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Strange Angel: The Otherworldly Life of Rocket Scientist John Whiteside Parsons, by George Pendle

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I already knew a bit about Jack Parsons before I read Strange Angel. I knew he was an avid DIY experimenter, a pioneering rocket scientist from Pasadena who co-founded Jet Propulsion Laboratories in the 1930s, and an avid follower of occultist Aleister Crowley. I also knew that he accidentally blew himself up with explosives. He seemed like an interesting but doomed and mentally ill man.

I hoped Pendle’s account of Parsons would go beyond the brief accounts of his life I'd read about, and I wasn't disappointed. In fact, Strange Angel is the best book I've read this year. Pendle’s story presents the dizzy roller coaster ride of Parsons' life within the well-researched context of the era in which Parsons lived. I loved Pendle’s multi-pages forays into the history of Pasadena as a paradisical Eden for old money families from the mid-west and New England, and the crooked Los Angeles political machine of the 1930s. Pendle also provides the best short biography of English occultist Aleister Crowley I've ever read. L. Ron Hubbard figures prominently in the book, too: he lived in Parsons’ house in the 1940s before he founded Scientology. Pendle paints an unflattering portrait of Hubbard, claiming he swindled Parsons out of around $20,000 and swiped Parsons’ girlfriend, to boot.

Pendle conducted interviews with people who knew Parsons, and scoured the archives of JPL, Cal Tech, and Thelema Media (which publishes Crowley’s books) to collect enough bits of factual history to construct a dimensional portrait of a man who heretofore has been presented as a cardboard cut-out. Parsons’ life was far more interesting and sadder than I could have guessed. This would make a great movie.

online and various bookstores