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This Sunday: Innovation at Bell Labs, James Brown and Jack's juvenilia

March 23, 2012 |  3:32 pm

More than half a century ago, long before Apple was a glint in anyone’s eye, the reigning champion of innovation in American business was Bell Labs, an arm of the original AT&T. Its staff of youthful scientists and engineers were assigned, notes our business columnist Michael Hiltzik in this Sunday's Arts & Books section, “to go where their intellects took them, not especially concerned about serving the corporate bottom line, picking up cartloads of Nobel Prizes along the way.” Much of this image, Hiltzik writes in his review of Jon Gertner's “The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation,” was more of a public relations invention than a reality. “The Idea Factory” explores this and more, Hiltzik says (though not without some issues).

James Brown had issues too, but, oh my, could he sing. He was, as staff writer Steve Zeitchik notes in his review of “The One: The Life and Music of James Brown,” “demanding, egotistical and prone to pulling a gun on those who disagreed with him.” All that aside, Brown’s biographer, R.J. Smith, offers a complete look at the singer’s life and concludes that he was a key social figure whose life intersected with significant racial trends.

Filed under the loose category of “lost” novels, Jack Kerouac’s early work “The Sea Is My Brother” is finally being published in its entirety, by Da Capo Press. It is, reports Times Book Critic David L. Ulin, not “entirely unreadable.” And while that may be faint praise, it does offer an interesting departure point for Ulin’s thoughtful larger question: “How did such a mannered young writer, self-indulgent and often woefully pretentious, become the purveyor of his own uniquely American idiom, jazz-infected, improvisational, a spontaneous bop prosody?” Ulin explores that issue and reflects on the scope of Kerouac’s early work, his “juvenilia,” on Sunday.  

More after the jump

“Lionel Shriver has guts,” writes Carolyn Kellogg of the author’s willingness to take up controversial subjects in her novels — school shootings, the U.S. healthcare system and, now, terrorism. In "The New Republic," Shriver creates her own landscape, Barba, a place with little to recommend it. Toss in a tiny movement seeking independence with a terrorist arm trying to move that process forward, add a band of ragtag journalists and you have a book that Kellogg calls “wry, insightful and just over the top enough to be fun.”

In the arena of authors with “guts,” we might place Kathryn Harrison, who wrote “The Kiss,” the memoir of the sexual abuse inflicted on her by her father. She’s not working in that territory again but has returned to historical novels with  “Enchantments,” dealing with Rasputin’s daughter trying to live in Imperial Russia after the death of her father. She’s taken into the household of the Romanovs in the hopes that she has inherited her father’s healing powers, but it is 1917, a decidedly bad year for the Russian czar. Our reviewer, Richard Rayner, notes that Harrison’s “narrative tactics deliver … shocking freshness.”

 Who will wear the crown is the major question in “The False Prince,” the kickoff title in Jennifer A. Nielsen’s “Ascendance Trilogy” for middle-grade readers. It's reviewed by our expert on children’s books, Susan Carpenter, who notes that the author’s “well-paced novel” has a medieval setting and a swashbuckling tone that deals with every child’s fantasy to be recognized as something special.

And, of course, we have our weekly bestsellers list.

If you missed it this week, David Lauter, the Times Washington bureau chief, offers a fresh look at two books — “The Escape Artists” and “Confidence Men” on how the Obama administration dealt with the financial crisis. And Lorraine Ali reviewed Anthony Shadid’s memoir “House of Stone: A Memoir of Home, Family and a Lost Middle East.”  August Brown caught up with “These Dreams of You,” the latest novel from Steve Erickson.

 As always, thanks for reading,

Jon Thurber, book editor

Photo: AT & T's Picturephone model, which debuted at the 1964 World's Fair.  Credit: AT&T Archives and History Center.