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Pretty Birds: A Novel [Kindle Edition]

Scott Simon
4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (46 customer reviews)

Print List Price: $15.00
Kindle Price: $9.99
You Save: $5.01 (33%)
Sold by: Random House LLC

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Book Description

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.


From the Hardcover edition.


Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. 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.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

Irena Zaric, a high-school basketball star in Sarajevo, is more preoccupied with game strategy and an affair with her coach than with her Muslim ethnicity. But when the Bosnian Serbs begin their campaign of ethnic cleansing, Irena and her parents find themselves among throngs of Muslims brutalized and driven from their homes. They take refuge in her grandmother's apartment and begin a regime for survival that has the father digging ditches for the military. Irena brings home beer and cigarettes from an ersatz job in a brewery that provides cover for a team of snipers led by Tedic, a Muslim with a knack for spotting talent he can use. Irena becomes disturbingly good at her task, growing a veneer of cynicism even as she pores over outdated Western magazines for fashion news and the latest antics of Madonna and Michael Jackson. 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. Vanessa Bush
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

Product Details

  • File Size: 358 KB
  • Print Length: 368 pages
  • Page Numbers Source ISBN: 1400063108
  • Publisher: Random House (May 3, 2005)
  • Sold by: Random House LLC
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B000FCK41I
  • Text-to-Speech: Not enabled
  • X-Ray:
  • Word Wise: Not Enabled
  • Lending: Not Enabled
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #405,300 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
43 of 45 people found the following review helpful
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
The siege of Sarajevo was the longest in the history of modern warfare, and the worst in Europe since the end of WWII. It lasted from April 5, 1992 to February 29, 1996.

Irena Zaric is, in many ways, a typical teenager. Irrepressibly energetic, buoyant, funny, loving, she is a star on her high school basketball team, Sarajevo's champions. She wears funky clothes - a gray West German jacket, Esprit jeans, red-and-black Air Jordans, American polo shirts, hecho en Honduras, and sports purple nail polish. Her best friend and teammate, Amela Divacs, blonde and curvaceous, is considered prettier by the local boys, but lithe Irena, with the k .d. lang haircut, is thought to be sexier. She doesn't dwell much on politics, history or culture - she's a jock(!) - there are too many more important things on her mind, like athletics, her friends, acquiring copies of Q Magazine, Madonna, Johnny Depp, Michael Jordan, Princess Di, and the great Croatian player Toni Kukoc. Schoolwork is not a priority, although her teachers are not concerned about her. They know she is intelligent, that her "mind has depth." Of course she loves her parents, brother, (who is in Chicago), and grandmother, but like most teens, she takes them for granted. She adores Pretty Bird, her Timneh African gray parrot, who is an outrageous mimic, able to imitate the sounds of the telephone ringing, the doorbell, the refrigerator opening, the vacuum cleaner, and, best of all, the sound of a basketball hitting the hoop.

The war begins suddenly for Irena, on a warm weekend in March. Students march for peace and are shot for their idealism. Serb police take off their uniforms and badges and become the "paramilitaries," clothed in menacing black. They erect barriers and declare the land beyond, Serb Sarajevo.
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28 of 30 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars So sad, so brutal, so human July 5, 2005
By RDN
Format:Hardcover
This is the first fictionalized account that I have read of the wars of 1991-1995 in the former Yugoslavia. I have consumed nearly every non-fiction work there is on that part of the world and that time period in particular. Much of it is slanted toward one faction or the other, with some seeking to justify the 'self-defence' of the Serbs and others seeking to inspire sympathy for the poor, suffering Bosnians or Croats who were on the receiving end of the violence.

While reading any of these accounts, it is best to remember that tomorrow's trip to the bookstore will deliver a completely different perspective....making it hard to know the truth about anything.

Fortunately, if only in fiction, Scott Simon has captured the true human tragedy of this little piece of history. I lived and worked in Sarajevo beginning at the end of the war and through the early years of reconstruction. My colleagues lived through the scenes that Mr. Simon describes in such horrendous detail, buried loved ones in soccer fields and ate Spam and weevil-infested grain (when they could get it). They have a lot to teach us about what it means to be a human being.

This book will help any reader understand why war....any war....is wrong. Read the book, and think about what you would do in the situations portrayed there. Think about where your soul would be when it was all said and done. Wonder whether you would ever be able to get it back again after witnessing and participating in that kind of mindless animal behavior and purposeful cruelty.
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15 of 16 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Quirky but good July 26, 2005
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Pretty Birds, by Scott Simon is a quirky piece of writing. Taking place during the Serbian-Bosnian conflict, its characters are coarse but strangely sensitive, tough yet vulnerable, darkly humorous in the midst of savagery. Its main character - I hesitate to say protagonist (more on that below) - is Irena Zaric a seventeen-year-old Muslim girl living in Sarajevo. She's a talented basketball player obsessed with fame, make-up, pop music and clothes. That her metamorphosis from typical teen to talented sniper seems logical is a tribute to Simon's offbeat narrative skills.

The novel - more of a literary reality show - portrays the pressures of urban warfare in a sort of diary fashion. While snipers kill grandmothers and teens in the streets, much is made of normal things: magazines and pop culture, beer and cigarettes, teen sex and family relationships.

The title refers to such a piece of minutiae. Pretty Bird is the Zaric family parrot, a sonic reproducer of whizzing bullets, bomb and mortar explosions, sirens, doorbells, telephones and microwaves. But the bird eventually comes to symbolize the pretty Sarajevan girls, who somehow remain resistant to war's animosities.

Simon, a war correspondent for NPR, draws on his experiences in Sarajevo to demonstrate an eyebrow-raising facility with fictional technique. For the first ten pages we see Irena at work as a sniper, followed by some eighty pages of flashback - an invitation to disaster for most novelists. He also manages to make conversations work between peripheral characters, providing editorial comments on the U.N.'s role there, Western Europe's blasé attitude toward the conflict, even a new twist to the hackneyed "war is hell" adage.

With all that works, what doesn't?
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent novel. Great book club book
Excellent novel. Great book club book.
Published 25 days ago by alaska65
4.0 out of 5 stars Four Stars
Enjoyed Simon's tale after touring that war torn area and spending some time in Sarajevo.
Published 1 month ago by KOL
5.0 out of 5 stars It is sad, brutally honest and very well written
Fabulous book! It is sad, brutally honest and very well written. Author was even able to add some humor to the bad situations. Read more
Published 3 months ago by Irina
5.0 out of 5 stars A fine work of war literature.
A very compelling story from the Balkan War. Mr. Simon obviously knows the city of Sarajevo and the history of the war and the siege. His characters are compelling. Read more
Published 7 months ago by Brian Condron
5.0 out of 5 stars Insightful on Bosian-Serb War, Even moe telling on the Human Condition
Simon takes us on a remarkable journey to Sarajevo where we live the life of a teenage girl caught up in an ethnic war. Read more
Published 12 months ago by ernest schusky
5.0 out of 5 stars Get in the middle of a town under siege.
Excellent writing. Amazingly adept at catching the spirit of the people in very difficult times through his dialog. All the characters are real- no punches are pulled.
Published 13 months ago by Perry
5.0 out of 5 stars Scott Simon can do no wrong.
He is my favorite voice on public radio, and if he writes and produces his own material, he's a wizard. I only get to hear him one day a week nowadays.
Published 13 months ago by P. Bean
5.0 out of 5 stars Read this in a day
I originally "had" to read this as part of a class assignment (working on my masters), but actually finished reading it in like 24 hours. Read more
Published 15 months ago by Ttweek
3.0 out of 5 stars Tough Subject but Interesting Perspective for Telling this Sad Part of...
The book was actually written well, but the subject is so difficult and sad, violent and frustrating, that it was hard for me to finish this novel. Read more
Published 20 months ago by MAD
3.0 out of 5 stars A Reminder of Terrible War
I'm of two minds with this book. I feel that this was a well told story, but then when I think about the content, there are too many implausibilities, coincidences, and... Read more
Published 20 months ago by Paul
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