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Strange Angel: The Otherworldly Life of Rocket Scientist John Whiteside Parsons

really liked it 4.0  ·  Rating Details ·  473 Ratings  ·  78 Reviews
Brilliant Rocket Scientist Killed in Explosion screamed the front-page headline of the Los Angeles Times on June 18, 1952. John Parsons, a maverick rocketeer whose work had helped transform the rocket from a derided sci-fi plotline into a reality, was at first mourned as a tragically young victim of mishandled chemicals. But as reporters dug deeper a shocking story emerged ...more
Hardcover, 1st Edition, 368 pages
Published February 15th 2005 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
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(showing 1-30 of 1,145)
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David Lomax
Dec 29, 2011 David Lomax rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I grew up near JPL (the Jet Propulsion Laboratory) in Pasadena and heard a few of the stories about John Parsons, about the way he was a “Satanist,” and how his obsession eventually cost him his life.

Of course the realty behind the stories of the scientific prodigy were way more complicated than the salacious versions I heard. But George Pendle’s book makes it clear that the truth of Parsons’ life was just as fascinating.

Pendle is a writer for the London Times, which suggests the international f
Peter Landau
Feb 06, 2016 Peter Landau rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Who knew rocketry was thought of as a pseudoscience by the academics as recently as a century ago? Not me. I don’t think much about rocket science, though I do appreciate a nice phallic symbol in my pulp sci-fi. There’s rocket science and pulp sci-fi in George Pendle’s STRANGE ANGEL, a biography of John Whiteside Parsons, an inventor of a rocket fuel still in use today for space travel. This unaccredited weirdo intersected with others oddballs of the time and place, that being the first half of ...more
Kirk Smith
Jun 07, 2016 Kirk Smith rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Just T.M.I in general. I grew up rocketeering firing Estes model rockets. That still was not enough to keep me from wishing this was a short story. Parson's story is admittedly fascinating! You WILL become an expert on: Jack Parsons, Pasadena, the history of rocketry, solid propellants, liquid propellants, chemistry, Caltech between 1936-1946, the first military authorized rocket research, science fiction clubs and societies, explosions, the founding of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, that old c ...more
Kevin Kormylo
Jan 07, 2009 Kevin Kormylo rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Most over the top biography I have ever read. It would make for an excellent film except no one would ever believe that the events described in this book could have actually happened.
Michael Burnam-fink
This book has to be history, because nobody could make up something so bizarre.

Scion of a wealthy Pasadena family, Parsons was one of the founding fathers of modern rocketry (JATO, Jet Propulsion Laboratory, castable fuels), despite a lack of formal training or credentials. At the same time as he was turning rocketry from a pursuit for cranks into a pillar of the Military-Industrial Complex, Parsons was deeply involved in black magic, and was the high priest of the a Crowleyite Satanic lodge, wh
Nov 27, 2008 CD rated it it was ok
Shelves: biography

A wide reaching and meandering attempt at an ambitious biography.

George Pendle, the author, came across an obvious choice for a fascinating story, but flounders in trying to pick and choose among the various story lines to pursue in this biography of J.W. Parsons.

The cast of characters reads like a Who's Who of famous, near-famous, and just wannabees set in the turbulent Depression/War Era of greater Los Angeles, California. From the soon to be famous sci-fi writers such as Heinlein and de Camp
John Carter McKnight
A mindboggling story of a different world, Los Angeles in the years before World War 2, when rocket science was confined to comic strips - and a tiny few dreamers blowing stuff up in Pasadena's Arroyo Seco. One such was John Parsons, not quite the blueblood he acted, but an intuitive autodidact with a penchant for blowing shit up.

Along the way he invented Jet-Assisted Takeoff, the modern solid fueled rocket, was instrumental in founding JPL and was a founder of Aerojet Corp. And Aleister Crowle
S Suzanne
Jan 09, 2014 S Suzanne rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I loved this book. I must confess I skimmed much of the detailed rocket stuff to get to more about the OTO, occultism, SCI-fi, and relationship zaniness.

Cries out to be series - I just find Parsons' story so compelling. But the material cries out for David Cronenberg or David Lynch...someone who can convey otherworldly and heightened states of reality.

Better than expected. Highly recommended for anyone interested in the occult in America. I want to know much more about the women of his life...m
Brian Clegg
Oct 17, 2015 Brian Clegg rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This is a case of truth being stranger than fiction in all it’s glory – you really couldn’t make this one up. John Whiteside Parsons (his real first name was Marvel, but you can understand why he was called John or Jack from an early age) was that most euphemistic of people, a genuine rocket scientist. Yet it’s hard to imagine anyone further from the typical idea of the role – and George Pendle does a superb job of painting a picture of the very strange and confused life of this man.

In one sense
Charles Dee Mitchell
I would like to write a review that does justice to the all-American weirdness of Parson's life but I am not sure how to go about it. So this is going to be very straightforward stuff.

In 1913, Parson's parents were among the thousands who moved to Southern California from the chilly Eastern seaboard in search of the good life. His father abandoned the family, but his mother's wealthy parents made the journey west to take care of their daughter and grandchild. Parsons grew up lonely and affluent
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Aug 12, 2007 Susan rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition

Another quick vacation read--have been curious about the topic for a long time; Loren Cameron told me years ago his "Uncle Jack," the subject of this biography, so it was an unexpected pleasure to stumble across this book at City Lights. It's a great California Studies sort of book, about the social and intellectual connections between occultism, sexual libertinism, bohemian lifestyles, left wing politics and science fiction among the the people at Caltech who pretty much invented American rocke
Dec 11, 2010 Brian rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: reviewed
Oh, the disappointment! Rocket science cowboy and occultist charting a singular life in post-war California before dying a grisly explosive death -- how on earth could such a book be.... boring? Especially when it's written by the same guy who wrote the riotously funny faux-biography, "The Unbelievable Life of Millard Fillmore"? Too much of this book is just "and then he did x, then y. After that, he did z," and while the actual exploits of John Whiteside Parsons are peculiar and dramatic, Pendl ...more
John Whiteside Parsons led a very interesting life and Mr. Pendle shares that life with us. Unfortunately, Mr. Pendle likes to take the reader down rabbit holes - exploring the lives of every person Parsons ever meets, the history of every organization with which he could be associated. All these detours (at least the non-rocket science ones) take away from the central story.

My fiance, of course, disagrees. He loved the book. But this is my review and would have enjoyed the book more if Pendle
Chris Zimmerman
Jul 02, 2016 Chris Zimmerman rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This book chronicles a largely forgotten - and truly bizarre - chapter of American history.

"Rocket Scientist" has become a part of our modern lexicon as a synonym for someone of exceptional intelligence.

Yet, as this book chronicles beautifully, it was in the not too distant past that rocketry was seen as a mere flight of fancy, best left in the pages of science fiction. In fact, the popularly held view was that rocket flight was physically impossible in the vacuum of space, due to a widely held
What I love about reading biographies is that not only do you get the history of the person that is the subject but you also get a peek into the era that they lived in and the people and things surrounding such.

Jack Parsons grew up in a very interesting time, scientifically speaking. He was a school boy in the 1920s and a teen in the 1930s. His interest in rockets and chemicals started at a young age, and before the stock market crash of 1929 his grandfather, who made his money back East before
Jun 22, 2009 Andy rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Chemistry Wizards
Dorothy Parker once wrote, "There is no more cruel destroyer of excitement than painstaking detail", and boy does this book do that. Somewhere there's a fascinating tale to be told about Mr. Parsons, but whenever the story picks up speed you're regaled with endless chemistry compounds and physics equations. All this Mister Wizard attention to detail was biographicus interruptus. C-
Carla Remy
This is the second bio of Jack Parsons I've read, and by far the better, more thorough book. The details of the rocketry are so thorough I was bored. But the L.Ron Hubbard stuff is amazing ... Unbelievable. If you have any interest in the beginnings of scientology you need to know this.
Doug Piero
Jan 26, 2014 Doug Piero rated it really liked it
Shelves: space-travel
For years, I have seen the hints about Jack Parsons, rocket scientist, dropped into science fiction reviews or space program trivia. I have some notes scribbled somewhere to remind me to "look into this." Now I won't need to. At last I know how the discovery of modern rocketry, the Nazis, the Communist Party, Pasadena, Aleister Crowley, the discovery of tritium, Robert A Heinlein's nudism, "Hotel California," jet planes, Dianetics & Scientology, "The Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome," Rocke ...more
Mar 03, 2016 Doc rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
It has to be difficult for an author of biographies to avoid sensationalism when the "short version" of the subject's life story is "Disciple of Aleister Crowley that helped found Aerojet and JPL. Oh, and his wife ran away with L. Ron Hubbard." Given that jumping-off point, Pendle has to keep a pretty firm hand on the tiller to avoid letting the story of Jack Whiteside Parsons completely run away with him, and Pendle does so admirably.

Parsons is a fascinating figure, one of the pioneering father
Aug 17, 2016 Rob rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This book is horribly written. It's what I would expect from a high school fanzine, with very little critical examination of the events or people being written about. Almost as bad as the reviews I write.

Despite it's technical flaws, the story of Jack Parsons is so incredible that I couldn't put this book down. This guy hung out with an amazing cast of famous people: L Ron Hubbard was his roommate. Hsue-Shen Tsien was in his rocket club. He was a rocket scientist who also believed in magick and
Jack Hastings
May 05, 2011 Jack Hastings rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Fascinating character study. Explosions, Aleister Crowley, Pasadena, the LA Science Fiction Society, L. Ron Hubbard, who could ask for more.
Feb 23, 2015 Matt rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A pretty enjoyable read, about rocket pioneer John Whiteside Parsons, who made up and tested some of the earliest solid rocket fuels to be used successfully, all while being drawn into a world of odd supernatural dabblings, by way of an Alestair Crowley affiliated church in Pasadena. There's a third thread as well, dealing with the influence of science fiction writers on the actual scientific developments coming out of the thirties, though Parsons is more adjacent to that than directly in the st ...more
Bobby Blount
May 22, 2014 Bobby Blount rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I live in the city that is home to the U.S. Space & Rocket Center and former home of Wernher Von Braun (aka Dr. Strangelo...nevermind). Nowhere in the annals though, will you find Jack Parsons's name mentioned. Yet, he was a pioneer in rocketry in a time when rocketry was dismissed as having more to do with science fiction than science. Parsons and his team were almost akin to a rag tag fleet of moonshiners running back yard experiments, but those experiments led to amazing things, like Pars ...more
Ed Smiley
Dec 13, 2013 Ed Smiley rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This is a fascinating biography.
The style of the book is slightly purple, but it seems to fit the subject matter.
I think that only Tim Burton could direct a movie about the life of Jack Parsons.

He is an early pioneer of rocketry when rocketry was intellectually disreputable.
A founding member of the rocket experimentation center at CalTech, nicknamed "the suicide squad".
Consultant to the military and inventor of the initial JATO engine.
An expert in explosives. Engaged in exhausting black magic r
Nov 07, 2009 Mike rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Anyone
Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), JATO packs, castable solid-fuel rocket motors, wierd cults, swapping sex partners, Caltech. All of this in one book, but wait there's more! Death and suicide. It all revolves around this man: Marvel (John) Whiteside Parsons. This man had a very full, very interesting life, but one that ended too soon.

The author does a great job of researching a man who official records and histories would rather leave out. But, they can't (or at least shouldn't). This is probably
Mike Travers
Dec 08, 2013 Mike Travers rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
California is a place where fringe culture has a way of becoming mainstream in the blink of an eye. What the Dormouse Said: How the Sixties Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer Industry described this dynamic as it drove the connections between the hippies of the 1960s and the tech moguls of the 1990s. This book describes an earlier and stranger interplay between the powerful and the fringey, back in pre-war LA, where rocketry pioneers and occultists and science fiction writers flitted th ...more
Aug 24, 2013 Sammy rated it really liked it
Shelves: biography, history
At times I felt this book was turgid, but by the end I could appreciate how we'll researched it was. The subject matter is really quite fascinating. The scientific developments are astounding, and the cross over with them and science fiction and magic is rendered believably and sympathetic. Though Parsons was not a particularly likeable character he lived a life filled with excitement and inquiry. He was a great inventor without a formal education, and in a strange way, his involvement in black ...more
Dec 08, 2009 Andres rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
An excellent biography of one of the fathers of American rocketry who was, at the same time, heavily involved in the occult and with the fledgling L. Ron Hubbard, just prior to the latter's creation of Scientology. Jack Parsons was lodge master of the Agape OTO Lodge (Thelemic group) in Pasadena and followed Crowley's teachings. Getting swindled out of his life savings by Hubbard, who also stole Parsons then lover (and also sister of his estranged wife (then living with former OTO Lodge Master, ...more
Dec 20, 2010 Lea rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: read-2010, reviews
I wish I liked this book more -- it's got so many elements that I love in a book, & it's well researched & well written. Reading this book made me realize how little I really knew about the development of rockets, life in the U.S. during the 1920s through the 1940s, occult beliefs & practices . . . the list goes on & on. At the end of it all, though, this is a heartbreaking story of a very sad man. Jack Parsons seems doomed almost from birth, & it's really a testament to his ...more
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“In 1912 he had joined a small quasi-Masonic organization named the Ordo Templi Orientis, or OTO, which boasted 500 members spread across Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. Crowley seized control of the OTO, started a chapter in Britain, and began rewriting its rituals, grafting The Book of the Law into the society’s texts” 0 likes
“If ever there had been a place to begin a religion, it was Los Angeles in the first half of the twentieth century.” 0 likes
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