From Lebanese writer al-Shaykh (The Story of Zahra, 1994, etc.): a finely wrought epistolary novel of lament and loss that mourns the fate of a beloved city. In ten lengthy letters that, moving back and forth in time, reveal details of lovers, family, and childhood, the 30-ish Asmahan, an architect by profession, records the irrevocable dislocations of the civil war. Asmahan takes no sides; she is writing about the personal, not the political, since, as she admits: ``It no longer interests me to follow the warring factions and put them into categories.'' With bombardments, fears of kidnapping, and pervasive factionalism making work impossible, Asmahan spends time at home with her grandmother, with neighbors, and memories. As she tells good friend Hayat, now living abroad, ``How can I answer your questions about the state of the country when my chief worry is the rat occupying our kitchen?'' In a letter to Jill Morell, the wife of a hostage, she describes how she too resembles the hostages since, like them, she has ``no alternative but to follow the uncomfortable daily routine.'' To Naser, a former lover and activist, she relates the household members' reaction to battles, their escape in a tank, and her memories of their last meeting. And in letters addressed to Beirut itself, her ``Dear Land,'' and Billie Holliday, she describes the changes in the countryside, where drug-dealers have taken over the farms; her grandparents' strained marriage; and her reactions to Jawad, an ÇmigrÇ writer who accuses her of being ``addicted'' to the war. Jawad, she writes, wanted her to go to France with him, but at the last minute she chose to stay: She must still ``confront the city which had made its war die of weariness.'' Appropriately elegiac, but the mood is more poetic than urgent, diminishing its power to affect. Still, lovely measured writing from a voice deserving to be heard.