Von Braun: Dreamer of Space, Engineer of War

The German rocket engineer who became a celebrity of the "space race" has long been a divided figure in the eye of the American public. On the one hand, his role as a compelling pitchman for the U.S. space program in the 1950s, and his leadership of the Saturn rocket program in the astronaut-maddened 1960s put Wernher von Braun at the center of the efforts to land men on the moon. On the other, his legacy as the developer of the infamous Nazi V-2 rockets tarnishes his burnished reputation as a symbol of scientific progress: the musical satirist Tom Lehrer famously imagined him shrugging: "'Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down?'" Michael J. Neufeld's penetrating new biography tries to capture this complex, undoubtedly gifed man as a whole. Neufeld takes as his book's touchstone Goethe's Faust, and this emphasis brings to the fore the vital question: how much are von Braun's accomplishments the fruit of a truly Faustian bargain? The answer, we learn here, seems to be "a great deal." The great engineer's childhood dreams of spaceflight ruled his entire career, and their allure may have enabled von Braun to ignore the manifest evil of the regime which helped him realize them. Neufeld gives an unsparing account of the slave labor camp that produced the V-2, and these appalling passages land on the reader with devastating effect. Ironically, Von Braun's eagerness to re-invent himself seems particularly American. He was aided in the transformation by his temperament, which allowed him in later years to turn away from the nightmares of the past: Neufeld convincingly suggests that "looking to the future was a reflex that came naturally to him." But our eyes are drawn to an atrocity so massive as to exert an inescapable gravity over the rocketeer's vision of a purely scientific ascent. -

July 24: On this day in 1725 John Newton, the slave trader-preacher who wrote the hymn "Amazing Grace," was born.

Crime fiction legends Dennis Lehane and Michael Connelly discuss the new book that unites their beloved sleuths Patrick Kenzie and Harry Bosch.

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Paradise and Elsewhere

Canadian short story marvel Kathy Page emerges as the Alice Munro of the supernatural from these heartfelt tales of shapeshifting swimmers, mild-mannered cannibals, and personality-shifting viruses transmitted through kisses.

Pastoral

When a persuasive pastor arrives in a sleepy farm town, his sage influence has otherworldly results (talking sheep, a mayor who walks on water). But can he pull off the miracle of finding kindly local Liz Denny the love of her life?  Small wonder looms large in this charmer from Andre Alexis.

The Hundred-Year House

When a poetry scholar goes digging through the decrepit estate of his wife's family to uncover a bygone arts colony's strange mysteries, he awakens a tenacious monster: his mother-in-law. A wickedly funny take on aging aristocracies from author Rebecca Makkai (The Borrower).