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Pretty Birds

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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.

368 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 2005

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About the author

Scott Simon

30 books95 followers
SCOTT SIMON is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters, having reported from all over the world and from many wars. He is now the award-winning host of Weekend Edition Saturday. With over 4 million listeners it is the most-listened to news program on NPR. Simon has won a Peabody and an Emmy for his reporting and also has over 1.2 million followers on Twitter.

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5 stars
373 (27%)
4 stars
576 (41%)
3 stars
305 (22%)
2 stars
92 (6%)
1 star
34 (2%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 183 reviews
20 reviews2 followers
February 23, 2008
This is one of the worst books I've ever read. It had so much potential and I tried very hard to like, to get into it, but the author just makes it impossible.

Simon tries to develop the characters, but he tries to develop every character just a little, causing his "development" to seem like a lot of pointless paragraphs about different random characters, that just make the characters seem strange. I never felt like I had a clear understanding of how each character felt about another. For example Jackie, Molly and Irena apparently had a closeness, but that was never apparent until the very end, and I felt like there had been little or no basis for that.

Simon makes a lot of obscure historical and political references that really don't seem to have much bearing, other than to show how smart he thinks he is. Or maybe they do and he just does a terrible job of making that clear.

The book seems disjointed, predictable and unrealistic. All in all, I wish I could have back all the hours I spent muddling my way through it. As I said, I tried very hard - usually I like books like this - but Simon just made it impossible.
Profile Image for Lydia.
50 reviews4 followers
August 22, 2010
This book, also about the Siege on Sarajevo, really really hit me hard because it's from the point of view of a high school girl, star basketball player, who happens to be Muslim and her best friend is a Serbian girl on her same team. It follows her through the Siege where she has to endure such horrible things and she feels obligated to take care of and stay strong for her parents who are old, weak, and lose hope. I just felt like I could really relate to the character...as a high school girl, but then seeing all the horrible things she's put through at a time when I was living such a care free life...it was just really fascinating to me, love it!
Profile Image for Linda.
276 reviews11 followers
September 3, 2011
Always challenging and sometimes amazing this book will surprise you. Thank you Scott Simon for giving us a tender memory of what War could have been like through the eyes of a teenage girl. As the War in Bosnia starts Ilena and her family run for their lives only to be caught by Serbian men who have come to kill and taunt the Muslims. I wanted to read this book be cause my brother was in Bosnia but as I started to read I wondered if I could finish reading due to the sheer inhumane acts this war entails. You will get to know the family intimately and join in their struggle for even daily water and bread that we take for granted. i highly reccomend this book and will read it again.
Profile Image for Amy.
27 reviews
February 17, 2012
this book haunted me for weeks after I finished. I passed it along to a friend who endured the siege of Sarajevo and his comment was "this man speaks the truth." phenomenal read
Profile Image for B.
32 reviews2 followers
June 12, 2020
The best word to describe this book would be "random." Perhaps "episodic" or "disjointed." From a craft standpoint, there is no discernible plot (yes, even character-driven or more "literary" fiction, which this pretends to be, needs some semblance of a plot, or momentum driving the story forward, building tension). "X historical event happened to our cast of characters" (in this case, the Bosnian War) is not a plot, nor does it contribute to the building of said momentum or tension. This was perhaps my biggest issue with this story, which, while written with the most noble intentions (presumably to raise awareness of this terrible and often-overlooked conflict that happened within the lifetimes of most people alive today), falls completely flat. It's a common issue plaguing fiction centered on wars: authors think that the war itself is enough of a plot to sustain a story, when it's not. When a semblance of a plot did appear, it was either at the very last minute and VERY dramatic/out of left field (need to find a way to end this novel!) or completely dropped (personally, I was curious about the true identity of the Knight) with no explanation.

Characterization was also poorly done. The teenage girls sound as if they were written by an older person with no idea how teenage girls actually are. I would imagine that even the most stereotypically "shallow" and "superficial" teenage girls would be understandably traumatized by war coming to their city and not spend all their time thinking about kissing boys as people die all around them. Everyone else was forgettable or a caricature that spoke in lengthy, informational monologues. The Bin Laden cameo...really?

Obviously, (dark) humor was one of the hallmarks of how Sarajevans coped with the siege but it doesn't translate well in this story at all. At times, the book's tone reminded me of that of the movie "Green Book," where the "light" or "comedic" tone was oftentimes inappropriate and seemed to be making light of the very serious subject matter. Perhaps the humor would've translated better if I'd cared more about the characters.

This book was also plagued with factual errors, which shocked me considering it was written by a journalist who had reported from the region. Socialist Yugoslavia was non-aligned (so not a "Russian/Soviet satellite"), the pre-war currency was the dinar (not the ruble--I had to laugh at this), Sarajevo and Bosnia were not a part of Serbia during WW2 (references are made to Milan Nedic--the Nazi puppet Prime Minster of Serbia--ordering the persecution/extermination of Bosnia's Jews) but rather the NDH (Independent State of Croatia, another Nazi puppet state)...I could go on. I get that fiction is fiction but when you are writing about a conflict that is so recent and so well-documented (both the Bosnian War and WW2), it really behooves you to be as factual as you can.

All in all, this is still only the second worst novel about the Bosnian War, and because there were a handful of moments that stirred me emotionally, this gets 1.5 stars.
Profile Image for Judy.
259 reviews4 followers
May 9, 2014
Lots of people have given this book lukewarm reviews, but I thought it was wonderful, in a dreadful sort of way. The subject matter is very difficult, and the ending particularly so... but predictable.

It takes place in Sarajevo during the siege of 1992 when Serbs divided the city and attempted to wipe out the Muslims on the other side of the river. The depiction of Sarajevo as a sophisticated Western city ("we are Europeans!") torn apart and demolished feels accurate to this reader, who after all wasn't there. However, the author was. Scott Simon, respected NPR journalist, wrote this novel based on real events and real people he met while on location during the siege.

The criticisms of the book hover around his depiction of the teenage girl protagonist and her friend (I think they are 15 or 16), the sexual language, the references to pop culture (Madonna, Princess Di, The Clash), etc. I wasn't a teenage girl in the 90's, but I suspect that he nailed it and the criticisms are pretentious exclamations written by lit professor wannabes.

These events happened within recent memory, yet I knew little about them beyond a vague idea that something bad had happened between Serbs and Muslims. The book doesn't give any political back story, so I still don't have a lot of perspective on the issues, but that's not the point. The point -- which is made very well IMHO -- is to show the combination of resilience, hopelessness and resignation that arises in the human heart under terrible circumstances.

Not a happy read, but an important one. And I love Scott Simon.
Profile Image for Bethany.
170 reviews7 followers
October 5, 2007
Here's another book to add to the "I couldn't finish it" pile. Again, a bitter disappointment. So much potential, but I just can't get into it. After suffering through the first 200 pages, I've cast it aside.

The story is that of a family in Bosnia, captured in the midst of the war between the Serbs and the Muslims. Afraid to walk on the streets and risk sniper fire, falling asleep each night to the sounds of mortars exploding. In an attempt to fight back, the seventeen year old daughter becomes a sniper herself, and then, honestly, I don't know what happens, because that's where I gave up.

Irena, the young girl, doesn't become a sniper until around 160 pages into it. The first 160 pages are about living with nothing, fearing for her life, and so forth. The thing is, what could be a powerful story, instead comes across as jumbled and disconnected. The characters themselves have no depth whatsoever, I think because the story is so disorienting. I never really was able to get sucked into a story, as it was all over the place. No cohesive story means no connection with any of the characters.

This book has gotten rave reviews from a lot of people. However, I will not be complying with popular opinion this time..

Profile Image for Jodi.
1,762 reviews26 followers
July 1, 2008
I really wanted to like this book (as sad as I knew it would be) but I just had a hard time getting into it. Sometimes, I had a hard time following what was happening to Irena and other times the pages were so boring that I skimmed a few pages at a time. A lot of early references to Madonna, Marky Mark, Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, etc. just made the story a little too "cheesy" for me. Also, there was a lot of sexual talk that I just found a little over the top (not that I am a prude or anything).
The story is set in Sarajevo when the war breaks out and Irena goes from being the star basketball player for her high school to a sniper in the war shooting at the Serbs unknown to all of her family and friends. In fact the story goes on to show how involved she has gotten that she actually gets to meet Osama bin Laden in his early days when he tried to support the Muslims in Sarajevo. So sad to think that a country who thrived and was proud of all of its multicultural ties for centuries could so quickly be at war busy with ethnic cleansing.
Sad ending that I didn't see coming!
Profile Image for Kani.
226 reviews
November 27, 2007
wow. this book, based on true events though not exactly a history of Sarajevo, is amazing. i cried out loud. i laughed out loud. i learned alot. it didn't answer the question of why we behave as we do toward one another, but illustrated the devastating effects of that treatment. here we were in the west wondering what was going on "over there", why they were fighting, why we were or weren't involved, the powerlessness of the UN peacekeepers etc etc. This book, by someone who was there, makes that difficult recent past come alive again and through the eyes of our young heroine who should be coming of age and enjoying the freedom of young adulthood, we experience the disassociation that comes with war as well as the poignancy of what connections are available. amazing!
Profile Image for Wendy.
539 reviews148 followers
April 28, 2011
Pretty Birds is the first novel by accomplished journalist Scott Simon, who weaves his own observations as a war correspondent during the crisis in Sarajevo into a fictional story about a teenage female Bosnian-Muslim sniper. In true journalistic style, Simon blasts his war-torn Yugoslavian setting with color and movement, packing in odd, obscure details with the authority of someone who was there: “The lemons seemed almost to hiss with the morning’s first low light. Irena trained her sight on the top of the mound, then counted one, two, three lemons to the right, because she felt a mild wind blowing down from the mountains in the east […] Within seconds she saw lemons jumping and quaking in their crate like minced garlic in a skillet”. Despite the atmosphere, I sensed early in the story a void of some vital pulsing, like a dead refrigerator that has ceased to hum. Simon the journalist, I slowly realized, effortlessly transcribes with poetic words anything that to him is familiar and tangible, but struggles to convey the intangible, emotional plane of the story. More specifically, the author barely delves into that mystifying, unknowable inner landscape of his teenage main character.

Simon focuses *most* of the story on Irena, a "typical" teenage girl and high school basketball star who is nominally a Bosnian Muslim. The story follows her through the start of the anti-Muslim violence and her eventual grooming as a partisan sniper. This is a fascinating idea based loosely on actual female snipers Simon met as a reporter, but ultimately it fails because the author keeps his subject as emotionally distant as he can. If Irena’s lack of internalization or reflection is intended, she comes across here as far more mature, aloof, and removed from the action (and an explicitly described sex act in chapter 2) than her age would suggest. I suspect that the author, having never seen the workings of a teenage girl’s mind, preferred to neither comment on nor imagine something he had no authority on, and simply left Irena’s inner motivations to the reader’s imagination.

Meanwhile the ever-enlarging cast of secondary characters get on their respective soapboxes to voice the author's political opinions (with one notable exception, who simply says the exact opposite) in page-long blocks of unbroken soliloquies. As for the ending, the author so manipulates the reader in an apparent attempt to provide a "twist" that some may cry betrayal. Luckily, I learned enough about a convoluted piece of recent history that it may have been almost worth it.
99 reviews2 followers
June 12, 2011
This really was a book unlike any other I've read. The subject matter is weighty, yet Simon approaches it with developed characters who interact in unexpected ways. The amount of humor traded back and forth between characters in this war-torn country is unusual, and yet I found myself believing that such interactions might actually be plausible. We're inclined to believe that serious, fear-inducing, stress-producing events are tackled with somber resolve. However, I think the human spirit prevails and humor may very easily be used as a coping mechanism.
At times, a new storyline abruptly begins and the reader is confused about the interweaving characters. Eventually though, the intricacies are revealed and the story becomes richer.
I learned a lot about the conflict, the power of human nature (both as a source of good and a source of evil), and came to reconsider previous notions of our psyche.
Profile Image for katy.
176 reviews1 follower
October 21, 2011
The novel is a scary, oppressive account of the siege of Sarajevo told from the point of view of a Bosnian teenage girl basketball player who is recruited to be a sniper in the 1990's war against the Serbians. We see how her family suffers violent encounters and increasing deprivations during the months covered by the novel. Teenage girls from both sides try to understand the conflict of cultures which has gone on for centuries. I recently visited these Balkan countries and the layers of history there are mind boggling. I think the author makes a good presentation on the futility of war and people's inability to escape their cultural and ideological biases. The role of the NATO troops, standing by passively as people are slaughtered is also disturbing.
Profile Image for Lisa Hoenig.
367 reviews8 followers
May 11, 2013
A difficult read. Many terrible images, served with the knowledge that events like this occurred in a "normal" city -- the message that war, hatred, and genocide could happen anywhere. Most of the story is told from the perspective of a teenaged girl. Irena likes reading celebrity magazines, basketball, and her pet parrot. She's also been in a physical relationship with her basketball coach. I found it difficult to relate to pre-war Irena, and somehow liked her better after she becomes a sniper for the opposition. I appreciated the crafting of this story, and the depiction of a horrible reality that no doubt was accurate, but I didn't enoy it. Even the ending was tough and left me feeling disconnected from the characters.
Profile Image for Amra Pajalic.
Author 18 books62 followers
September 17, 2018
Before the war Irena is a basketball star, an athlete who only cares about her game. Then the Balkan War breaks out in Sarajevo and she and her family are expelled from their suburb by Serbs. She is recruited to be a sniper because of her athleticism but she yearns for the regular things a teenage girl does, for her life to be normal. Scott has written an amazing novel that captures the brutality of war, while also showing the heart that is needed to survive the sometimes ridiculous and brutal circumstances. He shows the conditions in Sarajevo while it was under Siege and the way that enemy lines were sometimes thin. I loved this book for its reality and for the way Irena's struggle with her newfound profession as a sniper eloquently symbolises the morality of war itself.
Profile Image for Kathy.
996 reviews
April 2, 2020
Quotable:

The West won’t permit a war to last more than a few weeks these days. They put a stop to wars these days before the bankers and brokers start hurling themselves through windows.

The outside world could send some of its most conscientious citizens try to ease the suffering; they would only die in cross fire. Bosnians, Serbs, Croats – people with a scarcity of vowels in their names, an a surplus of hatred in their hearts.
And centuries of blood on their hands.

War is no good. Of course. War is cruel and wasteful. But sometimes – it’s better than letting brutes keep their grip on the world.
8 reviews
October 20, 2007
I wanted to love it...I mean what's not to love...Scott Simon of NPR fame writes a novel about Bosnia - the land of my heart - one would think I would've been in heaven. Sadly, while the story itself is engaging, the way Simon writes his female characters lacks nuance and insight and at some points is actually just plain creepy - specifically creepy is the way he writes female teenage sexuality...YUCK! Overall this is an engaging story and seems largely historically accurate. I am just really disappointed that the writing was so strange.
Profile Image for JoBeth.
251 reviews11 followers
July 21, 2009
See review of The Cellist of Sarajevo - reading these two books in tandem was a rich experience. Scott Simon, the reporter on NPR, brings that keen eye and ear to this novel about the first few months of the siege of Sarajevo. The protagonist is a high school basketball star who is the victim of "ethnic cleansing" of Muslims, brutalized and forced to flee to the other side of the river that bisects the city. Because of her athletic ability, she is recruited as a sniper. The evolution of her thinking about war is deeply moving and thought provoking.
Profile Image for Terry.
216 reviews
December 16, 2018
This has been on my "to read" list since it was published. I have been a fan of Scott Simon's reportage and commentary since becoming an NPR listener more than twenty-five years ago.

This was a well crafted story about a difficult time and place. Like all of us, each character had strengths and weaknesses. There were no cartoon heroes or villains here.

I enjoyed the story insofar as a story of this type can be enjoyed and recommend it to anyone interested in a story of a place that might be unfamiliar to them.
210 reviews1 follower
January 23, 2010
I love a war-time novel and I had some students that were from Sarajevo, so I read this book to understand a little bit more about what happened in that city. It is a sad novel that really tears at your moral heart strings. It focuses on what people do in war-time that they would NEVER do in "normal" life. I really loved the role of the main character (Irena)'s parrot. Here we have this exotic African parrot in war-torn Sarajevo. The parrot becomes a symbol of the family's survival.
Good book.
Profile Image for Bree.
107 reviews
April 5, 2016
This is a raw, compelling depiction of how warfare affects local populations. For those who are bothered by it, the f-bomb makes many appearances and there are some very graphic scenes, but that is how war and terrorism really are. The plot becomes a bit convoluted near the end, and at one point I thought I must have skipped a chapter. Scott Simon writes a powerful narrative with an ending I did not expect.
Profile Image for Bethany Smith.
5 reviews1 follower
May 18, 2012
The idea of this novel intrigued me. But when I couldn't make it through the first chapter without reading about a sexual encounter and unnecessary cussing in almost every dialogue, I had to abandon it.If a reader isn't bothered by the intensity of those things, this has the potential to be a good book. I just couldn't bring myself to finish it.
July 28, 2008
A great read. It's a coming of age story of a young girl in Sarajevo. The twist is she comes of age as a sniper. I am learning a lot about the conflict between the Muslims and Serbs, made more interesting by the recent capture of Karadzic who is regularly mentioned in the story.
Profile Image for Les Aucoin.
40 reviews19 followers
October 23, 2013
Captivating picture of the moment-to-moments between life and death experienced by Sarajevo Muslims in the Bosnian war. Based on Simon's NPR coverage of the war. Scott's novel reads like that of a veteran of long fiction. Puddled ending, though, a flaw in a lot of modern fiction.
296 reviews
January 21, 2020
I read this book as I was preparing for a trip to Sarajevo. Beautifully written with good characters, but a tough read. Civil war, ethnic cleansing -- we have no idea what hell that it is, even as some segments of our society flirt with the idea.
323 reviews2 followers
May 22, 2015
Good story, reminds me of City of Thieves. Many times historical fiction tells the story much better than nonfiction.
Profile Image for J.K. George.
Author 2 books15 followers
June 24, 2019
Simon puts us in the middle of Sarajevo during the siege. A nasty, cruel war. We are there with real people.
Profile Image for Scott Ralph.
46 reviews
August 12, 2019
An interesting perspective from a journalist viewpoint. As a fiction writer he is competent.
Profile Image for Cflack.
662 reviews5 followers
September 27, 2020
For me this is a prime example of good storytelling, but just ok writing. Taken overall, the story was propelling - the structure of the novel and the driving of the action kept me engaged and reading forward. However, I found the writing trite and sophomoric in places especially when it came to women and their emotions and behavior. There was little nuance in writing - he spelled it all out, not confidant that the reader was intelligent enough to get his point.
"She hid their relationship like a shoplifted lipstick"
"Besides Irena announced, I don't want to be innocent any more"
"Bosnians, Serbs, Croats - people with a scarcity of vowels in their names, and surplus of hatred in their hearts"
Some of the relationships were well done, Irena and her parents, Irena and Molly, Irena and Tedic. For me this was the core of the novel and why I kept reading.

I have read other novels which have the wars that broke up the former Yugoslavia as a backdrop - Sara Novic's Girl at War, Ivana Bodrozic's Hotel Tito and Aminatta Forna's The Hired Man - and together they all build a horrific picture of the pain and long term devastation of this time period on the people involved. Although not a novel, Alexander Hemon, a Bosnian-American writer's dual memoir My Parents: An Introduction / This Does Not Belong to You which talk about their experiences in Sarajevo is another thoughtful book about this time in history and its long term impact on the survivors.
Displaying 1 - 30 of 183 reviews

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