The slender, slipcased Artists in Residence (Little Bookroom, $19.95) is a guidebook like no other—its singular focus releases it from the often snoozy constraints of most service compilations. Dana Micucci takes us inside the French houses of legendary 19th-century painters, not just listing information (directions, hotel and restaurant picks) but also adding lyrical descriptions of Monet's Giverny; Auvers-sur-Oise, where van Gogh created his fiery canvases; and Delacroix's Paris studio.

I know what you're thinking: Please, not another story about a Western woman visiting an Islamic country. But Christiane Bird's Neither East nor West (Pocket Books, $26.95) is a compelling report, not a teary tale of self-discovery. As Bird crisscrosses Iran to write a safarnameh, or travelogue, she encounters vivid characters, such as a fervent tour guide at the home of Ayatollah Khomeini and a black-market video store clerk.

"I believe that life is good," writes New Yorker writer and essayist Edward Hoagland as he looks back on his own years in Compass Points (Pantheon, $25). Hoagland's pungent views of growing up in Connecticut (he left to join the circus at 18) and escapades in New York and Europe are all the more resonant as he relates how he lost his eyesight in the mid-1980's and later regained it via risky surgery.

The Jazz Age was sweeping through Paris in the 1920's, and avant-garde scenesters went mad for all things African. Art historian Petrine Archer-Straw chronicles this cultural love affair in Negrophilia (Thames & Hudson, $24.95), a scholarly yet zesty look at the racial thrills and tensions in a trend that affected dance, theater, music, sculpture, and fashion.

Near the start of River Town (HarperCollins, $26) Peter Hessler describes being photographed, grinning, amid dour Communist Party leaders and a sea of buttoned-down students. The visual dichotomy sums up this memoir of the author's two years of teaching in Fuling, a remote Chinese city. Hessler splits his involving narrative between his navigation of political differences (a lesson on Shakespeare reveals the lingering power of the Cultural Revolution) and detailed, beautiful descriptions of the city and countryside.

By H. Scott Jolley and Scott Jolley