John Lawton
| Credit: John Lawton

"Walk the block from the fromagerie to the boulangerie . . . to the fruitier, crémerie, charcuterie, and . . . you have walked the world," writes André Aciman in Entrez: Signs of France (Artisan, $18.95). Steven Rothfeld's detailed photos of French signage—bold letters on a meat market's blood-red awning, graceful script above a bakery—are paired with Aciman's playful, often poetic text. Behind its clever cover, which opens like a pair of shutters, Entrez offers a delightful glimpse into la vie quotidienne of the French.

Richard Bernstein's compulsively readable Ultimate Journey (Alfred A. Knopf, $26) follows in the steps of a seventh-century monk who crossed Asia on foot (Bernstein occasionally updates the route, wisely choosing to fly over Afghanistan). A perfect companion to this tale: Karen Armstrong's short, satisfying biography, Buddha (Lipper/Viking, $19.95).

A book about apples and potatoes in a travel magazine?Trust us: Michael Pollan's Botany of Desire (Random House, $24.95) is no snoozy science text, but rather a gripping look at the intricate relationship between man and plant. It's a travelogue, too, as Pollan explores Amsterdam's pot scene and, in one funny, lyrical chapter, retraces the trail of Johnny Appleseed in Ohio.

In the wackiest state in the union, buildings shaped like artichokes, binoculars, and hot dogs are apparently the norm. California Crazy & Beyond (Chronicle Books, $18.95) by Jim Heimann showcases vintage and contemporary architectural oddities, from L.A.'s famous Brown Derby to lesser-known (but just as funny) structures such as the Pumpkin Palace, a roadside café that became not a coach but a church.

Despite the similarities—guy quits job, moves to offbeat European paradise, learns what's really important—Pasquale's Nose: Idle Days in an Italian Town (Little, Brown & Co., $23.95) is not A Year in Provence with pasta. For one thing, Michael Rips's true characters are much livelier than Peter Mayle's. There's Aurellio Mezzadonna, an elderly, inbred wine baron who never takes off his blue dressing gown, and an illiterate postman who creates the town's must-have dish: bruschetta with green algae.