fresh. So do the insights on work and love, intellectual and emotional freedom, and whether it is possible for women to remain true to themselves and also be married.

Oxford Revisited is a slim, lyrical memoir by novelist and Oxford alumnus Justin Cartwright, whose love for the university matches my own. He writes about his time as an undergraduate and about Oxford itself: its ancient traditions, complicated architecture and captivating beauty. I got to meet him and hear him speak at the Oxford Literary Festival. He was kind and erudite, which made me love the book even more.

These Ruins are Inhabited was a serendipitous find: a memoir mistakenly shelved in the fiction stacks at the Montague Bookmill. Muriel Beadle was an American journalist whose husband was a visiting professor at Oxford in the late 1950s, and she describes their family’s time there with wit and spirit. Keenly observed and so much fun.

Isolarion by James Attlee charts “a different Oxford journey,” as the subtitle says: the relatively new, wildly multicultural East Oxford neighborhood of Cowley. I lived in Cowley during my second stay in Oxford and found it messy, confusing, sometimes frustrating and often delightful. Attlee brings it vividly to life.

radcliffe camera st mary's tower oxford

These are my faves, but I’ve read and loved a handful of other Oxford-centric books. So here are a few honorable mentions:


The Royal We by Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan is hilarious chick lit with a soul. It’s set largely in Oxford, since the two main characters (Nick and Bex, inspired by Will and Kate) meet there.

Death on the Cherwell by Mavis Doriel Hay is a highly entertaining mystery romp set in 1930s Oxford – essentially Gaudy Night lite. (With plenty of tea and biscuits.)

The Late Scholar takes Harriet Vane and Lord Peter Wimsey (of Gaudy Night fame) back to Oxford, to solve another mystery. I usually don’t like fan fiction, but Jill Paton Walsh’s continuation of Sayers’ series is so well done.

rowboats river cherwell oxford


The Inklings by Humphrey Carpenter is a meticulously researched, detailed account of the famous literary group that included (among others) C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. You can hardly walk in Oxford without tripping over a reference to those two, and this is an excellent look at their work and influence.

My History by Antonia Fraser is a coming-of-age story, a Downton Abbey-esque peek into the early 20th century, and a love letter to Oxford, where she grew up.

Surprised by Oxford is Carolyn Weber’s journey of finding faith and love (among other things) in Oxford.

catte street oxford

Most links (not affiliate links) are to my favorite local bookstore, Brookline Booksmith.

Any favorite books set in Oxford that you’d recommend?


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Jan 2013 017

The Dirty Life: A Memoir of Farming, Food, and Love, Kristin Kimball
Kristin Kimball was a total New York City girl, until she fell in love with a handsome, charming, exasperating farmer. This is the story of their first year running a farm in upstate New York, when everything could (and did) go wrong. Despite the trials (and the dirt), Kimball fell deeply in love with her new life and work. She writes beautifully about that year’s triumphs and griefs, about finding new reserves of strength in herself, about struggling forward each day. Lovely and wise.

Alice I Have Been, Melanie Benjamin
I loved Benjamin’s latest, The Aviator’s Wife, so I picked up this novel narrated by Alice Liddell, the original Alice in Wonderland. Benjamin explores Alice’s childhood and her (rather fraught) relationship with Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll). I am not an Alice in Wonderland fan; I find the story confusing and creepy. But I enjoyed the descriptions of Oxford in the 1860s/1870s, and I found Alice herself a complex, intriguing character. Benjamin also details Alice’s later life, about which I knew virtually nothing, and which I found fascinating and heartbreaking. A gripping (if at times uncomfortable) story of an unusual woman.

The Inklings: C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, and Their Friends, Humphrey Carpenter
I’m fascinated by the Inklings and enjoyed this “group biography,” meticulously researched and detailed. Because I recently read a new C.S. Lewis biography, the first part (about him) was repetitive for me, but I learned a great deal about Charles Williams, and about the group’s evolution over the years. (It saddens me that it eventually dropped off.) Carpenter’s fictional re-creation of an Inklings meeting, drawn from diaries and letters, is particularly spirited and fun.

The Plain Old Man, Charlotte MacLeod
I needed something light after Alice I Have Been, so picked up this sixth Sarah Kelling mystery. Sarah gets roped into painting both scenery and faces for her Aunt Emma’s community theatre production. All is well until an heirloom painting disappears and a cast member turns up dead. This story started slowly, but the pace picked up later and the eventual solution was clever. Part mystery, part comedy of errors, part wacky family story (as always). Good fun.

The God of the Hive, Laurie R. King
Sherlock Holmes and Mary Russell’s tenth adventure finds them separated and on the run, from enemies known and unknown. Russell lands in a forest at a hermit’s cabin, while Holmes makes for Holland with his injured son. After resting and regrouping (and some great use of the Times agony column), they head for London and a confrontation with their foe. Fast-paced, with (thank heaven) more moments of levity than The Language of Bees. I was pleased at the return of Holmes’ bolt-holes around London and his well-known deductive reasoning. Lots of fun.

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What are you reading lately?

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