(Reviewed by Jana L. Perskie SEP 5, 2005)
"There is no greater sorrow on earth than the loss of one's native land." --Euripides--
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. The Bosnian Serbs, supported by neighboring Serbia and Montenegro, respond to Bosnia-Herzegovina's declaration of independence with armed resistance. They aim to partition the republic along ethnic lines and join Serb-held areas to form a "Greater Serbia." The national army is converted into the Bosnian Serb Army, and Irena's family's apartment, the entire Grbavica block of buildings, is appropriated for Bosnian Serb officers.
Amela is officially known as a Serb, Irena a Muslim, although her father recently yelled in outrage, "Half (Serb) isn't half enough for them. Yes, them...don't you see? They want 'purity.' My father was a Serb married to a Jew. I married a Muslim whose mother was a Croat. Serb, Croat, Muslim, Jew - what does that make you and your brother? We have no name. And now we have no place." The family decides to go live with Mrs. Zaric, Irena's grandmother and only living grandparent. She lives on the "other side of the river," in what is considered Muslim territory. "The Miljacka River, which used to tie the city together like a ribbon, now divides it like the edge of a serrated knife." On their way over, bombs falling around them, they are brutally attacked, violated and robbed by men dressed in black - Serb thugs. When they arrive, they find grandmother Zaric shot dead. Life only gets worse. Anyone who was alive, anywhere in the world, during the 1990's and able to read, knows just how terrible, (beyond description), life became for the non-Serbian Sarajevans.
Irena's former assistant principal, Dr. Tedic, offers her an innocuous job, ostensibly at the Sarajevo Brewery. There she is trained to be a sniper. Teenage women actually served as snipers for both Bosnian and Serbian forces during the war. Highly disciplined, they performed with excellence, and freed up the men to fight at the front. Irena is trained to aim and shoot at a spot, an object, not a human being. I wonder if that made her work any easier. "I'm kind of a pacifist," she confesses to Tedic. "So am I," he responds, "When the world permits."
Author Scott Simon, host of National Public Radio's Weekend Edition with Scott Simon, has covered ten wars, and has won extensive awards for his reporting, including the Peabody and the Emmy. He writes clear, straightforward prose, at times quite lyrical, and frequently moving. Irena's story, which is her city's story, will haunt you. The characters are three-dimensional, so much so that I felt as if I knew them personally by the end of the novel. The gallows humor is wonderful and there is plenty of suspense. I love Irena's parents, former hippies, their hearts filled with peace and love - still. "Pretty Birds" is compelling, riveting, and ultimately as shattering as the siege itself. My highest recommendations for this extraordinary novel.
- Amazon readers rating: from16 reviews
Read a chapter excerpt from Pretty Birds at author's website
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
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- NPR People on Scott Simon
- WKAR.Org interview with Scott Simon and Pretty Birds
- Christian Science Monitor review of Pretty Birds
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About the Author:
Scott Simon was born .... The son of comedian Ernie Simon and actress Patricia Lyons, Simon grew up in Chicago, New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Montreal, Cleveland, and Washington, DC. He attended the University of Chicago and McGill University, and he has received a number of honorary degrees.
Scott Simon joined NPR in 1977 as chief of its Chicago bureau and is currently the Host of Weekend Edition Saturday. He has reported from all 50 states, covered presidential campaigns and ten wars, and reported from Central America, Africa, India, the Middle East, and the Caribbean. He has received numerous honors for his reporting.
Simon has written for The New York Times' Book Review and Opinion sections, the Wall Street Journal opinion page, The Los Angeles Times, and Gourmet Magazine.
He has been married to Caroline Richard since the summer of 2002.