Powells.com & The Morning News Present


Tom Wolfe (FSG)

I Am Charlotte Simmons

vs. Birds Without Wings

Louis de Bernieres (Knopf)

Judged by John Warner

Previously, when Wolfe trained his keen eye on unknown subcultures like stock-car drivers or astronauts, the resulting reports were fresh and fascinating. In focusing on an experience (college) that is so widely known, his breathless observations in I Am Charlotte Simmons are often stale. College students drink, have sex, say “fuck” a lot, and drive SUVs. Surprise! His title character, an academically gifted but sheltered girl from Sparta, N.C., is also patently fraudulent. At one point, another character jokes that it’s as if Charlotte is from Mars. I’d say it’s more as if she’s from a small box on the surface of Mars. She is naive to the point of impossibility.

Still, this book is not nearly as bad as many of the major reviews make it out to be. Despite the hollow center, the outside is chewy enough to satisfy, with a number of fine set pieces and a plot that, while too conveniently wrapped up, holds enough interest to keep you reading through to the end. After my initial shock about how absolutely wrong the book is on so many subjects, I actually enjoyed it.

Birds Without Wings is a book more to be admired than enjoyed. A sprawling tale covering the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire at the turn of the 20th century as recounted by what seemed like 40 different characters, it takes nearly half a book of background to set the story in motion. Said story is wise, humane, and infused with an obviously deep knowledge of the people, place, and era.

It bored me to tears. I had to rig up a Clockwork Orange-type contraption to keep my eyes open and moving across the page. This probably says more about my own deficiencies than it does about any faults of the book. Nevertheless, I’m giving this match to Wolfe.


Judge: John Warner
Age: 34
Types of books you tend to read frequently:
Contemporary fiction and non-fiction.
Types of books you rarely read:
Romance, science fiction.
Favorite book of all time:
A Fan's Notes