Armchair travel is one thing, but some novels are so captivating, they provoke an irresistible yearning to see James Joyce's Dublin for yourself, to wander John Fowles' mysterious Greek caves or float languidly -- in Elizabeth Peters' style -- down the Nile. Joe Kinsella's "Shoeless Joe" has launched many a baseball pilgrimage. And frankly, Frances Mayes' "Under the Tuscan Sun" should come with a warning label: May require a trip to Italy.
Discover the books that made five of our staff writers book tickets to Dublin, Cairo and a certain cornfield in Iowa.
THE BOOK: "Crocodile on the Sandbank" by Elizabeth Peters
THE SETTING: The first book in Peters' Amelia Peabody series is set in 1884 Egypt, where our hilariously outspoken and forward-thinking Victorian hero falls madly in love with archaeology, bat-infested pyramids, dusty tombs and a certain British Egyptologist -- all while pursuing a mummy and several villains. The tongue-in-cheek mysteries are fun, and Amelia is hysterical, but it's the depiction of Cairo, Giza, the Nile and the splendors of Amarna that makes a reader's pulse quicken.
THE TRIP: I'm the kid who grew up with a copy of "The Iliad" on my bedside table, the girl who knew more about Heinrich Schliemann and Howard Carter than the matinee idols of my youth. And I had sated -- or at least temporarily relieved -- my passion for ancient history on trips to Mycenae, Delphi, Rome and Herculaneum. But Peters' mysteries turned my longing for pyramids, Theban temples and Saharan vistas into a voracious fever -- which I, of course, fended off with tea, damp compresses and all the stubborn willpower of a Peabody. Our children were young, after all, and political unrest had rendered the region a less-than-appealing spot for a family vacation.
But bucket lists should be tended, not deferred. So when our youngest flew the nest, we headed straight for Cairo and points south. We traipsed through pyramids, explored the hot, narrow tombs of the Valley of the Kings and floated down the Nile by dahabeeyah, the 19th century-style houseboat favored by certain fictional characters. The sails billowed in the breeze, ancient temples came into view every few hours and friendly villagers waved from the riverbanks. No crocodiles -- not since the building of the High Dam, anyway -- and no villains masquerading in mummy wrappings, just blissful Peabodyesque adventures.
-- Jackie Burrell
THE BOOK: "Shoeless Joe" by W.P. Kinsella
THE SETTING: The magical novel that inspired the movie "Field of Dreams" takes place on a baseball diamond carved out of an eastern Iowa cornfield, from which the spirits of Joe Jackson and other legends of the game emerge. The simple, yet touching, story begins with novice farmer Ray Kinsella hearing a godlike voice that whispers, "If you build it, he will come," and ends with a game of catch between Ray and his long-lost father. Twenty-five years after the film debuted, tourists still flock to the production site in tiny Dyersville, Iowa.
THE TRIP: I'm both a full-fledged baseball fan and a dreamer who cherished Kinsella's spiritual journey. My visit to Dyersville, however, was not the result of a planned pilgrimage but an impromptu road trip made on a chilly winter morning by a few guys seeking a form of emotional escape.
Two days earlier, my father and I had arrived in Waterloo, Iowa, to bid farewell to my uncle, who had died of cancer. We were still groggy with grief when my uncle's son, Bill, suggested we drive to see the Field of Dreams and play some ball. So my dad and I crammed into a car with Bill, his teen son, and Bill's brother-in-law to make the two-hour trip.
Upon arrival, we were crestfallen to see that the field was adorned with a few clumps of snow and closed for the winter. But we refused to retreat. I knocked on the door of the big white farmhouse (Yes, the same one in the film), and when a woman answered, I informed her of what we had been through and how much we wanted to play. She kindly unlocked the gates to the field.
For the next couple of hours, we all became kids again, knocking around a baseball on the mushy grass, running the bases and generally feeling free and alive. It was a bonding, dreamlike experience at a time when we could really use one.
-- Chuck Barney
THE BOOK: "Ulysses" by James Joyce
THE SETTING: Joyce's modernist masterpiece, considered by many one of the greatest literary works of all time, follows its fictional protagonist (Leopold Bloom) on a journey through the streets of Dublin, Ireland. The entire story takes place on a single, ordinary day -- June 16, 1904 -- but Joyce's attention to details and extraordinary character development make the ordinary feel so extraordinary.
THE TRIP: During my senior year at San Francisco State University, I took a class focusing on Joyce. Reading his works -- especially the epic "Ulysses" -- really inspired me to learn more about my own Irish heritage. After graduating, I traveled to Dublin where I walked along many of the same streets, and visited a number of the same spots, mentioned in "Ulysses."
I imagined that I was strolling right alongside Leopold Bloom as I connected, both physically and mentally, with a great literary work in a way that I had never dreamed possible.
I also made an important musical discovery on this trip. I went to the Gaiety Theatre, a venue I first learned about in Joyce's "Dubliners," and saw Christy Moore perform. I didn't know anything about Moore -- other than that he'd been described to me as "Ireland's Bob Dylan" -- but he quickly became one of my favorite folk singer-songwriters.
-- Jim Harrington
THE BOOK: "Under the Tuscan Sun: At Home in Italy" by Frances Mayes
THE SETTING: The poet, travel writer and gourmet cook discovers the beauty of a simple life as she buys and restores a neglected villa in the Tuscan countryside of Cortona. Mayes paints a vivid picture of this noble town, its interesting people and her journey to be a part of both, while interspersing recipes (Bruschette con Pesto di Rucola and Winter Pears in Vino Nobile) that for almost a decade were as close a taste to authentic Italy as I would come. Mayes' book is a rambling memoir that romanticizes Tuscany with far more depth, and a sense of longing, than the film version.
THE TRIP: I dreamed of breathing the Italian air of my ancestors since my childhood days surrounded by the strange, lyrical words of my great grandmother and the pungent scent of garlic bread and homemade marinara. At the age of 36, I finally found myself strolling along the narrow pebble lanes of a Tuscan region that held even more charm than Mayes could bring to life.
Everything about Tuscany felt like home -- the sun-drenched countryside of rolling hills and vineyards; the stunning architecture and cracked frescos of another time period; the warm, embracing greetings of a welcoming people; and of course, the rich flavors of creamy chocolate gelato and Caprese made with fresh mozarella and basil.
In Italy, I found a connection to my heritage and to a land that encourages tranquility because of the very simplicity Mayes discovered for herself. Now, the dream has evolved -- if only I could win the lottery and return to renovate my own Tuscan villa.
-- Ann Tatko-Peterson
THE BOOK: "The Magus," by John Fowles
THE SETTING: The Greek island of Spetses, where the author taught at a boys school, was the inspiration for Fowles' somewhat convoluted psychological thriller. Nicolas Urfe, a recent Oxford grad sets off to teach at a boys school on the fictional Phraxos. His life there is dull and depressing until he stumbles on the estate of the mysterious, wealthy Greek recluse Maurice Conchis, who ends up seriously messing with Nicolas' head, sucking him into a series of weird (and in retrospect, creepy) games involving masques and other illusions. Originally published in 1965 and revised in 1977, it's considered one of the first major works of metafiction -- and it's where the term "godgame" was coined.
THE TRIP: My college boyfriend and I had ambitious plans mapping out a semester-off trip that began in Calcutta and ended in Paris, and a top priority was to visit the real-life inspiration for Phraxos. We took turns rereading the tattered paperback as we ferried between islands, famous and obscure, which only led to anticipation of our final island stop. Arriving at the harbor, however, was a disappointment; it felt more touristy than the others and even the cheapest rooms were over our budget. So we rehoisted our backpacks and headed into the island's interior, past Anargirios College -- on which the book's Lord Byron School was based -- in search of the famous mansion, to no avail. But what we did discover was even better -- a cave. We went back to town, devoured a cheap meal with retsina, then hurried back to set up camp before dark. That night, we read key chapters by flashlight, trying to dissect the deeper meaning, and wrote letters home, their postmarks a souvenir. Years later, I long to return to Greece. Though I have no romantic yearnings to relive that extreme form of budget travel, I fondly remember the book that also made for a good story.
-- Lisa Wrenn
THE BOOK: "The Autobiography of Henry VIII: With Notes by His Fool, Will Somers" by Margaret George
THE SETTING: Historical fiction authors have a fondness for imagining the life of egotistical King Henry VIII -- and I've read my fair share of those Tudor dynasty interpretations. But none stands out with more dramatic flair than George's telling. Mainly told in the king's voice, she recounts his ascension to the throne, dismantling of the Catholic church and six marriages (and beheadings of two wives) in his quest for lust and an heir. It's also a peek inside Henry VIII's vast holdings, including the opulent Hampton Court, just outside of London.
THE TRIP: Having lived and attended school in England for three years, I knew more about its kings and queens than I did the U.S. presidents. None fascinated me more than Henry VIII, especially after walking through his life for 960 pages of George's book. Time had erased all but two of his palaces, but the majestic red-brick Hampton Court is still standing.
I had to visit its vaunted halls, to see where the only male heir, Edward VI, was born and to be swept into the scenes of opulent 16th-century banquets. The Great Hall, with its magnificent hammer-beam roof and Henry VIII's tapestries, didn't disappoint. It was also easy to see from the massive kitchen, designed to feed the 600-member royal court, why the king was so robust.
Over the years, kings and queens who succeeded him put their own stamp on Hampton Court, but this still felt very much like Henry VIII's palace. Nowhere was that more evident than the royal chapel with its blue-and-gold carved ceiling, which still bears the king's arms. It was here that Henry VIII learned of his fifth wife's adultery; in the heavy silence of the chapel, you can almost hear Catherine Howard's desperate wails as she begged him for one final audience.
Nothing compares to standing among the ghosts of history.
-- Ann Tatko-Peterson
Has a book inspired your travels? Share the details -- the book, its setting and the trip it inspired -- via email to firstname.lastname@example.org.