From the get-go, Whiting Award-winner Lisa Halliday signals that the world of her first novel, Asymmetry, will be more like that found behind Lewis Carroll's looking glass than the more prosaic one in front of it. Young editor Alice Dodge is sitting on a New York City park bench trying to read a dense book when Ezra, a famous novelist 50 years her senior, sits beside her. She is drawn by his fame and conversational flair. Asymmetry takes off into the quotation mark-filled love affair of two literary sorts navigating the shifting terrain of geriatric sex positions and unscheduled trips to hospitals and pharmacies.

Then, as if slipping through that looking glass, the novel shifts to the story of Amar Jaafari, the son of California immigrants from Iraq. He is trapped in customs detention at Heathrow trying to prove he is neither a threat nor a deadbeat. In question mark-free long paragraphs recounting an ambivalent relationship with his family, faith and Iraqi origins, his story dips into the miasma of Iraq's post-Saddam politics and upheaval.

Despite its disparate pair of stories, Asymmetry adeptly concludes in a short coda interview with Ezra after he finally wins a Nobel Prize. Reflecting on his favorite music (Schubert's Im Abendrot) and book (Joyce's Ulysses), he opines on the role of literature--thoughts that could also be said of Halliday's gifted debut: "It is human nature to try to impose order and form on even the most defiantly chaotic and amorphous stuff of life.... Some of us wage war. Others write books." --Bruce Jacobs, founding partner, Watermark Books & Cafe, Wichita, Kan.

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