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 charactera 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.
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
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 soundsthe scorch of a shot, a scream, a humdrum thudcould 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 ...
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).
Full Review (344 words).
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.
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