On This Week’s Subway Reading

As long-time Allyn-ologists know, I have a Saturday routine. I get up, I drink coffee, I put on NPR so I can listen to Weekend Edition with Scott Simon. I love listening to Scott Simon. His voice has the most incredible cadence I have ever heard, and with every word he enunciates, you feel it in your bones.

Simon has written several books. One, Home and Away, was a memoir about growing up a sports fan in Chicago. Another is Pretty Birds, his first novel, about teenaged snipers during the Siege of Sarajevo during the Bosnian War fifteen years ago.

I picked this up almost three years ago. I started the book, and crawled to a halt. I had other things on my mind at the time, to be honest. I always said, though, that I would come back to it, and when casting about for a book to put in my bag, to read on the subway, it was Pretty Birds I picked up this morning.

I read the first three chapters. It was not impossible to hear those distinctive cadences of Simon behind the words; in my mind, I could hear him speaking to me directly, as though I wasn’t reading and was, instead, listening to a news report or a books-on-tape.

Many things happened in those first three chapters. Irena’s life as a sniper, chapter one. Six months earlier and the outbreak of ethnic hostilities, chapters two and three.

The three chapters were slow reading, and I remembered why the book struggled to hold my attention two and a half years ago. Scott Simon may be a brilliant narrator on the radio, but at times his sense of point-of-view, within the fictive work, falters, and the narrative wanders down odd tangents. Yet, the clear, distinctive voice remained, and the scope of the human tragedy about to unfold in the ancient city of Sarajevo is quickly becoming clear, if somewhat reluctantly, to the characters.

I’m looking forward to finishing the book. Perhaps in the next few days, perhaps in a week or two. In some ways, I want to savor the voice of the book, to drag it out as long as possible. In other ways, I want to blunt the inevitable emotional reaction the book is sure to produce, as the toll the characters take as their lives collapse under the siege of the Bosnian Serbs becomes more pronounced and more harrowing.

I don’t know how far into the siege of Sarajevo Simon carries the novel. Perhaps his characters find a way to escape the city. Perhaps they don’t. What I do know is that, on the train, I’ll uncover the answers. And sympathize with the plight of the Bosnia’s Muslim population as they suffer one of the great tragedies of the last half-century.

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