Book Review: Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland’s History-Making Race Around the World by Matthew Goodman
In 1889, the world was obsessed with Jules Verne’s fictional work Around the World in 80 Days. So when Nellie Bly, a human rights crusading female reporter in New York City, suggested taking a shp to Europe in first class then coming back in steerage, she was surprised to get a counter-offer: try to beat the fictional Fogg’s record for traveling around the world. When The Cosmopolitan magazine heard about it, they sent their own female reporter, Elizabeth Bisland, on a trip trying to beat her. Only she left a day later and would go the opposite direction. Bly would travel east to west (Europe first), Bisland would travel west to east (continental US first). The women weren’t just taking different routes around the world, they had quite different backgrounds and personalities. Bly overcame a northern, working-class background to break into newspapers and crusaded for the less-fortunate whenever the paper would allow her to. Bisland was the daughter of a plantation owner. Raised in southern gentility and with an intense interest in everything British. She wrote a literary column for The Cosmopolitan. One of these women would win the race, but would either beat the fictional Phineas Fogg?
With my interest in women’s history, I was surprised when I saw this title on Netgalley that I had never heard of this race around the world, although I had heard of Nellie Bly, due to her investigative report into Bellevue Hospital (a mental institution). I knew I had to request it, and I’m quite glad I got a review copy. Goodman tells not just the story of these two women but also immerses the reader into the newly global world of the late 1890s, both the good and the bad.
Goodman starts the book by introducing us to the two women who will race around the world. He does an excellent job using primary source materials to give us both how others saw these women and how they saw themselves. For instance, in describing Elizabeth Bisland, Goodman writes:
One of her admirers, the writer Lafcadio Hearn, whom she had befriended in New Orleans, called her “a sort of goddess” and likened her conversation to hashish, leaving him disoriented for hours afterward. Another said, about talking with her, that he felt as if he were playing with “a beautiful dangerous leopard,” which he loved for not biting him. (loc 241)
While introducing the women, Goodman also talks at length about the role of women in journalism in the late 1800s and how hard it was for them to break into real reporting. Jumping off from Bisland and Bly, describes how women were blocked from many journalism positions with excuses such as that the newsroom needed to be free to swear and not worry about a lady’s sensibilities. Women were often barred to what was deemed the ladylike journalism of the society pages. The hardest part of being a hardhitting female journalist at the time wasn’t the actual reporting but instead the reception of women in the newsroom.
The successful female journalist, McDonald suggested, should be composed of “one part nerve and two parts India rubber.” (loc 465)
Bisland and Bly and their race came at the beginning of having women journalists do some form of stunt journalism, which is how they started to break into hardhitting journalism. Editors and owners discovered that readers enjoyed reading about women in stunt situations, such as learning how to stunt ride a horse, so this was their way in. Thus, even if the reader dislikes the personalities of either or both of the racers, they come away with some level of respect for them both breaking into the business.
From here, Goodman starts following the women on their race around the world. He takes the different legs of their journeys as a jumping-off point to discuss something historically relevant to that portion of the journey. For instance, during Bly’s trip on the ocean liner to Europe, he discusses how the steamships worked, from the technical aspects of the steam to the class aspects of first class down to steerage. During Bisland’s railroad trip across the United States, he discusses the railroad barons and the building of the transcontinental railroad. Thus, the reader is getting both the story of the race and historical context. It’s a wonderful way to learn, as the historical explanations flesh out the settings around and expectations of the women, and the women lend a sense of realness to the historical situations and settings being described.
After the completion of the trip (and, no, I won’t tell you who won), Goodman explores the impact of the trip on the women’s lives and follows the rest of their lives to their deaths. This part may feel a bit long and irrelevant to some readers, however often when people become famous for doing something, no one talks about the long-lasting impact of that fame or what the rest of their lives are like. Seeing how both women reacted to the trip, their careers, and others puts them in a more complete light, giving the reader a complete picture of what the race did in their lives. This complete picture of both of their lives is something I really appreciated and that also demonstrated that one shouldn’t judge people too fast. They and their lives may turn out differently than you expect at first.
What would have made me love the book is if I had come away feeling like I could respect or look up to either woman. Unfortunately, by the time I heard the full story of both of their lives, I found them both to be so deeply flawed that I couldn’t do that. I respect them for breaking into the newspaper business, and perhaps if I was a journalist myself that would be enough to make me look up to them. But each had a fatal flaw that made this not be a book about two role models but instead a book about two women. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it does keep it from being a book I would return to over and over again.
Overall, Goodman does an excellent job using the true story of two female journalists’ race around the world in 1889 to 1890 to build a solid picture of the increasingly global world of that time. The reader will come away both with having learned an incredible true story and details about the 1800s they might not have known before, told in a delightfully compelling manner. Some readers might be a bit bothered by how flawed the two women journalists are or by the fact that the book goes on past the race to tell about the end of their lives in detail. However, these are minor things that do not distract too much from the literary qualities of this historical nonfiction. Recommended to those interested in an easy-to-read, engaging historical nonfiction book focusing in on women’s history. Particularly recommended to modern, women journalists.
4 out of 5 stars
Book Review: A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Hope, Deception, and Survival at Jonestown by Julia Scheeres (Audiobook narrated by Robin Miles)
On November 18, 1978, 918 people, mostly Americans, died on a commune named Jonestown and on a nearby airstrip in Guyana. The world came to know this event as that time that crazy cult committed mass suicide by drinking poisoned Kool-Aid. However, that belief is full of inaccuracies. Scheeres traces the origins of Jonestown, starting with its leader, Jim Jones, and his Christian church in Indiana, tracing its development into the People’s Temple in California, and then into Jonestown in Guyana. Multiple members’ life stories are traced as well, including information from their family members who, perplexed, watched their families give everything over to Jones.
I have a fascination with cults and groupthink. In spite of not being born until the 1980s, I definitely was always vaguely aware of this cult that committed suicide in the 70s, always commentated on with great disdain. I had previously read Julia Scheeres’ memoir, Jesus Land, which I found to be beautifully and thoughtfully written (review). When I saw that she had written an investigative work of nonfiction, making the truth about Jonestown more accessible, I knew I had to read it.
Scheeres possesses a great talent at presenting people and events as they are with understanding for common humanity but also disdain for atrocious acts. Scheeres excels at never turning a person into a monster, but rather exposing monstrous acts and asking how things became so messed up that something like that could happen. Scheeres clearly did painstaking research for this book, reading through the FBI’s extensive archives on the People’s Temple and Jim Jones, interviewing survivors, and interviewing family members of the deceased, not to mention reading members’ journals. The facts are presented in an engaging, storytelling, slightly non-linear way, which works excellently at drawing the reader in. The book starts on the boat to Guyana, then flashes back to the origins of Jim Jones. The members of People’s Temple are carefully presented as the well-rounded people they truly were with hopes and dreams and who made some mistakes. They are not ever presented as just a bunch of crazies. Even Jones is allowed a time as a preacher passionate for social justice before he turned into the control freak, whose paranoid delusions were exacerbated by drug addiction. Scheeres takes an event that it is far too easy to put the stamp of crazy on, and humanizes it, drawing out the gray areas. And this is all done while telling an engaging, well-written, factual story.
There are an incredible number of facts in this book, and the reader learns them while hardly even realizing it, since this work of nonfiction is so readable. Among the things I never knew, I found out that the People’s Temple originally was a Christian church that was heavily socialist and then slowly turned into its own religion as Jones pulled away from the Bible, eventually declaring himself god. When Jones was in California, he was heavily involved in politics, sponsoring people such as Harvey Milk for office, and breaking voting laws by sending his church en masse to vote in districts they didn’t live in. Jones enacted weekly corporate punishment of individual members in front of all the other members. He was bisexual, having sex with both male and female members of the People’s Temple. He became obsessed with the idea of suicide to make a statement and routinely badgered the higher members of the People’s Temple into accepting suicide if he ordered it. He even tricked them multiple times into thinking that he had given them poisoned drinks, just to see who would obey and drink it. The members came to Jonestown in Guyana expecting a utopia, since Jones had lied to them, and instead got a struggling farm on the brink of disaster, being run by a man increasingly paranoid and delusional and ever more addicted to drugs. Once members were in Jonestown, they were not allowed to leave. And many wanted to. Last, but most important, the mass suicide was not a mass suicide. It was a murder-suicide. Some of the members committed suicide willingly, but others, including over 300 children, were force-fed or injected with the poison. Those who drank it drank it mixed with Flavor-Aid, a generic knock-off brand of Kool-Aid. It astounds me how much the facts of these events from as recent as 1978 are now misremembered in the collective consciousness, especially considering the fact that documentation such as the Jonestown death tape are available for free in the public archive.
Overall, this book takes a misremembered event in recent history and exposes the facts in an incredibly readable work of nonfiction. Scheeres presents the people who died in Jonestown with empathy and understanding, seeking to tell their whole life story, rather than one moment. A fascinating look at a horrible event, and a moving reminder to never give too much power or faith to one person, and how very easy it is for groupthink to take over. Highly recommended.
5 out of 5 stars
Book Review: The Emerald Diamond: How the Irish Transformed America’s Greatest Pastime by Charley Rosen
Did you know baseball has been entwined with Irish-Americans from the very beginning of the sport? Rosen goes through the history of baseball, focusing in on how Irish-American players, managers, and owners impacted the game.
I picked this up from my pile of older review copies to read in honor of St. Patrick’s Day. I’m part Irish myself and was a US History major in undergrad, so the concept of the book definitely appealed to me. The book addresses the interesting topic of Irish-Americans in baseball but unfortunately presents the history in an only sometimes interesting way and utilizes sloppy research.
The book starts in the 1800s and works its way up through time, ending many chapters with a modern day interview to reflect upon the ideas presented in the chapter. The earliest chapters are the most interesting. They take the events and use them to tell the story of how Irish-Americans broke into baseball partly because many careers were closed off to them due to anti-Irish discrimination in America (No Irish Need Apply). Originally, the game was much less regulated, and the Irish-American players brought with them a willingness to be sly and rough that added an element of excitement to the game that brought out more viewers. Reading about how the rules slowly changed and how Irish-Americans impacted those changes was definitely fascinating. It was also disturbing to discover how many players in the early years had serious addiction problems, not to mention the presence of multiple suicides. Unfortunately, the opportunity to analyze this phenomenon and discuss it in depth is passed by, as is most true historical analysis.
Starting in the early 20th century, the formatting of the book changes so that instead of telling a story, the heading of a year is given and bullet-points of events for that year are listed. Some of these bullet-points break out to be actual stories, instead of just pure listing of facts, and that is what kept me reading. But mostly about half the book is just lists of baseball facts. It reminded me of reading Chronicles in the Bible (so-and-so begat so-and-so). There are some interesting tidbits in there, but they are few and far between.
I was truly appalled when I flipped back to check the references in the back that almost all of them are secondary sources, and a significant number are Wikipedia. It’s one thing to start your research at Wikipedia to familiarize yourself with the topic and then broaden out to more scholarly work and primary sources. It’s another thing entirely to publish an entire book that basically just sums up Wikipedia. A work of historic nonfiction should seek out as many primary sources as possible, read secondary analyses, and provide analysis both of the primary and secondary sources. What Rosen has done is mostly to regurgitate what Wikipedia and other secondary sources have already said. The exception to this is the modern day interviews Rosen conducted, but they make up a small portion of the book. Perhaps 15%. If the book had consisted of interviews with modern Irish-American players and descendants of Irish-American players and managers, complete with analysis and investigation using primary and secondary materials, that would have been a fantastic book. Instead we get a relisting of information already gathered (and better sourced) in secondary sources spiced up with a few interviews. If I had bought this book, I would have returned it.
Overall, there are some interesting tidbits about how Irish-Americans impacted the game of baseball. Unfortunately, large parts of the book are lists of facts, with no analysis or storytelling, Additionally, Rosen relied primarily on secondary source materials, mostly Wikipedia, to research his book. The reader could get similar information from Wikipedia themself and have the ability to click through to the source materials. I would suggest doing that over buying this book. For those seeking a book on the topic, I recommend The Irish in Baseball: An Early History by David L. Fleitz, a sports historian who clearly consulted primary and secondary sources in his writing.
2 out of 5 stars
Source: Print copy from publisher in exchange for my honest review
Since 2011, I’ve been dedicating a separate post from my annual reading stats post to the 5 star reads of the year. I not only thoroughly enjoyed assembling the 5 star reads posts, but I also go back to them for reference periodically. It’s just useful and fun simultaneously! Plus it has the added bonus of giving an extra signal boost to the five star reads of the year.
With no further ado, presenting Opinions of a Wolf’s 5 Star Reads for 2013!
The $100 Startup: Reinvent the Way You Make a Living, Do What You Love, and Create a New Future
By: Chris Guillebeau
Publication Date: 2012
Publisher: Crown Business
Genre: Nonfiction Lifestyle
Themes: independence, success, small businesses
Guillebeau investigated what makes microbusinesses (small businesses typically run by one person) successful by conducting a multiyear study interviewing more than 100 successful microbusiness entrepreneurs. Here he presents his findings on what makes for a successful microbusiness and offers advice on how you can become a successful microbusiness entrepreneur too.
I refer to things I learned in this book at least once a week. Guillebeau offers practical advice for the aspiring small business owner on everything from choosing an idea that will work to setting the right price to marketing. The things I’ve been able to try from the book so far have worked. This book shows what happens when a nonfiction book bases its advice on solid research.
The Curse of the Wendigo (The Monstrumologist, #2)
By: Rick Yancey
Publication Date: 2011
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
Genre: Horror, YA
Themes: love lost, the nature of good and evil
Will Henry, 12 year old orphan and assistant to renowned Monstrumologist, Pellinore Warthrop, is shocked to find a refined woman on Warthrop’s doorstep. She is the wife of Warthrop’s best friend who has now gone missing in rural Canada while looking for the elusive wendigo (aka werewolf). Warthrop insists that there is no such thing as a wendigo, but he agrees to go looking for his missing friend anyway, even if he believes his mission was ridiculous and an affront to monstrumology’s reputation.
What I remember when I think about this book is the beautiful language and the dual setting of the horror. Setting the book both in rural Canada and urban New York is part of what made it feel so unique to me. A horror that travels instead of being trapped in one setting isn’t seen as often. The book is beautiful and grotesque at the same time. A rare find.
By: Frederik Pohl
Publication Date: 1976
Publisher: Orb Books
Themes: transhumanism, artificial intelligence
The first Earthling reworked into a Martian would be Roger Torraway. Martian instead of Earthling since everything on him had to be reworked in order to survive on Mars. His organic skin is stripped off and made plastic. His eyes are replaced by large, buglike red ones. He is given wings to gather solar power, not to fly. All of which is organized and run by his friend, the computer on his back. Who was this man? What was his life like? How did he survive the transformation to become more than human and help us successfully colonize Mars?
This has a scifi plot that both explores an issue I’m interested in (transhumanism) and managed to surprise me at the end. It’s a short book that makes you think and has compelling three-dimensional characters. I’ll definitely be keeping this one and seeking out more of Pohl’s writing.
A Queer and Pleasant Danger: The True Story of a Nice Jewish Boy Who Joins the Church of Scientology, and Leaves Twelve Years Later to Become the Lovely Lady She is Today
By: Kate Bornstein
Publication Date: 2012
Publisher: Beacon Press
Genre: Memoir, GLBTQ
Themes: religious abuse, trans rights, gender, Borderline Personality Disorder
Kate Bornstein is a playwright, gender theorist, and queer activist. She chose to write a memoir as a way to reach out to her daughter, Jessica, who is still in the Church of Scientology, and thus, must not speak to her. Her memoir talks about growing up Jewish in the 1950s, feeling like a girl inside a boy’s body. It then talks about why and how she joined Scientology (still identifying as a man, Al), climbing Scientology’s ladder, marrying, fathering Jessica, and finally getting kicked out of Scientology and becoming disillusioned. From there the memoir explains to Jessica how and why Al decided to become Kate and talks about the person behind the queer theory, trying to explain who the incredibly unique parent she has truly is.
This memoir is engaging right from the title and stunning in the level of honesty Bornstein displays. Bornstein eloquently presents the reality of being trans, entering a leaving an abusive religion, and the complexities of gender. An incredibly readable memoir that stays with you.
Succubus Dreams (Georgina Kincaid, #3)
By: Richelle Mead
Publication Date: 2008
Genre: Urban Fantasy
Themes: the grayness of good versus evil
Seattle’s succubus, Georgina Kincaid, has a lot on her hands between dating her human author boyfriend, Seth, (and not sleeping with him to protect his life energy), adjusting to her new managerial position at the bookstore, and her usual succubus requirement of stealing good men’s life energy by sleeping with them. So the last thing she needs is another new assignment from hell, but that’s what she’s getting. Seattle is getting a second succubus, a newbie she has to mentor. When she starts having dreams about having a normal, human life and waking up with her energy drained, it all turns into almost too much for one succubus to handle.
This series glows in my mind as a favorite that I will return to again and again. This book is where I truly began to fall in love with it. The third entry shows that urban fantasy can be more than monster of the week. It does what genre does best. Ponder real life questions in an enjoyable wrapping.
Succubus Revealed (Georgina Kincaid, #6)
By: Richelle Mead
Publication Date: 2011
Genre: Urban Fantasy
Themes: soul mates, forgiveness, personal growth
Seattle’s succubus, Georgina Kincaid, is incredibly happy to be back together with her previously ex boyfriend, Seth Mortensen. But getting back together with him came at the price of hurting his once-fiancee and having to leave her previously loved position managing the bookstore. It’s all worth it to be with Seth, though. But then a transfer notice comes in, sending her to her dream job in Las Vegas. It’d be a dream come true, except Seth can’t come with her because his sister-in-law has cancer. Georgina starts to wonder just why so many elements seem to keep coming together to try to drive her and Seth apart.
This an amazing series finale that reveals so many aspects of the overarching plot that I wanted to go back and re-read the whole series immediately just to look for more of the overarching plot that I was oblivious to the first time around. It’s a wrap-up that is satisfying without making everything too perfect for the characters. It has a lot to say about love and redemption. And it made me cry.
Succubus Shadows (Georgina Kincaid, #5)
By: Richelle Mead
Publication Date: 2010
Genre: Urban Fantasy
Themes: facing your past
Seattle’s succubus, Georgina Kincaid, cannot believe she has been roped into helping plan her ex-boyfriend’s wedding. It’s enough to make anyone depressed. But she can’t afford to be depressed, because every time she starts to feel down, a mysterious force tries to lure her away to what must be a dangerous place. Georgina is fed up with all of these mysterious attacks on Seattle. It just doesn’t make sense. What is making them target Seattle? And seem to be maybe targeting her?
The penultimate book in this series isn’t afraid to go dark places with tough questions. It also addresses the issue in urban fantasy that a lot of people joke about: gee that’s sure a lot happening in this one town! Mead addresses this in a tongue-in-cheek manner that also ties into the overall plot. I was amazed at how well this series incorporates both all the things that make urban fantasy fun (demons! sex! supernatural battles!) and an overarching plot that tugs at the heart strings and makes some of the bizarre things that happen make sense.
The Time Machine
By: H. G. Wells
Publication Date: 1895
Publisher: New American Library
Genre: Scifi, Classic
Themes: dystopia, time travel, evolution, class divides
Nobody is quite sure whether to believe their eccentric scientist friend when he claims to have invented the ability to travel through time. But when he shows up late to a dinner party with a tale of traveling to the year 802,700 and meeting the human race, now divided into the child-like Eloi and the pale ape-like ground-dwelling Morlocks, they find themselves wanting to believe him.
I’m so glad I added this scifi classic to my list of books I’ve read. I of course had heard of the general idea of the Morlocks and the Eloi, but reading about them for myself, I was easily able to see how this became a classic. It kept me on the edge of my seat, concerned for the scientist’s safety, even while exploring issues of inequitable class divides and pondering the future direction of the evolution of the human race.
Will I Ever Be Good Enough?: Healing the Daughters of Narcissistic Mothers
By: Karyl McBride
Publication Date: 2008
Publisher: Free Press
Genre: Nonfiction Psych, Nonfiction Relationships
Themes: overcoming adversity, mother/daughter relationships, Narcissistic Personality Disorder, abuse
A guidebook for adult women raised by a mother with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD). Dr. McBride is a therapist with many years of experience treating daughters of NPD mothers and also with treating people with NPD. Additionally, she herself is the daughter of a woman with NPD. The book is divided into three sections to help the daughters of mothers with NPD to heal and take charge of their lives. The first section “Recognizing the Problem,” explains what maternal NPD looks like. The second section, “How Narcissistic Mothering Affects Your Entire Life,” explains the impact NPD mothers have on their daughters, both as children and as adults. The third section, “Ending the Legacy” is all about healing from the NPD mothering and breaking the cycle of Narcissism. Dr. McBride offers clinical examples from her practice as well as detailed, clearly explained exercises to aid with healing.
This is one of the best books I’ve read for adult survivors of abusive childhoods. It works because it focuses narrowly on one type of relationship and one type of dysfunctional, abusive childhood to be overcome. McBride explains what happened to the adult survivor when they were a child, how that affects them now, and how to overcome it. She does this while neither excusing nor demonizing the mother’s behavior. A great book for anyone with an interest in how mothers with NPD affect their daughters.