Shelf Life: Chronicles of a Cairo Bookseller

Nadia Wassef. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, $27 (240p) ISBN 978-0-374-60018-1

In this bold and humorous debut, Wassef reflects on founding a modern bookstore, “the first of its kind in Cairo,” at a critical time in the early aughts when Egypt’s illiteracy rate was at an all-time high and revolution was on the horizon. With her sister, Hind, and friend, Nihal, Wassef made her passion for books into a profession and together the three women opened their bookstore, Diwan, in 2002, in the face of a patriarchal society and “bureaucratic despots.” Wassef details the business’s evolution, over her 14 years running it, from an audacious dream to the national success and household name it continues to be today, with several locations operating across Egypt. In chapters cleverly named after sections of the bookstore—from “Pregnancy and Parenting” to “Egypt Essentials”—she braids personal anecdotes, historical context, and day-to-day interactions with regulars (including the occasional disgruntled customer who tries to return a book purely because they didn’t like it). Occasionally, Wassef’s musings can feel disjointed as she toggles between these various modes, but her singular voice and witty observations make up for it. This is a book for book people, challenging the perspective of the traditional American and European publishing worlds with verve and style. Agent: Caroline Dawnay, United Agents. (Oct.)