Thoughtful Thursday: Shadows and Light

Have you ever had trouble understanding what’s so amazing and brilliant about a certain writer’s work and wondered, “Am I the only one who just doesn’t get it?”

I’ve had this problem with Gene Wolfe‘s short stories. Wolfe is frequently described as one of the most brilliant SF writers by critics, authors, and readers. There is even a WolfeWiki dedicated to discussing the intricacies of his work. But many other readers are baffled and frustrated by his stories because they are packed with metaphors, literary references, and hidden themes that require extremely close reading to understand and appreciate.

Last year I tried twice to finish The Best of Gene Wolfe: A Retrospective of His Finest Fiction. I failed both times. Frustrated, but unwilling to give up, I went looking for help and discovered Between Light and Shadow: An Exploration of the Fiction of Gene Wolfe, 1951 to 1986 by fan and scholar Marc Aramini (who I have since interviewed). This 826-page text offers a painstaking analysis of symbols, names, literary references, and themes in Wolfe’s stories. Aramini cast some light into those shadows, illuminating my mind and allowing me to experience and appreciate Wolfe in a new way.

I’ve learned that one of the great thing about books is that if you don’t like them the first time, you can always come back and try again, and often it’s useful to seek help from experts.

Have you had any similar experiences? If so, we’d love to hear about it. One random commenter will receive either a Kindle version of Between Light and Shadow, or may choose a book from our stacks.

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STUART STAROSTA, on our staff from March 2015 to November 2018, is a lifelong SFF reader who makes his living reviewing English translations of Japanese equity research. Despite growing up in beautiful Hawaii, he spent most of his time reading as many SFF books as possible. After getting an MA in Japanese-English translation in Monterey, CA, he lived in Tokyo, Japan for about 15 years before moving to London in 2017 with his wife, daughter, and dog named Lani. Stuart's reading goal is to read as many classic SF novels and Hugo/Nebula winners as possible, David Pringle's 100 Best SF and 100 Best Fantasy Novels, along with newer books & series that are too highly-praised to be ignored. His favorite authors include Philip K Dick, China Mieville, Iain M. Banks, N.K. Jemisin, J.G. Ballard, Lucius Shepard, Neal Stephenson, Kurt Vonnegut, George R.R. Martin, Neil Gaiman, Robert Silverberg, Roger Zelazny, Ursula K. LeGuin, Guy Gavriel Kay, Arthur C. Clarke, H.G. Wells, Olaf Stapledon, J.R.R. Tolkien, Mervyn Peake, etc.

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  1. I find Wolfe very difficult, too. Thanks for the suggestion of this book!

  2. Nothing exactly like that, mostly there are some really popular books that I just cannot get into. One should be perfect for me because some of the themes and settings are just what I like. In case you are curious, this is Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. I’ve tried three times to read it and I just get bored before I can get through the first fifth of the book. Don’t get me wrong, I love large books and have no problem devouring them (I read and enjoyed the entire Baroque Cycle for example) but this one just bores me to tears.

    I’ve never tried Gene Wolfe, mostly because none of his stories seem to be of interest to me. I could be convinced otherwise, if anyone is of a mind to try :-)

    • Hi April, I’ve heard that comment about Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, as well as John Crowley’s Little, Big. Quite a few readers have said those books are way to long and slow-moving, but then others consider them masterpieces of fantasy. I plan to listen to both in audiobook at some point (next year maybe?), since I want to see which camp I fall into. And interesting you mentioned the Baroque Cycle – opinion on that also is very divided – it’s fans love it, and detractors say it’s unreadable! Again, haven’t tried yet but I have a split opinion of Stephenson’s books.

      • Yes, that is why I mentioned it in this context. The Baroque Cycle is long and long-winded and turns off many readers in precisely the way that I think Jonathan Strange & Mr Norell seems to do to me. Shrug. We all like what we like!

  3. M. Robinson /

    I’ve not experienced anything like this before — or I’m still ignorant of having done so. I haven’t read Gene Wolfe

  4. Mine is not necessarily about the writing style, but I’ve never understood the hype around Harry Potter.

    • Do you mean that you’ve read them and felt ‘meh’? I’ve often wondered why this became so popular when it did (just a note, I love the books and have read them multiple times) because there were other series that seemed to me to have just as much merit in story, character and style but never became nearly so popular. I guess that we’ll never know. Or, more likely, we’ll spend the rest of forever contemplating it and arguing over it ferociously ;-)

  5. Not exactly the same thing, but Terry Weyna persuaded me to give Seanan McGuire’s OCTOBER DAYE series another chance, by pointing out that the character is actually depressed in the first book. That change in perspective that was what I needed.

  6. And saying that, they’ve moved to my TBR list but I haven’t started them yet.

  7. One of my Goodreads friends said this about Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude – the first time she read it she didn’t understand or like it, but after drawing a diagram to keep track of all the characters named Buendia, she really got it after a second read.

  8. E. J. Jones /

    For me it’s Ursula K. LeGuin. I feel terrible about it, but I can’t seem to enjoy her work. I read Gifts and liked it, but I thought the series went downhill after that. I couldn’t even finish A Wizard of Earthsea. I have a huge amount of respect for LeGuin and all she’s accomplished in her life, but her books? Nope. Can’t do it.

    • M. Robinson /

      Interesting. I haven’t read her, but I entered a giveaway for one of her books last week.

      Earnest Hemmingway is an author I can’t get into; Sun Also Rises is the last one I tried and lost interest in. I also have a copy of In Our Time; it isn’t calling me.

    • My personal guilty secret – could never finish Wizard of Earthsea either! Although I haven’t tried in years.

  9. Hal, if you live in the USA, you win a copy of BETWEEN LIGHT AND SHADOW for Kindle, or a book of your choice.
    Please contact me (Marion) with your US address and I’ll have the book sent right away. Happy reading!

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