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July 09, 1989|CHARLES SOLOMON

A RENAISSANCE TAPESTRY The Gonzaga of Mantua by Kate Simon (Harper & Row: $8.95, illustrated)

Although smaller in size and population than Venice, Milan or Florence, Mantua occupied a disproportionate place in Italian history due to the wealth and culture of its Gonzaga rulers--and their prominence as mercenary generals.

Simon presents a vivid picture of Renaissance life that incorporates both its cultivated grace and appalling squalor. The rise of the celebrated Isabella d'Este-Gonzaga, patron of the arts and indefatigable campaigner for the advancement of her relatives, contrasts with the collapse of the military and diplomatic career of her husband, the fourth Marquis of Mantua, due to the effects of tertiary syphilis.

The Gonzaga's patient cultivation of Mantegna, Rubens and other artists is juxtaposed with their often harsh treatment of the Mantuan peasants and Jews. The opulent celebrations they staged for visiting Popes, emperors and kings cloaked the exercise of power politics and dynastic ambition.

Lively, well-researched and entertaining, Simon's book is marred only by a lack of adequate maps and complete genealogies.

JAPANESE TALES edited and translated by Royall Tyler (Pantheon: $12.95)

While they contain elements of Japanese popular culture, these brief stories are not folk works, like the tales compiled by the Brothers Grimm. The original authors were literary figures at a sophisticated, urban court.

The moral lessons that underlie some stories recall Western fables: An old woman who cares for a wounded sparrow out of kindness is richly rewarded; her envious neighbor, who injures three sparrows and tends them in hopes of an even richer reward, is punished.

But most of these tales consist of brief vignettes and character studies that resemble contemporary American literature, rather than the didactic fables of Aesop and La Fontaine. When the ghost of Ban, an imperial minster, appears to an old cook and explains the origin of an epidemic, the narrator's conclusion is worthy of Jay McInerney: "But why did Ban choose that cook to talk to? He could have chosen anyone else. Well, no doubt he had his reasons."

The noted Japanese-American writer Yoshiko Uchida has adapted some of the same stories for Western children in "The Sea of Gold" (Creative Arts: $7.95, illustrated).

GROUCHO AND ME by (of all people) Groucho Marx (Fireside: $9.95, illustrated)

In recent years, the Marx Brothers have been elevated to the dubious pantheon of American folk heroes. Their mannerisms have been aped by impressionists; their anarchic humor copied by contemporary directors and comedians; their films endlessly analyzed and interpreted. Groucho's autobiography brings this hard-line Marxism into perspective by reminding readers just how funny--and human--the originals were.

Although he traces his rise to stardom from small-time vaudeville, Marx avoids the self-congratulatory cliches of show biz books. He regales the reader with anecdotes, often at his own expense, including the disastrous foray into the genteel world of country club golf that lead to the famous telegram, "I don't want to belong to any club that will accept me as a member." Between stories, Marx offers some serious thoughts, including reflections on comedy and an intriguing portrait of the young Charlie Chaplin.

"Groucho and Me" was first published in 1959, when "You Bet Your Life" was still on the air and Marx was in top form. Thirty years later, it remains a delightful souvenir of one of America's wittiest men and ideal reading for a smoggy summer day.

101 STORIES OF THE GREAT BALLETS by George Ballanchine and Francis Mason (Doubleday: $9.95)

A standard reference work (countless program notes have been cribbed from it) that has only been available in a two-volume British paperback edition for years.

Readers who like ballet will enjoy the concise plot synopses and the explanations of how stories are told through pure movement. Serious students and dancers will find a wealth of information about revisions in choreography, contemporary reviews, etc., as well as Ballanchine's insights into specific roles.

An important addition to the library of anyone interested in classical or modern dance.

RAW Open Wounds From the Cutting Edge of the Commix edited by Art Spiegelman and Francoise Mouly (Penguin: $14.95)

Originally conceived as a large-sized magazine of contemporary graphics, "Raw" is now being issued in a smaller format by Penguin every nine months.

The drawings by various artists combine elements of cartoons, comics and avant-garde illustration, and vary enormously in quality. The emphasis is on graphics rather than narrative, but the hipper-than-thou posturing in works like Kim Deitch's faux-naif strip, "Karla in Kommieland," can get pretty hard to take.

The book's principal attraction is the continuation of "Maus," Spiegelman's critically acclaimed comic book account of his father's experiences in Poland during the Holocaust. Although the rather crude drawings fail to match the intense characterizations of the writing, "Maus" ranks among the more interesting works being done at the fringes of contemporary literature.

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