Friday, May 24, 2013

Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland's History-Making Race Around the World, Matthew Goodman

Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland's History-Making Race Around the WorldShe was a young woman in a plaid coat and cap, neither tall nor short, dark nor fair, not quite pretty enough to turn a head: the sort of woman, who could, if necessary, lose herself in a crowd.

Eighty Days tells of Nellie Bly, a plucky female journalist for The World who was sent on November 14, 1889, to try and beat Jules Verne's fictional record, and travel around the world in 75 days. But as it turns out, she's not just racing against Phileas Fogg and time; another newspaper sends their own female reporter, Elizabeth Bisland. Eighty Days is their fascinating story, one which enthralled the whole nation at the time, watching as the two journalists sped around the world in opposite directions. It also changed the competitors' lives - forever. It was profiled in my local newspaper and looked really fascinating, so I picked it up. 

One of the most interesting things about the story is that the two women are so, so different. Nellie Bly is a determined, scrappy, and ambitious reporter from Pennsylvania's coal country who sought out some of the most lurid news stories, many times going undercover to reveal injustice. Elizabeth Bisland was genteel and elegant, and had been born into an aristocratic Southern family. She preferred literature to newspapers, and was very beautiful. Both women were talented writers with successful careers in a field very difficult for women to enter. These women come to life in this story, in which a single delay can make all the difference. The reader travels all around the world with them. 

I was afraid that Eighty Days would be a bit dense and hard to get through, but it really wasn't; it was so fascinating. I liked that the author gave so much background; he tells us where each woman grew up, about their family, and how they started their career. For example, he talks about how Nellie Bly arrived in New York, had some difficulties, and finally got her first real reporting job pretending to be insane so she could uncover the cruelty of an asylum.  I learned so many interesting facts about this period. Not just about journalism, but everything about the late nineteenth century. Eighty Days is like historical fiction, except it actually happened! I was enthralled by this amazing story and I also learned a lot, the ideal combination. I'm certainly glad that I chose to read this one as my biography requirement for school, though I would have read it regardless. 

At different points in the book, I found myself rooting for each of the two contestants. There were some things I really admired about Nellie Bly: the fact that she's so determined, that she wrote about things that women usually didn't write about, that she exposed injustice. Also she only packed one suitcase for her trip around the world, which immediately endeared her to me. But Elizabeth Bisland is also very appealing in some ways. She loves to read novels and poetry, is very refined, beautiful, and a lovely lady. Nellie Bly is also annoyingly patriotic and hypocritical; she will never hear a word said against her beloved country America.Who I wanted to win kept shifting back and forth. Both of these characters are so compelling, and Goodman makes them come to life. He also makes the places that they visit feel so real and offers many fascinating insights. Though I kind of suspected who was going to win, Eighty Days was still a suspenseful read. 

Eighty Days surprised me with its brilliancy. It was entertaining, thought-provoking and thoroughly absorbing. I would highly, highly, highly recommend this book, which contains so many great elements. 

Read Eighty Days:
  • if you like biography
  • if you like travelogues 
  • if you like adventure
  • if you like historical fiction
  • if you like stories of women
  • if you like Around the World in 80 Days
367 pages. 
Outstanding Book That Will Stay On My Bookshelf For Rereading (jf I own it)!

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