A Literary Tour of Oxford

During our past three summers at the University of Oxford, we’ve loved getting to know this amazing little city with all its hidden treasures. It seems that everywhere you turn in Oxford, you’ve stumbled upon another piece of literary history. As we get excited for summer number 4 at Oxford’s Somerville College, here is a list of some of our favorite literary sites (and accompanying literature) to visit every year.

Christ Church College


The quad at Christ Church College.

Although each of Oxford’s 38 constituent colleges is a sight to see, Christ Church is one of the most literary. It’s where Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) first met the Dean of the College’s daughter, Alice Liddell, who became the inspiration for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. This is an especially exciting visit for Alice fans during the 150th anniversary of Carroll’s most beloved novel.

As if that were not enough literary history for one place, Christ Church College was used to recreate the iconic Hogwarts staircase and dining hall in the Harry Potter films.

Accompanying reading material: The Story of Alice by Robert Douglas-Fairhurst

Alice’s Shop and Café Loco


GB Oxford students enjoying an Alice in Wonderland cream tea at Cafe Loco.

Right across from Christ Church College are two shops dedicated to all things Alice, also especially suitable during the 150th anniversary of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The first, Alice’s Shop, was the inspiration of the Sheep’s Shop that Alice visits in Through the Looking Glass. Today, this shop is dedicated to all thing Alice, where one can find everything from Alice-themed toys and books to tea towels and jewelry.

Next door is Café Loco, an Alice in Wonderland themed tea shop where you can immerse yourself in a traditional cream tea with a Mad Hatter twist.

Accompanying reading material: Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll

New College

If you walk fifteen minutes north of Christ Church College, you’ll come across New College, another of the constituent colleges used in the Harry Potter movies. Our favorite spot at New College is the cloisters, which are beautiful on their own, and even more exciting when you realize you’re standing by the very tree where Mad Eye Moody turns Malfoy into a ferret in The Goblet of Fire.


The cloisters at New College, where scenes from Harry Potter were filmed.

The Eagle & Child Pub

eagle_childA little further north, this public house was a frequent meeting place for the Inklings, a group of Oxford dons which most notably included J.R.R. Tolkein and C.S. Lewis, of Lord of the Rings and Narnia fame, respectively. Known locally as “the Bird and the Baby,” the Eagle and Child is a great place to stop for sustenance, literary inspiration, and a pint (if you’re old enough). We recommend the Cheddar, Potato and Spinach Pie.

Accompanying reading material: The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings by Philip and Carol Zaleski

Wolvercote Cemetery


GB Oxford students pay homage to Tolkien at Wolvercote Cemetery.

Wolvercote Cemetery is a ten-minute bus ride from downtown, and we found the bus ride to be almost as much fun as the visit—most of us had never ridden on the top level of a double-decker bus before!

The key site on this visit is J.R.R. Tolkein’s grave. He and his wife are buried under a rose garden plot bearing a headstone labeled “Luthien” and “Beren.” Hard core Lord of the Rings fans will remember the story of Beren, a mortal man, and Luthien, his immortal elf-maiden wife who chooses mortality for her love. It’s a very touching detail, and like any good literary pilgrimage spot, it’s a good place to meet fellow lovers of Tolkein’s works and share in a dedicated reading of The Hobbit.

Also buried at Wolvercote are numerous Oxford scholars, including Sir Isaiah Berlin, a philosopher who is frequently featured in our Great Books curriculum.

Accompanying reading material: The Silmarillion by J.R.R. Tolkein

Blackwell’s Bookshop

Blackwell’s is a required destination for any bibliophile. The shop’s small façade belies the absolute mountains of books hidden beneath it. A visit to Blackwell’s starts out normally enough: you enter the first floor of what looks like a perfectly normal bookstore.


Blackwell’s misleadingly small storefront

Then you turn a corner, and find a staircase. At the end, a gigantic room of books…and another staircase. It’s hard to find the end of this amazing bookstore. Blackwell’s has its own art shop, a cartography room, an entire print music store, and more book-loving gifts and memorabilia than you are likely to find anywhere else.


Not nearly all the books inside Blackwell’s.

Accompanying reading material: Literally anything you can or cannot imagine.

Are you interested in visiting these amazing sites of English literary history? Join us at Oxford for an unforgettable summer of literature and travel.

December Bookshelf: Books to Give and Get this Holiday Season

We at GBHQ know that books make the best gifts, because between the pages of each present is an entire world waiting to be unfurled.  Here are our top recommendations for all the readers on your holiday shopping list this year.

The Marvels by Brian SelznickMarvels_Standing
Brian Selznick’s newest novel perfects the form he popularized in The Invention of Hugo Cabret.  The Marvels tells two related stories back to back: the first, told entirely in Selznick’s beautiful drawings, chronicles generations of the Marvels, a family of Shakespearean actors living in London.  The second story, written in prose, tells the story of a young runaway, Joseph, his mysterious uncle Albert and the secrets of his London home.  As the secrets of the house begin to reveal themselves, Joseph learns “Aut visum aut non” (“You either see it or you don’t”) as the juxtaposed stories begin to converge.

This is an engaging story for readers of all ages, especially for Shakespeare enthusiasts, and the book’s gilt pages and quality illustrations make it a beautiful gift in and of itself.

Atwood_HeartGoesLastThe Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood
Margaret Atwood just released a new book in September, and fans of such Atwood classics as The Handmaid’s Tale are so excited.  This book is a great gift for fans of science fiction, particular speculative fiction, the form Atwood has perfected, in which she imagines a world just a little bit past our own, where dystopian inevitabilities have become realities.  This latest novel deals with a near future in which the prison industrial complex has become the primary economy, and where families may choose to voluntarily imprison themselves for half the year in a twisted suburban timeshare scenario.

Don Quixote: 400th Anniversary Edition by Miguel de CervantesRestless_quixote
Give the classics lover in your life a new take on one of the most popular novels in literary history.  This new edition, by international publisher Restless Books, includes original artwork, a video teaching series, an exclusive online discussion forum, and a new introduction by Great Books co-founder and Academic Director Ilan Stavans.

Twain and Stanley Enter Paradise by Oscar HijuolesTwainStanleyParadise
Pulitzer Prize winning author Oscar Hijuoles was fascinated by the friendship between Mark Twain and Sir Henry Morton Stanley (the journalist and explorer famous for the line “Doctor Livingstone, I presume?”).  Although Twain has endured far more in the contemporary American imagination, at the time he said of his friend Stanley, “When I contrast what I have achieved in my measurably brief life with what [Stanley] has achieved in his possibly briefer one, the effect is to sweep utterly away the ten-story edifice of my own self-appreciation and leave nothing behind but the cellar” (from an 1886 introductory speech).  Hijuoles was fascinated by the friendship of these two giants of American culture, and was working on the book right until his death in 2013—the novel was just published posthumously in November 2015.  Its epic, decades-spanning scope, as well as cameos from the era’s literary luminaries from Bram Stoker to Arthur Conan Doyle, makes Twain and Stanley Enter Paradise a great gift for historical novel buffs, especially those with a love of Victorian literary history and adventure stories.

Whitman Illuminated: Song of Myself by Walt Whitman and Allen Crawford
Sometimes, the best gift for a classics lover is one of their favorite books with a new twist.  We recommend Whitman Illuminated, which takes one of his most beloved poems and illustrates it across 234 pages—like monkish manuscripts, with a modern twist.


Each of the beautiful pages in this book is a gift in and of itself, and you can buy many of Crawford’s prints, if you’d prefer to hang one on your wall.

GBSP Bookshelf: National Book Award Nominees, 2015

Last year, I fell so in love with one of the National Book Award fiction nominees that I decided to read all five contenders, simply to prove that my favorite deserved the win. While this didn’t exactly work out in my favor, I’ve decided to make my November reading challenge a tradition. I’ll admit that because I wasn’t trying to prove a point this year, my reading wasn’t as enthusiastic or driven as it was in 2014. However, I do appreciate the opportunity to read some really excellent, contemporary literature every year, some of which would otherwise never cross my path. So, once again, since you probably don’t have time to read five books before the National Book Awards tonight, here are my reviews.

Fortune Smiles by Adam Johnson
ajohnson_fortunesmilesI always have difficulty reading collections of short fiction, so I was dismayed to see that there were two short story collections among the five fiction nominees this year. I have trouble keeping track of point of view shifts when I’m trying to read quickly, and this makes me try and find coherence among stories that are not necessarily connected. This was certainly my struggle with Fortune Smiles, which tells stories as diverse as: a Silicone Valley tech developer and his recently paralyzed wife; a UPS driver in Louisiana in the aftermath of two devastating hurricanes; a breast cancer patient and her author husband; a pedophile computer programmer and the children he cares for; a former Stasi prison guard who denies the injustices of his past; and a pair of North Korean defectors trying to adapt to life in Seoul.

It is absolutely refreshing to read a book that attempts to capture such very different voices and perspectives within its pages. I recommend taking more than a single night to read this book, as each stories stands alone, and deserves to (the exception being “Dark Meadow,” the story about the pedophile which we learn is the creation of the breast cancer patient’s husband in the story “Interesting Facts”).

My favorite story was the first in the collection, “Nirvana,” in which a man grapples both with his wife’s rare disease and the recent assassination of the American President by programming a digital holographic projection of the President. The main character, and ultimately, everyone he sees, uses the President as a vessel for their problems and solutions, and I could have read an entire novel that took place in this world.

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
hyanagihara_littlelifeThis 736-page novel, also short-listed for the Man Booker Prize, is a daunting masterpiece. It follows four college roommates—JB the artist, Willem the actor, Malcolm the architect, and Jude the lawyer—as they grow, struggle, and become successful in their fields. At first, I despaired; I did not have the patience to read the struggle-until-you-make-it stories of four privileged men in New York City for more than 700 pages. Thankfully, the focus of this novel shifts primarily to Jude, the friend whose mysterious past separates him from the others, and which they sometimes resent. Over the course of the novel, we follow Jude into the secrets of his past while watching their ramifications unfold in his present.

This novel was beautiful, and intimate, and I am still thinking about the characters. It should be noted that its realistic, honest portrayals venture into realms of trauma that are painful, and at times might be triggering to readers. I don’t know how the Man Booker nomination will affect the decisions of the National Book judges, but this novel is my pick based purely on the immersive reading experience.

The Turner House by Angela Flournoy
aflournoy_turnerhouseThis novel tells the story of the Turner family, their thirteen children, and their house in Detroit. It jumps back and forth in time, between the Turners’ initial migration from Arkansas to Detroit in the 1940s, and their children’s present-day personal struggles. Most compelling among these is the eldest son, Cha-Cha’s, haunting by a “haint” as he tries to keep his family together through a period of change. The changes within the family are clearly mirrored by the changes to their neighborhood in Detroit.

Mostly, I wish this novel were longer. With the exception of those brief glimpses into the past, the matriarch and patriarch’s characters are developed through the eyes of their thirteen children. While this is perhaps an accurate portrayal of family history and collective memory, I really wanted to hear more from Viola and Francis Turner—especially Viola—as they transitioned to their new lives in Detroit. I also wanted to understand more about Cha-Cha, and formerly his father’s, “haint.” It was easy to care about these characters, and I would have enjoyed learning much more about them.

Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff
lgroff_fatesandfuriesThis book is probably the most popular of the five nominees, so I was confused by how little I was enjoying the first half of the book. It tells the story of a young married couple, Mathilde and Lotto (short for Lancelot, of course) as they struggle to come into their own as artists and lovers. The first half of the book, “Fates,” is from Lotto’s perspective, and I did not enjoy reading about this vapid actor/playwright who barely acknowledges his wife within his narrative. As I have already mentioned, I have very little patience for the struggles of the artistic bourgeoisie.

I understood the book’s hype by the second half of the novel, “Furies,” which is told from Mathilde’s much darker and more interesting perspective. Here we see that where Lotto fondly remembers their bohemian poverty in their first New York apartment, Mathilde remembers skipping meals in order to pay the bills. Throughout, themes of Greek tragedy pervade, including interjections into the narrative by a sort of Greek chorus in parentheses. This device is clever, and serves to unify the two disparate narratives in a satisfying way.

Refund by Karen Bender    
kbender_refundThis is another short story collection, which, again, I have difficulty reading even when I’m not rushing through self-imposed reading challenges. I therefore appreciated that this collection of short stories was unified around the theme of money; all of the characters are motivated by needing, wanting, getting, and having money. Karen Bender is excellent at rendering relationships between characters, whether the wealthy grandfather and his estranged granddaughter, the husband and wife in debt, or the woman grieving the sudden death of her friend. I also really enjoyed Bender’s writing style; it’s simple, but beautiful in that way that addresses universal concepts in ways you’ve never thought about before. I kept finding myself highlighting phrases and thinking, “huh, I’ve never thought about competition between siblings like that before, but you’re absolutely right.” While I did appreciate a unifying theme to tie the stories together, I felt that the characters portrayed were less diverse and uniquely interesting than those from Adam Johnson’s Fortune Smiles.

The verdict: A Little Life ought to win for its beautiful scope and intimacy with its characters. The Turner House will win for telling the story of a place as much as a family, especially because Detroit stands out among a pool of novels that take place in New York and the San Francisco Bay Area. Fortune Smiles will win for its creative diversity of perspectives. All are absolutely worth reading, no matter which one the judges pick tonight.

GBSP Bookshelf: Spooky Reads for October

Here at GBHQ, the weather is turning crisp, the leaves are starting to color, and candy corn can be found in every store. It must be time to read in preparation for Halloween, so here are our favorite spooky picks to get you ready for ghosts, goblins, and all things uncanny.
“The Murders in the Rue Morgue” by Edgar Allan Poe
Perhaps it’s obvious to suggest any of Poe’s uncanny thrillers for this time of year, but this time we recommend one of his lesser known stories, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.” Considered by many to be the first modern detective story, “The Murders at Rue Morgue” contains all the things you love about a good mystery: a gruesome murder, a dark European streetscape, and a monstrous suspect.

HalloweenTreeThe Halloween Tree by Ray Bradbury
This is one of the few books that Ray Bradbury wrote for a young audience, but it has endured as a classic for all ages. It tells the story of eight trick-or-treaters who are swept up in a “dark Something,” and must follow the mysterious Mr. Moundshroud through time and space in search of their lost friend. The writing is as imaginative and beautiful as you would expect from Bradbury, and carries the reader through the history of Halloween myth.

“The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” by Washington IrvingSleepyHollow
You probably know the tale of Ichabod Crane and the Headless Horseman, but you may not realize how funny the original story is to read. “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” was originally published under the pseudonym Diedrich Knickerbocker, a fictional historian whom Irving used for his own brand of viral marketing. Before his collection of stories was published, Irving claimed that the historian Knickerbocker had gone missing, and that his manuscript would be published if he did not turn up and pay his hotel bill. The city of New York was enthralled in the mystery of the missing Knickerbocker, and even more enthralled when his laugh-out-loud Halloween classic was published later that year.

MissPeregrineMiss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs
Ransom Riggs is known for his method of blending stories with found vintage photographs. The result in his Miss Peregrine series is absolutely eerie. It tells the story of a young man, Jacob, who stumbles upon his family’s past, which includes a community of children with peculiar talents. The accompanying photographs, of children floating on air or with holes through their bodies, sets the stage for the creepy adventure that Jacob and his friends embark upon. The third book in this series, Library of Souls, was just released at the end of September.

“Young Goodman Brown” by Nathaniel HawthorneYoungGoodmanBrown
Hawthorne is another reliable author when it comes to dark and spooky tales, especially because he was haunted by his ancestor’s legacy in the Salem Witch Trials. In that vein, we recommend one of our Great Books favorites, “Young Goodman Brown.” In this allegorical classic, a man in Salem, Massachusetts goes into the woods to meet the devil, and loses his faith along the way.

TheGraveyardBookThe Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
We recommended this book last year, and we will continue to recommend it, because your friendly GBHQ blogger will not rest until everyone has read this book. This unique novel (and its brilliant illustrations by Dave McKean) tells the story of Nobody “Bod” Owens, an orphan boy who is adopted and raised by the otherworldly inhabitants of the local graveyard. It’s the Jungle Book wrapped up in ghosts, vampires, and European legends.

GBSP Bookshelf: Readings for Women’s History Month

In honor of Women’s History Month in March, here are our picks for female writers you should read. At first, this task proved impossible, because there are so many female writers whose work you should read (it was really hard for us to pick just one author). Below, find our favorite empowered women, from classic reads to YA, and stories of female triumph:

ZamiAudre Lorde was a Caribbean-American writer, womanist, scholar, and civil rights activist. Her “biomythography” Zami: A New Spelling of My Name is a beautiful exploration of a young woman’s struggle to find her identity while growing up in Harlem. In 1980 Audre Lorde cofounded Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, the first American publisher to give voice specifically to female writers of color including Cherrie Moraga and Gloria Anzaldua.

Louisa May Alcott is best known for Little Women, an enduring classic about four New England sisters growing up into society and keeping their faith while their father serves as a chaplain in the Civil War. Alcott is known for her activism in the realms of abolition and women’s rights, and her biting wit. We recommend Hospital Sketches, which details her time as a Civil War nurse and is laugh-out-loud funny in addition to politically apt.

Jane Austen – there’s really nothing of Austen’s we don’t recommend. If you’re in the mood for a classic tale of love, propriety and the historical, go Pride and Prejudice or Sense and Sensibility. Northanger Abbey is hilarious, and the most direct satire of the melodramatic gothic writing that had taken female readers by storm in the late 18th century.bronte

Anne Brontë, although the least popular of the Brontë sisters today, was also the most progressive in terms of writing about women’s rights and independence. Her second and final novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, was controversial and ahead of its time for portraying an empowered female character who leaves an unhappy marriage.

Judy BlumeAre You There God? It’s Me, Margaret is about 6th grader Margaret, a pre-teen trying to reconcile her mixed religious heritage, while also dealing with boys, moving to a new city, and PMS. This is a wonderful book for young ladies, as it deals with finding yourself and finding  your faith, and all of the awkward pre-teen moments in between.

Toni Morrison was the first (and only) Black woman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. All of her novels are beautiful and challenging examinations of Black female life in the United States and the Diaspora. Our favorite around GBHQ is Beloved, and her newest novel, God Help the Child, will be released this April.


Jhumpa LahiriInterpreter of Maladies

Jodi PicoultMy Sister’s Keeper

J.K. Rowling – Harry Potter. Of course.

Edith WhartonHouse of Mirth

Lucille Maude MontgomeryAnne of Green Gables

Charlotte BrontëJane Eyre

Kate Chopin The Awakening

Harper LeeTo Kill a Mockingbird

Mary ShelleyFrankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus

Virginia Woolf To the Lighthouse

The GBSP Bookshelf: Short Reads for the Short Month of February

February is a short month, and fewer days means less time to reach your reading goals. We at GBHQ are all about savoring books that you can’t let go of, and devouring books when you can’t wait to know what’s next, but we also know sometimes you just have to read quickly. Here are recommendations to swiftly carry you through the next 28 days.

OceanAtEndLandThe Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

Clocking in at 181 pages, this short novel started as a short story, and reads like one. It’s about a man returning home and dredging up a dark, fantastical past that is perfectly Gaiman-esque. (Find Heather a book list category, she will find you a Gaiman book that fits it.)

The Symposium by Plato

Craving some philosophy during this short month? Look no further than The Symposium, one of Plato’s shorter reports of Socrates’ philosophical dialogues. The seven scholars in The Symposium each deliver a speech on the genesis and nature of Eros, or Love—an excellent primer for Valentine’s Day.

Passing by Nella LarsenPassing

Though only 102 pages in length, Passing is a novel of incredible beauty and remarkable depth. It chronicles the reunion of two mixed-race women, childhood best friends Clare and Irene, in Harlem in the 1920s. The central theme—and central tragedy—of this short novel centers around Clare’s passing as a white woman in order to marry her white husband, Jack. Nella Larsen is worth reading all year long, and is especially relevant in February during Black History Month.


Can’t and Won’t: Short Stories by Lydia Davis

Lydia Davis’s most recent collection of work is critically acclaimed for its poetic ability to tell beautiful, complicated stories in very few words. Many of the pieces in this collection might be considered Flash Fiction, which focuses on conveying narrative in as few words as possible. Flash fiction is an extreme way to get your reading done quickly this month, and Can’t and Won’t is a gorgeous place to start.

Murakami-Strange-LibraryThe Strange Library by Haruki Murakami

Graphic novels are a great go-to when your reading time is compressed. Because words share space with pictures, there is less to read, and meaning is usually conveyed in more ways than one. This is certainly true of Murakami’s 96-page masterpiece about a young boy who is locked in a library and forced to memorize the books he wishes to learn from. Unfortunately, he soon learns there will be consequences to such book learning. We at GBHQ are huge fans of Murakami’s lovely strangeness, and—of course—even bigger fans of books about books.

The GBSP Bookshelf: New Year’s Resolution Reads

At Great Books, we always encourage members of our community to “Be the best version of yourself.” For this first GBSP Bookshelf of the New Year, we bring you books about starting and starting over, and books that you should resolve to read.

The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer (Heather’s pick, because when you work at a summer camp, everyone tells you to TheInterestingsread this novel.) This relatively new novel follows a group of kids from a summer arts camp in Massachusetts in 1974 through adulthood. The story focuses on their first experiences of self-fashioning at camp, and how the selves they create lead to the people they become. And who doesn’t love stories about awesome summer camp communities full of quirky kids? Be warned that this book does depict some mature language and themes not condoned by GBHQ.

The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan
(Mel’s pick) Pollan’s natural history of food and eating gets you thinking about how eating habits affect the world around you. It confronts our current dilemmas with the industrialization of food, but rather than tell the reader what they should and shouldn’t eat, this book attempts to make us more discerning and attentive of our food. This book changed Mel’s perspective on eating and the importance of savoring mealtimes, and she recommends it for anyone who—like her—loves history, anthropology, and of course, food.

Consolations of Philosophy by Alain de Botton (Mindy’s pick. She writes:)
consolations_philosophyPeople often use the clean-slate of the New Year to “reinvent” themselves externally, but for those aspiring for internal changes I would recommend the Consolations of Philosophy by Alain de Botton. It’s a kind of high-brow self-help book (stay with me…) that takes the teachings of great western philosophers and makes them actually useful! There’s a section on Inadequacy and Montaigne, another on how to deal with difficulties referencing the life and works of Nietzsche and so on. It’s a quick, witty and actually useful read for anyone looking to better themselves in 2015.

Book_of_Strange_New_ThingsThe Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber
A science-fictional take on starting over, this novel follows Peter Leigh, a Christian missionary sent to convert the inhabitants of a distant planet called Oasis. There, he must grapple with humanity, difference, similarity, and requisite sci-fi plot twists.

White Teeth by Zadie Smith
Smith’s award-winning novel begins on New Year’s Day 1975, when one of the main characters makes a life-changing decision and finds a new lease on life. This beautiful novel, in which old world meets new, follows two families living in North London to explore issues of empire, cultural identity, and family history.


According to a survey done by BookRiot, there are a number of classics people pretend to have read but have never actually read. Their extensive research on the subject (see this fun venn diagram) also shows that the books people put off reading forever and finally read often become their favorites.

Moby Dick by Herman Melville seems to be many readers’ White Whale, along with Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and James Joyce’s Ulysses. These books are pretty thick, so why not resolve to read one in 2015? You may find your new favorite classic.

What are you reading in the New Year? Do you have any reading resolutions for 2015?