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My First Seven Years (Plus a Few More)
By Dario Fo
Translated, from the Italian, by Joseph Farrell
St. Martin's, 256 pp., $23.95

When Dario Fo, practitioner of the theatrical carnivalesque, won the Nobel Prize in 1997 , bluenoses disapproved. Literature, like life, is supposed to be a sober business. There was also the question of Fo's leftist politics, easy to scorn for those who never suffered under its opposite number, fascism.

Blessed among infants, Fo was born on the shores of Lake Maggiore, Italy's Shangri-La. In this playful memoir of his youth he recounts his boyish adventures as the village cutup honing his performance skills on this most picturesque of stage sets.

The place was delightful but the times -- the ominous interval between world wars -- less so. Called up for military service in his teens, this fledgling antifascist did his seriocomic best to make himself useless to the Axis war effort. At war's (and memoir's) end, he celebrated his return to art school by staging an elaborate prank involving a Picasso look-alike, thus initiating his distinguished career as postmodernism's mischief man.

Being Arab
By Samir Kassir
Translated, from the French, by Will Hobson
Verso, 96 pp., $17.95

To be an Arab today, wrote the outspoken Beirut journalist Samir Kassir in 2004, is to be in the grip of a pervasive and debilitating malaise. It is to be viewed abroad with contempt and mistrust. It is to be trapped in failing societies eclipsed not just by the developed West but by striving Third World nations.

Particularly galling to Kassir is that the antipathy to modernity that underlies this predicament is relatively recent. He speaks of the nahda, the Arab cultural renaissance of the 19th and early 20th centuries, and of cities from Algiers to Baghdad not so long ago renowned for their cosmopolitanism. Now women are veiled, artists and intellectuals are silenced or pushed into exile, and the masses are offered nothing but the deceptions of fundamentalism.

Tragically proving his own point about the closing of the Arab mind, Kassir was assassinated in 2005. One additional message, unspoken in this inward-looking essay, can nevertheless be adduced. If freedom is essential to modernity -- freedom not, or not just, in the political sense but in the sense of artistic ferment and critical give-and-take -- then progress cannot be achieved in the Arab world by those who scorn intellectual freedom, whether their influence is applied from within or without.

Julius Winsome
By Gerard Donovan
Overlook, 223 pp., $23.95

Solitude can nourish, yet it can also poison. This haunting novel by Gerard Donovan forces us to contemplate both alternatives at their rawest.

The introverted title character lives alone in a cabin in the Maine woods, leading a life that might have been designed by Thoreau. Julius has few needs and fewer possessions to meet them: a World War I rifle once owned by his grandfather, a trusty wood stove, and shelf after shelf of well-worn books left him by his father, who taught him the beauty of words and the value of the contemplative life.

Julius also has a dog, Hobbes, his only friend. But as the novel begins, a shot rings out in the woods, and Julius is cruelly left without even Hobbes's companionship. The isolation that has been his comfort, perhaps even his only option -- for Julius is a very strange man -- turns dark and bitter, and he methodically sets out to avenge Hobbes's killing. As the tenor of the novel passes from shock to suspense, Julius in his intensity seems alternately, then simultaneously, heroic and monstrous. It is to Donovan's credit that he manages to make a protagonist already inhabiting the extremes of credibility not just comprehensible but very nearly sympathetic.

Amanda Heller is a critic and editor who lives in Newton.

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