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PRETTY BIRDS

A magnificent tribute, not just to the Sarajevans whose siege Simon reported, but to the indestructible human spirit.

More civilians die in today’s wars than soldiers. But this extraordinary debut illuminates a time and place where civilians fought back: Sarajevo, 1992.

How do you write a novel about the savage ethnic cleansing of the Balkan Wars that isn’t unbearably depressing? Simon (award-winning NPR journalist) has the answer. First, you focus on a sidebar story, with a sympathetic protagonist (the movie Hotel Rwanda took the same tack). Second, you don’t minimize the horror, but you get the worst of it out of the way early. Sarajevo’s agony began in April 1992, when the multiethnic, cosmopolitan city’s belief that it was immune to ethnic hatred was smashed like an eggshell. The protagonist here, 17-year-old Irena Zaric, is a high-school basketball star. Her father is Serb, her mother Muslim; her brother is out of the country. The remaining member of the family is Pretty Bird, a beloved parrot with an amazing repertoire of sounds. Serb paramilitaries roust the family from their apartment building; Mr. Zaric is roughed up; Irena is raped. They trek to a Muslim neighborhood only to find grandmother shot dead; they camp out in her apartment. No heat, no light. Irena is recruited as a sniper by the wily Tedic, who, as an assistant principal, understands the adolescent: her athlete’s reflexes make her ideal. In a coming-of-age no parent would wish on his or her child, Irena asks the hard questions: What about innocent Serbs? How are we different from Serb snipers? But she overcomes initial misgivings and excels at her work, and the story zips along with crisp dialogue and plenty of gallows humor. Simon has an eye for the telling detail (the fascination with Western pop icons) and for the larger picture: the ineffectual Blue Helmets (UN troops), the shaky alliance between Bosnian Muslims and fundamentalist Arabs. He even manages a cliffhanger ending.

A magnificent tribute, not just to the Sarajevans whose siege Simon reported, but to the indestructible human spirit.

Pub Date: May 3, 2005

ISBN: 1-4000-6310-8

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2005

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A LITTLE LIFE

The phrase “tour de force” could have been invented for this audacious novel.

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Four men who meet as college roommates move to New York and spend the next three decades gaining renown in their professions—as an architect, painter, actor and lawyer—and struggling with demons in their intertwined personal lives.

Yanagihara (The People in the Trees, 2013) takes the still-bold leap of writing about characters who don’t share her background; in addition to being male, JB is African-American, Malcolm has a black father and white mother, Willem is white, and “Jude’s race was undetermined”—deserted at birth, he was raised in a monastery and had an unspeakably traumatic childhood that’s revealed slowly over the course of the book. Two of them are gay, one straight and one bisexual. There isn’t a single significant female character, and for a long novel, there isn’t much plot. There aren’t even many markers of what’s happening in the outside world; Jude moves to a loft in SoHo as a young man, but we don’t see the neighborhood change from gritty artists’ enclave to glitzy tourist destination. What we get instead is an intensely interior look at the friends’ psyches and relationships, and it’s utterly enthralling. The four men think about work and creativity and success and failure; they cook for each other, compete with each other and jostle for each other’s affection. JB bases his entire artistic career on painting portraits of his friends, while Malcolm takes care of them by designing their apartments and houses. When Jude, as an adult, is adopted by his favorite Harvard law professor, his friends join him for Thanksgiving in Cambridge every year. And when Willem becomes a movie star, they all bask in his glow. Eventually, the tone darkens and the story narrows to focus on Jude as the pain of his past cuts deep into his carefully constructed life.  

The phrase “tour de force” could have been invented for this audacious novel.

Pub Date: March 10, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-385-53925-8

Page Count: 720

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: Dec. 21, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2015

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FIREFLY LANE

Dated sermonizing on career versus motherhood, and conflict driven by characters’ willed helplessness, sap this tale of...

Lifelong, conflicted friendship of two women is the premise of Hannah’s maudlin latest (Magic Hour, 2006, etc.), again set in Washington State.

Tallulah “Tully” Hart, father unknown, is the daughter of a hippie, Cloud, who makes only intermittent appearances in her life. Tully takes refuge with the family of her “best friend forever,” Kate Mularkey, who compares herself unfavorably with Tully, in regards to looks and charisma. In college, “TullyandKate” pledge the same sorority and major in communications. Tully has a life goal for them both: They will become network TV anchorwomen. Tully lands an internship at KCPO-TV in Seattle and finagles a producing job for Kate. Kate no longer wishes to follow Tully into broadcasting and is more drawn to fiction writing, but she hesitates to tell her overbearing friend. Meanwhile a love triangle blooms at KCPO: Hard-bitten, irresistibly handsome, former war correspondent Johnny is clearly smitten with Tully. Expecting rejection, Kate keeps her infatuation with Johnny secret. When Tully lands a reporting job with a Today-like show, her career shifts into hyperdrive. Johnny and Kate had started an affair once Tully moved to Manhattan, and when Kate gets pregnant with daughter Marah, they marry. Kate is content as a stay-at-home mom, but frets about being Johnny’s second choice and about her unrealized writing ambitions. Tully becomes Seattle’s answer to Oprah. She hires Johnny, which spells riches for him and Kate. But Kate’s buttons are fully depressed by pitched battles over slutwear and curfews with teenaged Marah, who idolizes her godmother Tully. In an improbable twist, Tully invites Kate and Marah to resolve their differences on her show, only to blindside Kate by accusing her, on live TV, of overprotecting Marah. The BFFs are sundered. Tully’s latest attempt to salvage Cloud fails: The incorrigible, now geriatric hippie absconds once more. Just as Kate develops a spine, she’s given some devastating news. Will the friends reconcile before it’s too late?

Dated sermonizing on career versus motherhood, and conflict driven by characters’ willed helplessness, sap this tale of poignancy.

Pub Date: Feb. 1, 2008

ISBN: 978-0-312-36408-3

Page Count: 496

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 2007

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