This extremely readable and interesting book shines a light on an event which captivated America in the winter of 1889 -- and has since faded into obscurity. In November of that year, the crusading undercover ace reporter Nellie Bly who was a star at Joseph Pulitzer's World newspaper in New York, set out to circumnavigate the world and beat the fictional record set by the Jules Verne character Phileas Fogg in "Around the World in Eighty Days." Bly set out going east across the Atlantic. That same day, another editor from The Cosmopolitan magazine sent another female reporter, Elizabeth Bisand, off in the opposite direction in an attempt to beat both Fogg and Bly.
I had heard of Nellie Bly -- although I knew little about the extraordinary media interest her trip inspired. I had never heard of Bisland, who faded into total obscurity but is resurrected here by author Matthew Goodman as an attractive personality. Hailing from impoverished Southern aristocracy, she was determined, talented, well-read, civilized and very beautiful. She comes across in the book in many ways as the more attractive personality (one feels that Goodman is a little in love with her) even though she lost the race and thereby her chance to become a footnote in journalistic history.
The book alternates between chapters on each woman as they experience their adventures, braving horrible ocean storms and boredom on the waves along with headlong rushes to catch ships of trains. But Goodman also interposes many fascinating little asides on the state of the world and society at a time when the globe had suddenly shrunk making such a voyage possible. For instance I learned that before the railroads, there were 27 times zones in the state of Illinois and 38 in Wisconsin. Boston was 12 minutes ahead of New York. It was the railroad companies, not the government, who got together and instituted the four time zones we have today which happened on November 18, 1883.
One difference between the two women was their attitude to Britain. Bly, a staunch American patriot, resented and disliked the English who then dominated the world (she went as far as the spend World War I volunteering in Austria) while Bisland admired the British greatly. The author also criticizes Bly for failing to take notice of the poor and downtrodden she cvame into contact with during her voyage -- even the stokers who shoveled coal in horrible conditions into the trans-Atlantic steamships and whose average life expectancy in the job was two years. Bly admired the Japanese as "clean" and despised the Chinese as "dirty." She adopted, the author says, an imperial mindset.
I learned that men believed women, should they enter politics, would bring a particular "feminine spite" to the profession. Bly was not above lying to make her story more dramatic, but what turned her into a national sensation was a contest her newspaper launched to guess to the nearest second the time she would take to complete the journey. Contestants had to tear off a coupon printed in the World and mail it in -- they received 900,000.
Bly completed her voyage as a national heroine and example of "American pluck and womanhood." The rest of her life was not so easy. Bisland too experienced both happiness and tragedy. But we the readers gain immensely from reading this fascinating story.
on March 4, 2013
On November 14, 1889, two women set out to do what was once thought to be impossible: make a trip around the world in 80 days or less. The idea was taken from Jules Verne's classic novel, AROUND THE WORLD IN EIGHTY DAYS, in which Phileas Fogg takes a fantastic and imaginary journey around the world, arriving back home in 80 days. Verne contended that a person really could make such a trip in 80 days or less.
Elizabeth Jane Cochran, who went by the pen name "Nellie Bly," wanted to try. She presented her idea to the editor of The World, a newspaper printed by Joseph Pulitzer in New York City. After much thought and consideration, Nellie not only came to the conclusion that a person could make it around the world in 80 days, she also believed that she could complete such a journey in as few as 77 days. She would travel by boat, train and personal conveyance east from New York. Her editor turned down her idea for two reasons: first, the paper was not ready to send anyone on a journey around the world (although they had been considering it); and second, if they were to do so, they most certainly would not send a woman as they believed only a man could accomplish such a feat alone. But nearly a year later, Nellie was sent a message from the editors saying that they wanted to send her on a trip around the world. So, on that big day, she set sail on the Augusta Victoria on the first leg of her journey.
Unbeknownst to Nellie, Elizabeth Bisland, a journalist for Cosmopolitan magazine, left New York on a trip around the world by train en route to San Francisco, to complete the first segment of her journey. After the announcement was made by The World, Pulitzer decided to make the adventure a race and a competition to see who could get around the world the fastest. Elizabeth's trip was to be much the same as Nellie's, with a couple of different stops, only in reverse: Nellie traveled east to west, while Elizabeth went west to east. As expected, neither woman's trip went as planned; both ran into many roadblocks and unexpected events along the way.
While the two never met or knew anything about each other, they were similar in many ways. They were both journalists, each married wealthy men, neither had children, both did volunteer work overseas during World War I, and both died from pneumonia in the same month of the year. Although their deaths were five years apart, they were buried in the same cemetery.
They certainly had their differences, though. Nellie was quite adventurous and sought the limelight. She wanted to be known as a pioneering female journalist, and went about doing so by going undercover and exposing fraud. Although Elizabeth was a journalist, she preferred to write literary book reviews and short stories.
Nellie's father had been a fairly wealthy man, but when he died, her mother was left with practically nothing as he had no will and most of the estate went to his former wife and her children. Nellie's mother remarried, but it was an unhappy union that ended in divorce. The two spent many years living practically hand-to-mouth. Nellie was determined to make a living for herself so she would never be dependent on a man. Elizabeth, on the other hand, grew up on a Southern plantation. Although the family was forced from their home during the Civil War, Elizabeth never experienced quite the sense of deprivation and desperation that Nellie did.
Nellie despised the British and just about everything they stood for, whereas Elizabeth embraced the Brits and their ways and claimed to be proud of her Anglo-Saxon heritage. And when they departed on their respective journeys, Nellie took only one piece of luggage with her while Elizabeth took several.
Matthew Goodman does a wonderful job telling this fantastic story. He alternates between Nellie's and Elizabeth's stories, paralleling the two along the way. When the race is over, he follows up with more details concerning their separate lives. Goodman has conducted a tremendous amount of research, providing the reader with detailed footnotes as well as an extensive bibliography.
Before reading EIGHTY DAYS, I was not familiar with this historic event, but I certainly am now. I'm not a great history buff, but I do like to read intriguing stories, even if they do pertain to real-life events. This is one such story.
Reviewed by Christine M. Irvin
on June 3, 2013
It was very hard for me to give this only 2 stars because I really WANTED to like it more. The story itself was interesting. It's not surprising that it's not something we learn about in school, basically we get 5 minute sound bites on most historical moments that aren't wars. But I feel this was a significant point in women showing they can do the same jobs men can do...sometimes even better.
No, it wasn't the story. It was the writing. This book could have easily been half the size if Matthew Goodman could have just kept all the little tangents and offshoots to himself. Although I just stated the writing is what kept this book down, I blame the editor more than the author. It's obvious Goodman did his research, he needed help to know which tidbits added to the story and which just weighed it all down. Honestly, if this wasn't being read for my book club I most likely wouldn't have finished it - and I never just abandon a book. Especially one I paid for!
The story of Elizabeth Bisland and Nellie Bly is really amazing and worth learning about. Just know ahead of time that the tangents the author goes off on are NOT pertinent to the story and you can skim over them. It will make it much easier to get through. It honestly has nothing to do with the projection of the story for you to know how the Thomas Cook Travel Agency got its start or the exact address of every person in the book. Some of the information is interesting, I am actually quite a history buff and usually enjoy such interesting items. But the info pulls you out of the story and it just doesn't flow.
This is a great book about Nellie Bly's trip around the world and her lesser known rival Elizabeth Bisland. Goodman has cleary done his research presenting details not only of Bly's trip but also of her world ranging from a vignette of Park Row and the problems facing female journalists to the unique difficulties faced by travelers of the time. Goodman's narrative is entertaining and well-structured but with so many side notes for historical details the text can become very dense. At times it is also jarring as Goodman tries to create a narrative feel as he postures how Bisland and Bly must have felt at various points in their journeys. An excellent book for anyone interested in travel, journalism, or this time period.
on March 22, 2013
I read about Nellie Bly as a child in some child's biography of famous women and probably believe the story planted the seed that women really can do what they want. It was good to read what is I'm sure a much more accurate portrayal of the woman and the incredible voyage around the world.
The story is interesting and certainly well researched. My only complaint is the book really should have included a map of the travels of both Nellie and Elizabeth's journeys. Also, at times it just seemed a bit tedious especially regarding nautical terms and parts of the ships.
In short, a fun, interesting read of what really was an incredible journey for both women.
This started as a great book about an interesting topic: in 1890, two women start around the world from NY in opposite directions on the same day. The first, Nelly Bly, wants to beat Phineas Fogg's 80 day jaunt. She is sponsored by the "NY World" newspaper in this publicity stunt. The other, Elizabeth Bisland, is sponsored by "The Cosmopolitan" magazine. She is sent to beat Nelly by heading west rather than east.
The book starts as great and exciting as the trip was about to be. Mr. Goodman's biographies of the ladies and descriptions of the times in which they lived were excellent. Then...the trip began.
Between the two women, there were about 150 days of travel. That means 150 days of transports (trains and ships with rickshaws and other local conveyances), hotels with lobbies and rooms, ships with staterooms, dining rooms and decks and a few people met by the travelers along the way. Of course, there were also meals for 150 days. All of these were described in vivid - and then tedious - detail. Every stateroom, every train car, every sleeper, every hotel was described down to the colors and materials. Almost every meal, it seems, warranted a discourse on all seven courses. What started as interesting and informative descriptions of a unique time in history, the blossoming of the industrial age, was bogged down in an heinous amount of detail.
Mr. Goodman's insights into the world's metamorphosis, especially America's, the size, scope and power of the British empire and the place of women was excellent. His "big picture" makes the book worth reading. His over-emphasis on detail, though, weakened those insights by burying them in needless trivial description. By the end I found myself slogging and rooting for the end of the book as much as for the women to beat the record.
Once again, a reader is left to wonder: Where was an editor to say: "Great book. Cut out 85-100 pages."
I certainly learned a lot about the Victorian world. Perhaps too much. In a book about a race I was expecting pace to keep me involved. Instead Matthew Goodman decided to give me every bit of his exhaustive research into the two main characters as well as everything they encountered here and abroad.
I kept wanting to say, "Get on with the race, already."
Even after the race we are led to find out how these two ladies then lived their lives until they finally died. We learn an awful lot. I never have to read another book about Nellie Bly or Elizabeth Bisland or 1890 again. They did everything but meet Sherlock Holmes. Maybe I'd read that book.
on February 27, 2013
When I discovered I was receiving a copy of this book it was like Christmas came early. And I can honestly say it lived up to my expectations! As a fan of Nellie Bly since I was 12, I've read all the other books about her (though some of the newer children's books might've escaped me) and I was pleased to find this book to be such a wealth of new material. Matthew Goodman casts a storyteller's eye over all the information and relates details in such a way that everything about the famous tale feels fresh and reinvigorated.
Even a Bly fan such as myself had to admit almost no knowledge of Ms. Bisland. Her life makes a wonderful counterpoint to tales of the brash and adventurous Bly. I had no idea, for example, that she was friends with Lafcadio Hern, nor that her journey could've easily out-paced Ms. Bly's. The meteorological knowledge her boss applied in structuring her journey made the race all the more compelling. The fact Ms. Bisland was a reluctant convert to such travels makes her voice quite different from that of Ms. Bly's - and therefore provides a distinctly different view of the period.
Of these writers, the one that perhaps emerges on top is Matthew Goodman himself. His story-telling skills are on full display here and he shows a good eye for detail. He picks up on the differences that might've jumped out the most to anyone from our era (the Statue of Liberty would still be its original bronze color as Ms. Bly sailed past) and those that would've felt like they could've happened yesterday (the patriotic stirring when an American sees their flag for the first time after weeks away is something any prodigal American could tell you about).
In short: this book is an excellent primer on the world, New York City, journalism, feminism, the emerging concept of media stardom, and The World (Pulitzer's paper) at a unique time in their respective histories. It is also an engrossing, detailed, fast-paced read.
on April 21, 2013
19th century history. World travel. Female journalists. I knew I couldn't go wrong with this brand-new non-fiction release that combines three of my favorite topics to read about. Eighty Days more than fulfilled my expectations - improbably weaving a fast-paced, in-depth and surprisingly moving story out of what could have been a dry recitation of train and steam ship schedules.
As a kid, I loved re-reading my Abridged Classics version of Jules Verne's Around the World in Eighty Days. I was seven or eight years old and it was the first time I can recall reading about India and London and a dozen other exotic places. We've lost a lot of that wonder in today's world but in Bly and Bisland's time, Verne's book was an intriguing fantasy. No one had ever circled the world in that short of a time.
Goodman captures that sense of wonder amongst the general populace and shows how the race was conducted at a unique moment in human history, when advances in steams ships and cross-continental railroads made extensive travel possible and completely changed the way people perceived time and distance. In the age of 14-hour non-stop plane flights, it can be hard to wrap around how revolutionary it was for a person to circle the world in less than eighty days. Good man is quite good at showing the excitement and curiosity surrounding the race.
A large part of the success of the book is also due to Goodman's strengths as a writer. He's very good at richly describing the cities and seascapes the two journalists saw on their trip. I could see the fishing town by the bay that was Hong Kong in 1889 and French countryside not yet blighted by two world wars and the endlessness of the Pacific Ocean.
You can hardly make it through journalism school without learning about Nellie Bly - but until now, I had no idea that in the 19th century she was most known for her race around the world. I resisted every urge to look up the result of the race online before reaching the conclusion of the book and found myself rooting instead for Elizabeth Bisland, who seemed to appreciate the opportunity the race gave her to see the world as opposed to the frantic competitiveness of Nellie Bly.
Some reviews have faulted Goodman for his excessive detail and side-tracks into various aspects of 19th century history that relate to the trip. I don't see why this is a problem - I read historical narratives so that I can be carried away by an engaging story while deepening my knowledge of that moment in history. After reading Eighty Days, I know a bit more about Chinese immigrants, the competitive world of New York City newspapers, how coal powered steamships and the origin of the word rickshaw.
I was surprised by the moving epilogue and the way it placed the race in the larger context of Bly and Bisland's lives and the burgeoning celebrity culture in late 19th century America. I would strongly encourage fans of historical fiction to pick up this nonfiction narrative. The vivid personalities, the quality of the writing and the excitement of the race make for a story as exciting as any novel.
on May 19, 2013
I. LOVED. THIS. BOOK.
What made the experience of reading this book even better was the fact that when I received it, I didn't anticipate enjoying it. Wasn't my subject matter of choice, cover looked boring, I don't know. But boy, was I wrong. Eighty Days is fascinating read that gives you a wonderful glimpse of the late 19th century. It touches on a variety of socio-political issues such as British colonialism and views on women, and it really helps you understand how very different the world was back then - no airplanes, only trains and steamships, no internet or television, just telegrams and newspapers. I enjoyed the writing style immensely. Even though this book isn't much of a thriller, at some points I could not stop turning the pages because I absolutely needed to know what happened next; Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland went through some pretty harrowing experiences (this book reads like fiction sometimes even though it's not!) I'm so glad that the experiences of these two extraordinary women are being showcased once again. I'm making all my friends read this book ASAP!