CITIES OF SPAIN by David Gilmour (Ivan R. Dee, Inc., $22.50 hardcover) ; THE LAST SERIOUS THING: A Season at the Bullfights by Bruce Schoenfeld (Simon & Schuster, $22 hardcover) , and MADRIDWALKS by George Semler (Henry Holt and Co . , $14.95 paper).
If 1992 was the Year of Spain--the year of the Olympics in Barcelona, the World's Fair in Seville, etc., etc.--it was also the Year We All Read Too Much About Spain. Books on seemingly every aspect of the place, from its politics to its paella, flooded bookstores like tourists invading the beaches of the Costa Brava. It was a case, frankly, of Iberian overkill. Now that all the Spain-mania has died down, it seems possible to rationally consider several recent titles dealing with that nation, and to judge them on their own merits. These are considerable.
David Gilmour, author of "The Last Leopard," a superb biography of Giuseppe di Lampedusa, is a serious, thoughtful writer with a sensibility that seems, well, whatever the opposite of pop might be. "Cities of Spain" is not in any sense a travel guide, but it is a series of splendid essays on nine Spanish municipalities (Toledo, Cordoba, Santiago de Compostela, Seville, Salamanca, Cadiz, San Sebastian, Barcelona and Madrid), offering notes on the history and personality of each. It is, in other words, precisely the sort of thing that might appeal to a serious, thoughtful traveler to Spain.
If the very idea of bullfighting makes you see red, forget "A Season at the Bullfights." If you're open-minded on the subject, though, and if you have any interest in Spain at all, I'd call the book pretty near essential.
Author Schoenfeld is an American sportswriter (his scripts for NBC's coverage of the 1988 Olympics in Seoul won him an Emmy) who has lived in Spain and followed the corrida closely--mostly from Seville, the principal setting for his book. He is a very good writer, who manages here to: 1) teach the reader, painlessly and often amusingly, much about the arcane art of fighting bulls; 2) convey the passion and mystery with which bullfighting is imbued, without sloppily romanticizing it; 3) paint a vivid, witty portrait of the non-Spanish aficionado subculture of which he was a part, and 4) in the process, tell us a great deal about a vital aspect of daily life in Spain and about the Spanish (and particularly the Andalusian) character, in general.
George Semler, who also wrote last year's "Barcelonawalks," is another American, a longtime expatriate who loves the cities and the rivers of Spain with equal fervor. He repairs to the rivers to fly-fish. He wanders the cities to discover their secrets, take their pulse, learn their history from the inside out--proceeding from palace to battle or from cafe to famous author, rather than vice versa. The result, in his book on Madrid as it was in his book on Barcelona, is an uncommonly intimate, lively, fascinating portrait of a complex, wondrous place. This may be a "walking" guide, but it's one that could be read quite happily in an easy chair.
NATIONAL PARKS OF AMERICA, photographs by David Muench, text by Stewart L. Udall & James R. Udall (Graphic Arts Center Publishing Co . , $50 hardcover).
Sierra Club territory--a volume of wonderfully colorful landscape photographs of our National Parks, some of the images breathtaking, all at least very pretty and all with the implicit message: Abuse it and lose it. An accompanying essay by former Secretary of the Interior Stewart L. Udall and his nephew James R., a free-lancer specializing in environmental topics, is both informational and inspirational, in a reverential sort of way.
A version of this book is also available, incidentally, in a Multicom CD-ROM version--if getting to know the great American outdoors in front of a computer screen is your idea of fun.
UNIQUE FLORIDA: A Guide to the State's Quirks, Charisma, and Character by Sarah Lovett and UNIQUE NEW MEXICO: A Guide to the State's Quirks, Charisma, and Character by Sarah Lovett (both John Muir Publications, $10.95 paper).
Entertaining little miscellanies full of trivia, strange tales, abbreviated notes on regional attractions and events, mini-quizzes, plenty of photographs and drawings, etc.,--travel guides for the MTV generation.
DINOSAUR DIGS: Places Where You Can Discover Prehistoric Creatures by Richard Will, Ph.D., and Margery Read (Country Roads Press, $18.95 paper).
I can't imagine anybody having the slightest interest in those antique reptiles known as dinosaurs these days, but in case anybody does, this amply illustrated volume offers a quick course in the creatures and lists fossil sites and dinosaur-inhabited museums all over the country.