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Review: ‘Eighty Days’ by Matthew Goodman

by Kim on March 6, 2013 · 22 comments

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Title: Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland’s History-Making Race Around the World
Author: Matthew Goodman
Genre: Narrative nonfiction
Year: 2013
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Acquired: From the publisher for review consideration
Rating: ★★★★½

Review: On November 14, 1889, 25-year-old intrepid reporter Nellie Bly left New York city on a steamship heading for England, hoping to set a record for the fastest trip around the world and Phineas Fogg’s fictional trip in Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days. Hours later, 28-year-old journalist and literary critic Elizabeth Bisland left New York by train toward San Francisco, intending to race Bly around the globe. In Eighty Days author Matthew Goodman follows these two remarkable journalists on the endeavor, which for 70 odd days captivated the world.

Based on that description, I’m sure you can understand why I’m writing about this book. There’s pretty much no way I was going to let a book about two adventurous lady journalists get away from me — there really isn’t a more promising premise for a book. And happily, Matthew Goodman didn’t disappoint in the least. Eighty Days is a page-turning travel adventure, sprinkled with the kinds of historical tidbits that make up the best narrative nonfiction.

Part of the appeal of this story is just how usual it is: two female journalists set out to beat a (fictional) record for travel around the globe at a time when the most common question about women traveling was how they could possibly manage to travel with only one suitcase (can you feel my eyes rolling out of my head?). This is a time when women weren’t allowed and, frankly, weren’t expected to do big things, and yet Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland managed to do what seemed almost impossible through travel arrangements that seem almost impossible to manage even today.

And interestingly enough, the women couldn’t have been more different from one another. Bly made her name as an undercover reporter at Joseph Pulitzer’s The New York Worl, putting herself in dangerous situations like being sent to an asylum or posing as a woman trying to sell a baby to expose injustices in society. She was a muckraker and stunt journalist of the highest degree, again, at a time when women were expected or allowed to do these things.

Bisland, in contrast, made a name for herself as a more genteel lady. As a writer for The Cosmopolitan magazine, Bisland wrote poetry and book reviews, hosted a literary salon at her home, and was generally known as one of the most beautiful women in journalism. Yet they both found themselves on this incredible journey, which I think is just cool.

This is going to sound nerdy, I know, but I also loved the structure of this book. Goodman uses Bly and Bisland’s around the world contest as the main arc of the story, but he used that arc to make room for all sorts of historical tidbits that I just ate up: the story of the Statue of Liberty and why the United States switched to standardized times, for example. This was such a smart move on his part; much of Bly and Bisland’s story isn’t that exciting — there is only so much you can write about what life is like at sea or on a train (the two primary modes of travel). But the historical asides flesh out this story and make it a fascinating portrait of life at the turn of the century.

If you couldn’t tell, I was entirely delighted by Eighty Days. It’s a little on the long side, but for the most part I didn’t notice the pages passing. I was entirely absorbed by this tale of two unusual and brave women who challenged the world’s ideas of what was possible amidst some of the most challenging conditions of their time. Eighty Days is a highly recommended read.

Other Reviews: Devourer of Books (audiobook) | The Literary Omnivore | utter randomonium |

If you have reviewed this book, please leave a link to the review in the comments and I will add your review to the main post. All I ask is for you to do the same to mine — thanks!

{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

jenn aka the picky girl March 6, 2013 at 3:07 pm

I mentioned this on Jen’s review, but I have to say it again. I SWEAR I have read this book. Yet I know I haven’t, and when I look for other books similar to it, none of the titles look familiar. Needless to say, I want to read this one as soon as possible. Great review.

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Kim March 6, 2013 at 3:51 pm

You know, it does sound vaguely like it could be another book, like this storyline has been done before in some slightly different way. Both Bly and Bisland wrote books about their trip afterwards, which I’m curious about myself.

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Leah @ Books Speak Volumes March 6, 2013 at 3:25 pm

This sounds absolutely delightful. What could be better than lady journalists fighting expectations and all the odds to race each other around the world? I need to read this!

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Kim March 6, 2013 at 3:52 pm

It was delightful; I really enjoyed this one. I hope you will too!

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Care March 6, 2013 at 3:48 pm

Were they friends?! Just wonderin’…

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Kim March 6, 2013 at 3:49 pm

No, they weren’t. They’d never met before they both set out (in opposite directions). And, according to the book, they never met after they completed the race. That was one of the sadder details for me — I think they might have liked each other!

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Nikki Steele March 6, 2013 at 3:50 pm

This sounds so exciting! I’m loving all the memoirs of kick-ass women in history that have been coming out lately.

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Kim March 6, 2013 at 3:51 pm

There are others? Please, share!

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River City Reading March 6, 2013 at 4:43 pm

This sounds fantastic! So glad you posted this, I haven’t heard anything about it…but it’s totally on my radar now.

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Charlie March 7, 2013 at 5:15 am

I’d love to read it, and I’m glad in that way that there is a lot more historical information when the travelling gets repetitive. Once you’ve read one book that focuses on the transport you’ve kind of read them all.

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Kim March 7, 2013 at 9:05 pm

Definitely. And both of them spent most of the trip on a train or on a boat, which is not very interesting once you actually get on. I’d love to read a version of an around the world story that focuses on other modes of travel.

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Jennifer March 7, 2013 at 6:27 am

Oh I know I will love this one. Feisty gals, historical tidbits…YES!

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Julie Merilatt March 7, 2013 at 8:47 am

Yeah, I already have this one. It will be my next Nonfiction read!

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Kim March 7, 2013 at 9:05 pm

I hope you love it!

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Trisha March 7, 2013 at 10:36 am

This is the second time I’ve heard about this book; it made the wish list the first time, and it’s moved up to the top after this.

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Kristen M. March 8, 2013 at 7:02 pm

I thought there were maybe a few too many tangents (like explaining every material that was used in making first class train cars) but otherwise it was a really fascinating read. The bits about Pulitzer definitely made me want to learn more about him.

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Kim March 9, 2013 at 8:59 am

I suppose we all have our level of patience for tangents. I thought they were great, but to each her own.

I read a tick, interesting biography of Putlizer a couple years ago that I liked quite a bit: http://www.sophisticateddorkiness.com/2010/04/review-pulitzer-by-james-mcgrath-morris/

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Aarti March 9, 2013 at 11:30 am

I’m so glad you enjoyed this one! I admit that I wasn’t as enamored with it, I think mostly because Nellie Bly got me so angry after a while! But I’m glad to have learned more about Bisland – she seems great.

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Kim March 17, 2013 at 2:01 pm

Nellie Bly was sort of aggravating after awhile, but I think I cut her some slack since she was doing a thing I would never be able to accomplish :) I think Bisland does sound wonderful though. I think I would have liked hanging out with her.

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Jennifer March 16, 2013 at 4:13 pm

This book does sound like everything I look for in a good book. I’m definitely going to be picking it up especially since I have been looking for books with strong female leads! Thanks for a great review!

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