02 December 2006

David Vise and Mark Malseed, The Google Story. New York: Bantam Dell, 2005.

The Google Story reads like a Hollywood screenplay, with dashing heroes Serge Bren and Larry Page brashly leading a grad-school project from start-up to Microsoft-challenging media monster. Vice and Malseed, who both write for the Washington Post, did over 150 interviews with Google employees, investors, and others who knew the wonder twins. While they have tried to be fair and address all points of view, examine all records, and cover all bases, in the end they have missed a wonderful opportunity. With access like this, good investigative reporters should uncover something interesting about the search engine/ advertising behemoth. Instead, Vice and Malseed give us exactly what Google itself gives us: an aggregation of publicity material. Even the great key to the company, the PageRank algorithm that leads to Google's search results, is reduced to its minimum: "sites with the most links pointing to them, quite simply, were more important than sites with fewer links". While this is the essence of PageRank, rather than examining how or why this is better than its predecessors, much less the other elements of the algorithm, the authors move on to how the wonder twins had to scrounge hardware on the Stanford loading docks for their servers. The massive Google Books project, and the legal questions about scanning millions of copyrighted volumes, is likewise quickly glossed over.

In short, this is a human interest story about a popular company, and as such, it has broad appeal. It does not, however, provide insight into the ways and whys of the ad giant, and is of limited value to professionals. In spite of a final chapter exploring future projects, including investments in alternative energy and genetics research, the authors present no conclusion: no lessons learned, final thoughts, or insights. Can't wait for the movie!

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Gregory Maguire, Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister. New York: HarperCollins, 1999.

"Beauty is no end in itself, but if it makes our lives less miserable so that we might be more kind—well, then, let's have beauty, painted on our porcelain, hanging on our walls, ringing through our stories. We are a sorry tribe of beasts. We need all the help we can get." Thus concludes Cinderella's stepsister, reflecting on their story.

Maguire, also the author of Wicked and Son of a Witch, tells this story from the inside. The action follows Iris, younger of two sisters who flee England with their mother under suspicious circumstances. Mother rapidly rises from a painter's housekeeper to wife of a tulip broker in her Dutch hometown, but disaster follows this family and even their most triumphant moments end badly. Sylvia Plath did something similar in her Transformations, reaching inside the psyche of storybook characters to unmask their motivations, but Maguire goes much further by creating a world where it is possible for ordinary stories of ambition, greed and betrayal to become myth within a single lifetime.