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

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

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by Matthew Goodman

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On November 14, 1889, Nellie Bly, the crusading young female reporter for Joseph Pulitzer’s World newspaper, left New York City by steamship on a quest to break the record for the fastest trip around the world. Also departing from New York that day—and heading in the opposite direction by train—was a young …  See more details below



On November 14, 1889, Nellie Bly, the crusading young female reporter for Joseph Pulitzer’s World newspaper, left New York City by steamship on a quest to break the record for the fastest trip around the world. Also departing from New York that day—and heading in the opposite direction by train—was a young journalist from The Cosmopolitan magazine, Elizabeth Bisland. Each woman was determined to outdo Jules Verne’s fictional hero Phileas Fogg and circle the globe in less than eighty days. The dramatic race that ensued would span twenty-eight thousand miles, captivate the nation, and change both competitors’ lives forever.
The two women were a study in contrasts. Nellie Bly was a scrappy, hard-driving, ambitious reporter from Pennsylvania coal country who sought out the most sensational news stories, often going undercover to expose social injustice. Genteel and elegant, Elizabeth Bisland had been born into an aristocratic Southern family, preferred novels and poetry to newspapers, and was widely referred to as the most beautiful woman in metropolitan journalism. Both women, though, were talented writers who had carved out successful careers in the hypercompetitive, male-dominated world of big-city newspapers. Eighty Days brings these trailblazing women to life as they race against time and each other, unaided and alone, ever aware that the slightest delay could mean the difference between victory and defeat.
A vivid real-life re-creation of the race and its aftermath, from its frenzied start to the nail-biting dash at its finish, Eighty Days is history with the heart of a great adventure novel. Here’s the journey that takes us behind the walls of Jules Verne’s Amiens estate, into the back alleys of Hong Kong, onto the grounds of a Ceylon tea plantation, through storm-tossed ocean crossings and mountains blocked by snowdrifts twenty feet deep, and to many more unexpected and exotic locales from London to Yokohama. Along the way, we are treated to fascinating glimpses of everyday life in the late nineteenth century—an era of unprecedented technological advances, newly remade in the image of the steamship, the railroad, and the telegraph. For Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland—two women ahead of their time in every sense of the word—were not only racing around the world. They were also racing through the very heart of the Victorian age.

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“What a story! What an extraordinary historical adventure!”—Amanda Foreman, author of A World on Fire
“A fun, fast, page-turning action-adventure . . . the exhilarating journey of two pioneering women, Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland, as they race around the globe.”—Karen Abbott, author of American Rose
“[A] marvelous tale of adventure . . . The story of these two pioneering women unfolds amid the excitement, setbacks, crises, missed opportunities and a global trek unlike any other in its time. . . . Why would you want to miss out on the incredible journey that takes you to the finish line page after nail-biting page?”Chicago Sun-Times (Best Books of the Year)
“In a stunning feat of narrative nonfiction, Matthew Goodman brings the nineteenth century to life, tracing the history of two intrepid journalists as they tackled two male-dominated fields—world travel and journalism—in an era of incredible momentum.”—Minneapolis Star Tribune

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Editorial Reviews

Living in a time when media wars usually consist of battling celebrity scandals, it's uplifting to reflect back on an era when newspaper headlines trumpeted loftier matters. On November 14, 1889, the New York World dispatched the enterprising Nellie Bly on a mission to circumnavigate the globe in 75 days. On that very same day, Elisabeth Brisland of The Cosmopolitan took off in the opposite direction, equally determined to break the world record. Bly famously won the race, but that, as Matthew Goodman tells it, is less than half the story. In this exciting new book, he recounts the travels and travails of two self-made feminists, stirring us in the new millennium, just as their accounts of their adventures did in the nineteenth century. (P.S. Why haven't the movie rights to this book been sold?)

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chapter 1

A Free American Girl

Nellie bly was born elizabeth jane cochran in western pennsyl-vania on May 5, 1864, though confusion about her exact age would persist throughout her life—a good deal of that confusion engineered by Bly herself, for she was never quite as young as she claimed to be. When she began her race around the world, in November of 1889, Bly was twenty-five years old, but estimates of her age among the nation’s newspapers ranged from twenty to twenty-four; according to her own newspaper, The World, she was “about twenty-three.”

The town in which she grew up, Apollo, Pennsylvania, was a small, nondescript sort of place, not much different from countless other mill towns carved out of hemlock and spruce, unassuming enough that even the author of a history of Apollo felt obliged to explain in the book’s foreword, “It is not necessary to be a city of the first class to fill the niche in the hearts of the people or the history of the state. Besides it is our town.” On its main street stood a general store (where one could buy everything from penny candy to plowshares), a drugstore, a slaughterhouse, a blacksmith shop, and several taverns; the town would not have a bank until 1871. In the winters there was sledding and skating, and when the warmer weather came the children of the town liked to roll barrel hoops down the hill to the canal bridge and to fish the Kiskiminetas River, which had not yet been contaminated by runoff from the coal mines and iron mills being built nearby.

Elizabeth was born to Michael and Mary Jane Cochran, the third of five children and the elder of two daughters. She was known to everyone in town as “Pink”; it was a nickname she came by early on, arising from her mother’s predilection to dress her in pink clothing, in sharp contrast to the drab browns and grays worn by the other local children. Pink seems to have been a high-spirited, rather headstrong girl, though much of what is known of her early years comes from her own recollections in publicity stories written after she became famous, at least some of which seem designed mainly to burnish the already developing legend of the intrepid young journalist. One story published in The World, for instance (the headline of which claimed to provide her “authentic biography”), told how she was an insatiable reader as a girl, and how she herself wrote scores of stories, scribbling them in the flyleaves of books and on whatever scraps of paper she could find. Nights she lay awake in bed, her mind aflame with imagined stories of heroes and heroines, fairy tales and romances: “So active was the child’s brain and so strongly her faculties eluded sleep that her condition became alarming and she had to be placed under the care of physicians.” The World ’s professions of Bly’s childhood love for reading and writing, though, are not to be found in other accounts, and in the family history, Chronicles of the Cochrans: Being a Series of Historical Events and Narratives in Which the Members of This Family Have Played a Prominent Part, one of her relatives commented somewhat tartly that among the teachers in Apollo’s sole schoolhouse, Pink Cochran “acquired more conspicuous notice for riotous conduct than profound scholarship.”

Pink’s father, Michael Cochran, had become wealthy as a grist mill proprietor and real estate speculator, and he was prominent enough to have been elected an associate justice of the county, after which he was always known by the honorific “Judge.” (The nearby hamlet of Coch- ran’s Mills, where Pink lived for her first five years, was named after him.) When Pink was six years old, though, Judge Cochran suddenly fell ill and died, without having left behind a will; according to Pennsylvania law, a wife was not entitled to an inheritance without being specifically named in a husband’s will, and by the time his fortune had been parceled out among his heirs (including nine grown children from a previous marriage), Pink’s mother, Mary Jane, ended up with little more than the household furniture, a horse and carriage, and a small weekly stipend. Now raising five children on her own, she embarked on an ill-conceived marriage to a man who turned out to be a drunkard and an abuser. After five miserable years Mary Jane took the highly unusual step of filing for divorce; Pink herself testified on her mother’s behalf, recounting for the court an awful litany of her stepfather’s offenses against her mother. At only fourteen years of age, she had learned all she needed to know about what could befall a woman who was not financially independent.

Pink was determined that one day she would support her mother and herself, and the next year she was sent to a nearby boarding school that specialized in training young women to be teachers. For the fifteen-year-old, the school must have been a welcome opportunity to create a new identity for herself—it was there that Pink Cochran added the silent e to the end of her surname—but unfortunately her mother was forced to withdraw her after only a single semester; the family simply did not have enough money for Pink to continue her schooling. This fact seems to have been embarrassing to Nellie Bly, and she omitted it from her own stories about herself. That “authentic” biographical story in The World, presumably based on information provided by Bly, asserted instead that she had left “on account of threatening heart disease”: even one more year of studies, her physician was said to have advised her, could come at the cost of her life. “She was anxious to continue her studies,” The World solemnly explained, “but she didn’t want to die.”

In 1880, when Pink was sixteen, Mary Jane Cochran moved with her children to Pittsburgh, some thirty-five miles away. She was hoping to leave behind the death and divorce with which she had come to be associated in Apollo, but Pittsburgh must at times have seemed a hard bargain. Anthony Trollope once called Pittsburgh “without exception, the blackest place which I ever saw.” It was a city given over almost entirely to manufacture, where within a few dozen square miles nearly five hundred factories turned out the steel, iron, brass, copper, cotton, oil, and glass hungrily consumed by an industrializing nation. On the horizon, in every direction, smoke poured from unseen furnaces. At night the sky burned yellow and red. The city’s wind carried flecks of graphite; the air smelled of sulfur, and a long walk brought a taste of metal on the tongue. There were unexpected showers of soot. In a neighborhood with a skyline of steeples and onion domes, where railroad tracks wound through backyards, Mary Jane bought a small row house for her family; eventually, like many of the city’s homeowners, she earned a bit of extra income by renting out a room to boarders. For the next four years Pink helped support the family by taking whatever positions she could find, including as a kitchen girl; she may also have found work as a nanny, a housekeeper, and a private tutor. (Her older brothers, having even less education than she, found jobs as a corresponding clerk and the manager of a rubber company.)

Though Pittsburgh’s population at the time was only about 150,000, the city was able to support ten daily newspapers, more than any other American city of its size. Pink Cochrane was a regular reader of one of them, the Pittsburg Dispatch, where the most popular columnist was Erasmus Wilson, who wrote under the name “The Quiet Observer,” or simply “Q. O.” Wilson was a courtly older gentleman, and in his “Quiet Observations” he liked to espouse what he saw as traditional Victorian values. In one column he took to task modern women “who think they are out of their spheres and go around giving everybody fits for not helping them to find them.” A “woman’s sphere,” he bluntly concluded, “is defined and located by a single word—home.”

The column, with its high-flown disregard for the realities of women’s lives, outraged Pink Cochrane, and she sat down and composed a long letter to the editor of the Dispatch. As was then the custom among those who wrote letters to newspapers, she signed it with a pseudonym: “Lonely Orphan Girl.” (It was perhaps an odd choice of name—her mother, after all, was still alive—but it was a poignant reminder of the impact of her father’s death, a blow from which the family had never recovered.) The letter caught the attention of the paper’s new managing editor, George A. Madden, who placed a notice in the next issue of the Dispatch asking “Orphan Girl” to send him her name and address.

The very next afternoon the writer herself unexpectedly arrived at the Dispatch office. She was twenty years old but looked even younger; Erasmus Wilson would recall her from that morning as “a shy little girl.” She was slimly built, of medium height, with large, somewhat mournful-looking gray eyes and a broad mouth above a square-set chin. She wore a long black cloak and a simple fur hat; her hair, which she had not yet taken to wearing up, fell in auburn curls around the shoulders of her coat. The young woman was plainly uncomfortable in her surroundings, intimidated by her first visit to a city newsroom. In a voice that barely rose above a whisper, she asked an office boy where she might find the editor.

“That is the gentleman,” the boy said, and he pointed toward Madden sitting a few feet away.

Seeing the dapperly mustached young editor, she broke into a smile, revealing a physical detail often remarked upon by those who met her: a dazzlingly white set of teeth. “Oh, is it?” she exclaimed. “I expected to see an old, cross man.”

George Madden told her that he was not going to print her letter; instead, he said, he wanted her to write an article of her own on the question of “the woman’s sphere.” Neither Bly nor Madden ever recorded her immediate reaction to his request, but the prospect of actually writing for a newspaper, after four years of tramping Pittsburgh’s soot-darkened streets in pursuit of menial work with little hope of ever finding anything better, must have meant everything to her; within the week she had turned the article in to Madden. Her grammar was rough, her punctuation erratic (for years George Madden was heard to complain about the amount of blue pencil he had expended on her pieces), but the writing was forceful and her voice clear and strong. She had chosen to address the question from the perspective of those women who did not have the privileges “Q. O.” had summarily granted them: poor women who needed to work to support their families. It was an impassioned plea for understanding and sympathy, into which she must have poured some of her own despair at the conditions of her life and that of her mother:

Can they that have full and plenty of this world’s goods realize what it is to be a poor working woman, abiding in one or two bare rooms, without fire enough to keep warm, while her threadbare clothes refuse to protect her from the wind and cold, and denying herself the necessary food that her little ones may not go hungry; fearing the landlord’s frown and threat to cast her out and sell what little she has, begging for employment of any kind that she may earn enough to pay for the bare rooms she calls home, no one to speak kindly to or encourage her, nothing to make life worth the living?

So Elizabeth Cochrane came to be hired as a reporter for the Dispatch, at a salary of five dollars a week. Before her next article was published (this one on divorced women, another subject close to her heart), George Madden called her into his office and informed her that she needed a pen name. At the time, it was considered uncouth for a woman to sign her own name to a news story. The Dispatch’s own Elizabeth Wilkinson Wade wrote as “Bessie Bramble”; in New York, Sara Payson Willis was “Fanny Fern”; in Boston, Sally Joy (which itself sounded like a pen name) was known instead as “Penelope Penfeather.” He was looking for a name, George Madden said, that was “neat and catchy.” Together the two considered several possibilities, but none seemed quite right. It was late in the afternoon; the light from the gas lamps cast flickering shadows on the wallpaper. From upstairs an editor called for his copy. An office boy walked by whistling a popular tune of the day, written by the local songwriter Stephen Foster:

Nelly Bly! Nelly Bly! Bring de broom along,

We’ll sweep de kitchen clean, my dear,

And hab a little song.

The name was short, it was catchy, and best of all, the public already liked it. Madden instructed the typesetter to give the story the byline “Nelly Bly”—but the typesetter misspelled the first name, and as a result of the erratum she was forever after Nellie Bly.

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What People are saying about this

From the Publisher
Advance praise for Eighty Days
“What a story! What an extraordinary historical adventure!”—Amanda Foreman, author of A World on Fire
“Vividly imagined and gorgeously detailed, Eighty Days recounts the exhilarating journey of two pioneering women, Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland, as they race around the globe. Matthew Goodman has crafted a fun, fast, page-turning action-adventure that will make you wish you could carry their bags.”—Karen Abbott, author of American Rose
“What a delight to circumnavigate the globe with pioneering journalists Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland. The two women carve out an adventurous path in a constrained Victorian world that cares as much about  their marriage prospects and the number of trunks they pack as about their trailblazing career aspirations. Matthew Goodman’s lively writing and detailed research bring the story of these two remarkable women to life as they race around the world, full steam ahead, giving us an intimate look at a late-nineteenth-century world that is suddenly shrinking in the face of rapid technological change. Only one of these two remarkable women can win the race around the world, but the reader of this fascinating tale will be certain of a reward.”—Elizabeth Letts, author of The Eighty-Dollar Champion

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Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland's History-Making Race Around the World 4.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 25 reviews.
rhonda1111RL More than 1 year ago
5 STARS I have heard the name Nellie Bly before but did not know anything about her or her famous race around the world. Matthew Goodman did a good job making it feel alive. The back of the book is around 75 pages of acknowledgments,notes and sources of where he got his information from. A few days ago I got a surprise in the mail copy of Matthew Goodman's book Eighty days and a copy of Jules Verne book Around the world in eighty days. Which I have heard of but have not read. I am not sure how come I recieved the books. I enter a lot of contests,get books from Librarything,goodreads and Netgalley. I later got a digital copy of Eight Days so I was reading from book to listening on my kindle to reading the book. Either way the story was interesting. I would love to be able to do that even today. Except I would be more like Elizabeth and take more than one dress. Okay I would take pants. I think the book showed up both the good and some not so favorable sides of both Nellie and Elizabeth. Nellie got the idea to beat Phileas Fogg from Around the World in Eighty Days by Jules Verne. A year before her trip. The World Newspaper turned her down than. They decided with two days notice to send her. The Cosmopolitan Magazine owner decided to make a race of it and send his own reporter in a race going the oppisite direction. Elizabeth Bisland did not want to go. Just given hours to leave. Nellie was almost done with racing against the clock when she found out that thier was another reporter she was in a race against. Which is not fair to her. One thing that Nellie got to do was to meet Jules Verne in his home. The race against his fictional character Fogg made his book sell even more copies and the play about hs book was produced again 11 years after it was closed the last time. I know now that I plan to read Around the World in Eighty Days and other Jules Verne fiction. I learned a lot about how different people lived back than and how they traveled. So many things I have picked up that I had no clue about. That England fought a war to make China to let in Opium that they wanted to ship in China to make up trade decifit that they want against Tea 02/26/2013 PUB. Random House Publishing Group - Ballantine 480 pages ISBN 9780345527264
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Ground-breaking women journalists, a new era in the technology of transport, biting commentary on class divisions in the Victorian Era, not to mention the unconscious bigotry that lurked beneath the world of Colonialism-- all of these are here, and illuminating, but none of them takes the readers away from a really fascinating story about two women, one exciting race (with all its ups and downs), and how they (in particular, Bly) captured the imagination of hundreds of thousands. Impressively researched, but again, only in the service of making the story even more fun. I enjoyed every bit of it.
TurboLink More than 1 year ago
Eighty Days was a fascinating account of transportation and selected cultures of the 1890s. I particularly enjoyed accounts of rail and ship travel. I had heard of Nellie Bly, but did not realize she attempted to best Fileous Fogg’s 80 day record. I had never heard of Elizabeth Bisland. Matthew Goodman’s detailed coverage of their progress along the way was excellent. One section I particularly enjoyed was the account of Nellie Bly meeting Jules Verne in France. It was fascinating to get a candid view of the real man behind those wonderful stories. The Eighty Days storyline provides significant information to both lady’s lives after the race, which gives superb closure to a most interesting story.
Sawbill More than 1 year ago
I enjoyed every delicious moment of reading Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland’s History-Making Race Around the World by Matthew Goodman.  Scrappy journalist Nellie Bly is a role model for all women who desire to make their way in a “man’s profession,” and who make a way for themselves when none is provided. Writer and autodidact Elisabeth Bisland loved English literature, and that love seemed to enable her to richly enjoy her surroundings as she traveled from British port to British port in her circumnavigation. This nonfiction work of history reads like an adventure novel. It is thoroughly researched, and each direct quote is well documented in the copious note. The book is rich in detail and filled with background history. Goodman’s research is astonishing. I hope he gets the Pulitzer Prize in History.  The book is saturated history. Some may tire of learning about the expansion of the railroad, or moan at the descriptions of the virginal West, but I find historical details to be delicious treats along the journey with Nellie and Elizabeth. For me, it was delightful to consider the widening of America (and the world) with the coming of steam engines, trains, and the telegraph. Goodman presents rich insights about both the Irish and Chinese immigrant populations used to build the railway.  His description of the Chinese death camp was gruesome, but drew back a curtain on an entirely new culture for Nellie Bly.  The Opium wars were explained clearly by Goodman. It’s too bad that Nellie Bly did not take the time to inform her readers about this rich and tragic history. I was surprised that Nellie seemed to lose her reporter’s ear and her drive while slogging around the world. Imagine how colorfully she could have written about the ship’s crew, the uniqueness of the Chinese and the Japanese, and the loneliness of travel! There are many memorable scenes in the book, but my favorite was Nellie’s encounter with Jules Verne and his wife. I’ve traveled internationally solo and loved it. Reading this book made me long for more travel. And isn’t that what an excellent travel book is designed to do?
MelindaWiselka More than 1 year ago
Excellent history, that keeps pace with the race itself, showing the world from the viewpoints of two very different ladies--and the effect that single trip has on them for the remainder of their lives.
MissPrint More than 1 year ago
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.
seaweedJW More than 1 year ago
This was a very well written piece of history that is not one of those big important moments but a glimpse into the life of two newspaper writers and the industry that spawned this race around the world. But it also demonstrates the great prejudice that was in the male only jungle of the newspaper business.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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Minormi More than 1 year ago
Very well researched and written. I could not put it down, only partly because I found it in the cruise ship's library two days before the end of the cruise.
GrammyK More than 1 year ago
I love the story of these two "plucky" women who helped change the way women were viewed in the workplace. It's a great way to learn about History, but I feel the author gets bogged down in details that don't add to the story line.
Eagleknits More than 1 year ago
Excellent book! History that reads like fiction. I enjoyed all the details that brought the time period to life. 
PierresFamily More than 1 year ago
Eighty Days - Potentially very interesting book about the two female journalists who traveled around the globe at the same time (unaware of each other), in the 1800s. What started as an innovative idea, became a competition when another. It was fun to vicariously travel, envisioning the cultures of the countries visited. The only criticism I would level is that when a book is almost 500 pages long, you have to be exceedingly interested in the subject; it could have benefited from being more succinct. Mr. Goodman goes down too many "rabbit trails" in this book. I was beginning to think it was going to take eighty days to finish reading it! ; ) For just one example, it's interesting to know a little about Joseph Pulitzer, who owned Nellie Bly's newspaper, but did we really need to know the minute structural details of the interior of his house? Other similar diversions go on for so long, that it really gets one bogged down and distracted, and tempts one to give up on the book ever returning to its mission! If you stick it out, you'll learn a lot, and you'll realize that as the old saying goes, "the more things change, the more they stay the same." I won't give away the ending, no spoilers from me! - but suffice it to say that the winning journalist would today be on the cover of "People" (c), would be doing television spots for all manner of products etc. And the equivalent is just what happened; it was fasinating to read about her popularity. You end up feeling a bit of sympathy for the "also-ran," but then again, there can only be one winner. The author may be more of a winner himself, if in the future he limits his digressions!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Although familiar with the name Nellie Bly, I was quickly drawn into this great adventure of two pioneering women journalists. I enjoyed Goodman's writing style and insights into each woman's perceptions and reactions to their experience.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Fascinating story not only about amazing journeys but wonderful insights into these women's lives. I had heard the name Nellie Bly but had never heard this story. Perhaps if more things like this were included in history books, students would find the subject more interesting!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I don't read non fiction as often as I feel I should, gave this a try and have been thoroughly delighted. What an adventure this book gives the reader. I highly recommend it to everyone!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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NewsieQ More than 1 year ago
I had, of course, heard the name Nellie Bly and had some vague recollection that she went on an around-the-world trip back in the late 19th Century. I had never heard the name Elizabeth Bisland. But Eighty Days filled in all the blanks. Although “the race” is the focus of Eighty Days, the author also enlightens readers on the state of journalism, world travel, and women reporters in 1889. I read a review of the book in Columbia Journalism Review that called this “padding,” but I call it “context,” something I always appreciate in a work of history and find positive rather than negative. I’m not sure anyone could have found more polar opposites than Bly and Bisland, even though they both female, came from modest backgrounds and were roughly the same age. The trip was Nellie’s idea and it took awhile for her editor at the New York World to OK it. And Miss Bisland didn’t get into the race until after Nellie was merrily on her way on an eastern route. The editor of the Cosmopolitan monthly magazine decided that he, too, would have a woman reporter travel round the world – and try to beat the fictional Phileas Fogg’s time of 80 days just as Miss Bly was – and strong-armed Miss Bisland into it in the opposite direction. It was surprising to me that neither woman was telegraphing stories to their publications from “the road.” I guess they had enough to juggle what with toting bags – and later MissBly’s monkey – and trying to make it to the boat or train that would carry them to their next stopping-off point on time. Today such a race (short though hit would be) would be blogged about ad nauseum. I thought Eighty Days was a wonderful book and that Matthew Goodman did a great job of putting readers into the shoes of the two main characters and take them back in time.
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Citygirljkb More than 1 year ago
I was very excited to read this book unfortunately I found it very boring. Thought it would be very exciting but it was not in the least.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Fishy second result
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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