2006 Winner New York Public Library Books for the Teen Age
Synopses & Reviews
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.
"Young women served as snipers for both Bosnian and Serbian forces during the siege of Sarajevo; Simon, a prize-winning correspondent and NPR Weekend Edition host, interviewed one of them and has masterfully imagined her life. The book begins with half-Muslim Irena, 17, perched on a rooftop, wearing a black ski mask, sighting down a rifle and listening to a sneering Serbian propagandist on the radio ('The Yanks send you food Americans wouldn't give to their dogs') before she pulls the trigger. Simon then flashes back to the spring of 1992, when Irena, her parents and her parrot, Pretty Bird, must flee their home on the mostly Serb side of the city. When they make it (barely) to her grandmother's apartment, they find her slain on the staircase. Simon's account of the family's refugee life sans water, electricity and supplies, they eat snail-and-grass soup is full of brilliant details ranging from the comic to the heartbreaking. When a former assistant principal spots Irena, once a high school basketball star, he offers her a job that quickly has her recruited, indoctrinated and trained in deception and weaponry. That's when the action really begins to move along. Pretty Bird is released for mercy's sake, flies to his old home and is caught by Amela a Christian and Irena's former classmate and teammate who concocts a devious and difficult plan to return him to her friend. A deeply felt, boldly told story and clean, forceful prose distinguish this striking first novel. Agent, Jonathan Lazear. (May)" Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"[T]his extraordinary debut illuminates a time and place where civilians fought back....A magnificent tribute, not just to the Sarajevans whose siege Simon reported, but to the indestructible human spirit." Kirkus Reviews
"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." Booklist
"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....Simon's novel is a fine tribute to the heroes and victims who were his friends [in Sarajevo]." The Washington Post
"Pretty Birds...is an example of what can go right when a journalist turns novelist. Simon...loads the book with a specificity that comes from a seasoned reportorial eye....[A] riveting and heartbreaking tale." Christian Science Monitor
"The author, host of NPR's Weekend Edition Saturday, has worked as a war correspondent in Sarajevo, and it shows in the authentic, gritty details....Highly recommended." Library Journal
"[A]n honest story of people in crisis, a tribute to the human spirit that flourishes in the grimmest soil, and...simply one of the best war novels of our time." San Antonio Express-News
"[A]n important document describing a specific time and place....Simon's novel is a cliffhanger, a deeply moving rebuke of war and a heartbreaking tale about the bonds of friendship." The Oregonian (Portland, OR)
"At times Pretty Birds lacks a sense of the otherness of a foreign culture with its own references and modes of thought. Sometimes the sensibility just feels American." Chicago Tribune
This mortal chess game of guile and manipulation plays out against the backdrop of beautiful, war-torn Sarajevo as two high school friends one Muslim, one Christian struggle to survive the Serbs' ethnic cleansing.
A respected NPR journalist and bestselling memoirist makes his fiction debut with this intense, startling, and tragicomic portrait of a young woman--a former high school basketball star turned sniper--in the besieged city of Sarajevo in the early 1990s.
About the Author
Scott Simon is the host of National Public Radio's Weekend Edition with Scott Simon
. He has covered ten wars, 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.