`Rocket Boys'

By Homer H. Hickam Jr.Delacorte Press; 368 pages; $23.95.

In the fall of 1957, when the Soviet space satellite Sputnik passed over southern West Virginia one evening, it caught the dazzled eye of a 14-year-old resident of the tiny coal-mining town of Coalwood, one Homer H. Hickam Jr.

As Hickam, now a retired NASA engineer, recalls in his thoroughly charming memoir, "Rocket Boys," the experience changed him forever. His hero now became Dr. Wernher von Braun, whom he could imagine "high on a gantry, lying on his back like Michelangelo, working with a wrench on the fuel lines of one of his rockets."

At the climax of "Rocket Boys," the author even recalls a dialogue about space that he engaged in with no less than John F. Kennedy during his 1960 primary campaign in West Virginia. You realize with a shock, as if awakening from what seemed like a dream, that all this actually happened.

He also writes about his childhood memories, and the demise of his dark and threatening hometown: "Sometimes now, I wake at night, thinking I have heard the sound of my father's footsteps on the stairs, or the shuffling boots and low murmur of the hoot-owl shift going to work. . . . But it is only a trick of my imagination; nearly everything that I knew in Coalwood is gone."

- Christopher Lehmann-Haupt

(The New York Times)

Imus backs mouth with $

The sometimes nasty, sometimes raunchy radio host Don Imus is about to become the progenitor of the richest literary prizes in the United States. The very prodigiousness of that - however embarrassing for book people - should and will bring howls of joy from writers.

Wrap your mind around the Imus American Book Awards. That's four awards annually. Three are for $50,000 a pop and one for $100,000. By contrast, the prestigious but at times unfathomable National Book Award carries a $10,000 prize, and a Pulitzer Prize is $5,000.

It was his anger at last year's National Book Award that got Imus, somewhat accidentally, into awarding prizes. He was incensed that "the elitists," as he called awards committees, bypassed Sam Tanenhaus' biography, "Whittaker Chambers" (Random House).

So he's come up with $250,000 for prizes for writers. It's a good thing that the sometimes viciously sophomoric Imus has concluded that award juries are about as useful and annoying as the people who put stickers on fruit.

- Martin Arnold

(The New York Times)

`N.C. Wyeth'

By David Michaelis

Knopf; $40.

"A picture," said Newell Convers Wyeth, "is the briefest method known to communicate an idea to the human mind." As a child he never read most of the stories that he would later illustrate - "Robinson Crusoe," "Treasure Island," "Last of the Mohicans" - but he came to them soon enough.

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A teacher at an art school in Boston evaluated the young Wyeth's drawing of a fox's head and suggested that he might have a talent for illustration, at that time a booming trade. "I jumped at the straw," Wyeth later remembered. He would ultimately call himself a failure, however, for never achieving the career in fine art that would bless his son, Andy, and grandson, Jamie.

This first-rate biography has a big price for the best of reasons: It includes color reproductions of many of Wyeth's illustrations. But it also deals with the dark side of Wyeth's life - his compulsiveness, his depressions, his relationship with his volatile daughter-in-law, Caroline, who was 32 years his junior. Michaelis bases his book on materials in the Wyeth family archive and on extensive conversations with Jamie, Betsy and Andrew Wyeth.

- Anne Stephenson

(The Arizona Republic)

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