There are many perks to this job.
First of all, we get to spend our days in this beautiful space, surrounded by books. We get to watch our customers’ faces as they step through the front door; it often feels like they’re coming home. We have two excellent coffee shops literally within a stone’s throw of our front door. Goldie’s Bagels and Top Ten Wines are close by. (Which one we choose depends on the time of day.) We don’t need a gym membership. (Books are heavy, y’all.) We get to meet cool authors, and, of course, we get to talk about books all day with our lovely customers.
We also get sent a lot of free books. I know. Life is hard.
The books we receive are usually advanced reading copies, or ARCs, which are circulated by publishers months before a title is actually due to arrive on our shelves. (That way we know what books to order and recommend to you.) The Olympics of ARC reading is a marathon event to determine each year’s “Indies Introduce” list. A panel of independent booksellers from around the country read advanced copies of approximately a gajillion books by debut authors and (somehow) whittle these down to a list of the ten best.
Last year, Carrie Koepke, Skylark’s manager, was on that panel. She lost count of how many books she read, but it was a lot. Of all of those debut titles, the one that has stayed with her most powerfully is a stunning debut novel called “Cairo Circles” by Doma Mahmoud.
Here’s what Carrie had to say about the book: “Every so often, an author is just as good at plotting as they are at developing characters. Mahmoud has crafted a beast of a novel with woven points of view, topics that matter, and enough heart to bring on the feels. I can only hope that this debut is just the beginning.”
But it’s not just Carrie. We are all big fans of “Cairo Circles” here at Skylark, and we were thrilled to host Doma’s only online event in the US when the book was launched last October. That’s why we’ve chosen “Cairo Circles” to be our Skylarking book club pick for February. It’s a stunning novel that is going to provoke a lot of conversation.
Sherif “Sheero” Abdallah is reveling in his newfound independence as a student in New York, free at last from the judgmental gaze of his conservative family in Egypt. When the FBI knocks on his door, he’s convinced it’s a case of mistaken identity — until they show him a picture of his cousin Amir. Amir has perpetrated a horrific attack, and Sheero is forced to return to Cairo and confront the events that have led to the wildly different paths that the cousins’ lives have taken. In contrast to Sheero’s life of privilege and luxury, Amir was forced to wear hand-me-down clothes and suffered at the hands of his neglectful and abusive parents. Over the years, the two cousins have grown further and further apart. The lives of these and other young Egyptians intertwine dramatically over the course of more than a decade, revealing complex relationships dominated by faith, tradition, social class, and the boundaries of personal freedom.
Mahmoud has crafted a beast of a novel with woven points of view, topics that matter, and enough heart to bring on the feels.Carrie Koepke
I love coming-of-age stories. A good one will have certain elements that every reader will recognize — we all grow up eventually — but it’s in the differences where the real treasure of such stories often lies. Those new perspectives can shed fresh light on what we think we know about growing up. We may be unfamiliar with the world that Doma Mahmoud draws so beautifully in “Cairo Circles,” but his skill in rendering the complex forces that buffet the novel’s characters help us to see a little more and to understand a little more. This book will challenge how you think about family and culture and the sometimes fragile threads that keep us connected. It also raises some deeply probing questions about privilege: Who has it and why, and what difference it can and should make. Mahmoud writes with such empathy that through his story, he gently encourages the reader to consider their own privilege and how it impacts our interactions with others. We all walk through this world — how heavy will your footprint be?
“Cairo Circles” is an epic, multi-perspective page-turner with multiple shifts in both time and space as the story unfolds. Cairo’s streets burst to life on the page. Doma Mahmoud is a bold and inventive new voice in fiction, and we can’t wait to discuss this extraordinary book with you.
As usual, we’ll be meeting at 6:30 p.m., in the shop, on the last Thursday of the month, which is February 24 — assuming, of course, that such a gathering is safe at the time. (If not, then we’ll meet on Zoom.) Attendance is free, as always — we just ask that you purchase a copy of the book from us. We hope to see you there!
Alex George is the founder and director of the Unbound Book Festival and the owner of Skylark Bookshop in downtown Columbia.