Summary and book reviews of Pretty Birds by Scott Simon

Pretty Birds

By Scott Simon

Pretty Birds
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  • Hardcover: May 2005,
    368 pages.
    Paperback: May 2006,
    368 pages.

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Book Summary

The universally respected NPR journalist and bestselling memoirist Scott Simon makes a dazzling fiction debut. In Pretty Birds, Simon creates an intense, startling, and tragicomic portrait of a classic character–a young woman in the besieged city of Sarajevo in the early 1990s.

In the spring of 1992, Irena Zaric is a star on her Sarajevo high school basketball team, a tough, funny teenager who has taught her parrot, Pretty Bird, to do a decent imitation of a ball hitting a hoop. Irena wears her hair short like k. d. lang's, and she loves Madonna, Michael Jordan, and Johnny Depp. But while Irena rocks out and shoots baskets with her friends, her beloved city has become a battleground. When the violence and terror of "ethnic cleansing" against Muslims begins, Irena and her family, brutalized by Serb soldiers, flee for safety across the river that divides the city.

If once Irena knew of war only from movies and history books, now she knows its reality. She steals from the dead to buy food. She scuttles under windows in her own home to dodge bullets. She risks her life to communicate with an old Serb school friend and teammate. Even Pretty Bird has started to mimic the sizzle of mortar fire.

In a city starved for work, a former assistant principal offers Irena a vague job, "duties as assigned," which she accepts. She begins by sweeping floors, but soon, under the tutelage of a cast of rogues and heroes, she learns to be a sniper, biding her time, never returning to the same perch, and searching her targets for the "mist" that marks a successful shot. Ultimately, Irena's new vocation will lead to complex and cataclysmic consequences for herself and those she loves.

As a journalist, Scott Simon covered the siege of Sarajevo. Here, in a novel as suspenseful as a John le Carré thriller, he re-creates the atmosphere of that place and time and the pain and dark humor of its people. Pretty Birds is a bold departure, and the auspicious beginning of yet another brilliant career for its author.

1.
November 1992

Irena Zaric put her last stick of gum in her mouth, winked at a bird, and wondered where to put her last bullet before going home. Sometimes she conferred with the pigeons that flocked along her arms. "What have you seen, boy? What's going on over there?" The birds were cohorts; they roosted together.

The grim sky was beginning to open into a briny blue. The first winds of the day from the hills blew in with a bite of sun and a smell of snow. It was the time of day when sharp sounds—the scorch of a shot, a scream, a humdrum thud—could be heard best in the hollow streets. After a long night alone in the city's rafters, Irena was consoled by the swish of the pigeons. They reassured her: she wasn't the only one left in town.

The birds were tired and, she imagined, cranky from hunting for tree ...

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Reviews

BookBrowse

Scott Simon, through his first hand experience of the Seige of Sarajevo, brings the people and the events to life in this extremely strong first novel. I recommend it to all adults, and also for older teens.   (Reviewed by BookBrowse Review Team).

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Media Reviews
The Washington Post - Patrick Anderson

It is no insult to Simon's novelistic skill to say that his book's excellence rests finally on his reporter's eye and ear. Certainly the novel puts a compelling human face on what was learned about the siege from news reports at the time. The assault on Sarajevo was an ugly, unspeakably sad moment in recent history, and Simon's novel is a fine tribute to the heroes and victims who were his friends there.

Booklist - Vanessa Bush

Simon, who has covered the siege of Sarajevo for NPR, puts the events in a war-torn land into human perspective with memorable characters struggling with issues of ethnicity, survival, friendship, and betrayal.

Publishers Weekly

A deeply felt, boldly told story and clean, forceful prose distinguish this striking first novel.

Library Journal - Mark Andr Singer

Pretty Birds is far better than Jonathan Rabb's conspiracy thriller The Book of Q and Natasha Radojcic-Kane's more partisan and unrelentingly grim Homecoming. For a Croatian perspective, see Slavenka Drakulic's S.: A Novel About the Balkans. Highly recommended for all adult fiction collections.

Kirkus Reviews

A magnificent tribute, not just to the Sarajevans whose siege Simon reported, but to the indestructible human spirit.

Reader Reviews
skreed

You have no idea
This book was brilliant, terrible and very affecting. The story of a high school girl living a normal life that suddenly and unexpectedly goes terribly terribly wrong...the process of her journey from innocence to assassin is not to be missed.

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Beyond the Book

Scott Simon is the host of National Public Radio's Weekend Edition with Scott Simon. He has covered ten wars (including the Sarajevo siege) from El Salvador to Iraq, and has won every major award in broadcasting, including the Peabody and the Emmy. His memoir, Home and Away, rose to the top of the Los Angeles Times nonfiction bestseller list. His second book, Jackie Robinson and the Integration of Baseball, was named Barnes & Noble's Sports Book of the Year.  He lives in Washington, D.C., with his wife and daughter.

The Balkans is the historic and geographic name used to describe South Eastern Europe. The region takes its name from ...

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