Express Reviews 

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Project X
By Jim Shepard
Knopf, $20

In an era whose actual events surpass in horror the strangest fictions, novelists face unprecedented challenges. In his disquieting vision of disaffected youth and violence in post-Columbine America, Shepard provides an intimate and highly sympathetic portrait of thirteen-year-old Edwin Hanratty, a present-day Holden Caulfield whose terminal apathy smothers his own creative energies. Increasingly alienated and let down by teachers, principals, and parents, and finding no adequate forms of rebellion, he and his friend Flake find solace in the antagonistic rituals of male bonding. After continual failures and embarrassments at "FS" -- Fucking School, that is -- the two misfits can revel only in a dream of destruction, so they hatch Project X, a Columbine-esque shootout at their own school. Shepard makes no excuse for teenage violence, and no blame is placed on the incompetent and self-absorbed adults for their eventual demise. We see only systemic social failure -- guns in the home, distracted parents, precocious youth -- converging, tragically, upon the fate of a young person. The accuracy of Hanratty's clever teenage banter, and the sadness of his expressions of self-loathing and pain, make his character convincing. The novel becomes a powerful statement about the perils of teenage boyhood and the violence that has too often become its hideous and perverse outlet. -- Amrita Sidhu

Lost in Space: The Fall of NASA and the Dream of the New Space Age
By Greg Klerkx
Pantheon, $27.95

The band Blur supports human settlements on Mars. Pizza Hut has delivered to space. NASA spacesuits come equipped with built-in diapers. Those are the least of the factoids -- or dirty cosmological laundry -- aired in this investigation of why NASA once led the race to the moon, but now doesn't even reach for the stars. Klerkx presents ample evidence and maddening examples of NASA's "fractitious bureaucracy roiling with politics and infighting," which is more concerned with perpetuating its own status-quo survival than with actual progress. Kinda like the modern Disney machine, but producing space-shuttle sketches instead of Aristocats prequels. Well-researched and boasting astral ambitions, Lost lacks a coherent narrative push forward as we jump from space vignette to space vignette. If you don't own your own set of Spock ears or didn't know about Apollo 13 before the Tom Hanks flick, some of the acronym-heavy text can be downright soporific. True joy enters the writing during the (too-few) accounts of Klerkx' own experiences, whether he's hurtling across meteorite craters in an ATV or exploring a mournfully decrepit Russian launch site (and seeing the Pizza Hut logo on a Russian rocket). Mostly, he encounters the same problem here that idealistic alt.space activists encounter in real life: NASA's faceless, dull bureaucracy. This makes it a difficult target for passion -- or blame -- in the book and the real world. Then again, Klerkx might say that's just how NASA likes it. -- Nicole Ankowski

The Matter of Desire
By Edmundo Paz Soldán
Mariner, $12

Soldán is a leading spokesperson for the McOndo literary movement, which eschews what this novel's press material calls "the more bucolic magical realism of such writers as Gabriel García Márquez and instead embraces an urban vision that incorporates the pervasive influence of American pop culture in today's Latin America." Judging by this slim novel, Márquez has little to worry about. It tells us very little about Bolivia, life, the author, or, for that matter, desire. If anything has influenced Soldán, it would appear to be graduate school in North America, where this novel is imprisoned. The story? The author, a Bolivian émigré; at the University of Madison, conducts an affair with a student, shuttles back and forth to UC Berkeley and Bolivia to find himself, and sylphs about in a perpetual state of ennui invoked by uncertainty in love and failure to write a novel. Here is revealed the perils of writing fiction when one's actual life experience is confined to the halls of academe. A few promising characters -- notorious drug lord Jaime Villa, a charismatic liar who eats his cigarettes' ash for the potassium; and the narrator's Uncle David, a failed inventor famous for writing cryptograms -- are sidelined in favor of duller, conventional ones such as the love interest, Ashley. Foreign novels, like foreign travel, potentially offer the promise of adventure abroad. But in this one we have imported yet another cultural vacuum. -- Nora Ostrofe

The Frozen Water Trade
By Gavin Weightman
Hyperion, $13.95

It takes some skill to make ice cubes interesting. They might be the most boring things in the world today, but they were an exciting novelty in the prerefrigeration days of the 19th century, when they had to be cut fresh from frozen lakes every winter. Ice was a seasonal luxury available only to the rich, until eccentric Boston merchant Fredric Tudor hit upon a wild moneymaking scheme: selling ice to folks in the sweltering tropics. The only problem, of course, was getting the merchandise to the customers before it melted. Weightman turns what could have been a dry history lesson into a gripping personal drama as he follows Tudor's struggle to turn his crazy dream into a profitable enterprise. Peopled with colorful characters such as Nathaniel Wyeth (explorer and inventor of now-forgotten ice-cutting contraptions) and Henry David Thoreau (Tudor harvested ice from Walden Pond at one point), this book conveys all the energy of a world just on the brink of modernity -- full of daring entrepreneurs and strange new devices, and where almost everyone has an idea just crazy enough to work. Always meticulous, Weightman traces the rise and fall of a globe-spanning ice empire in exacting detail. His occasional droning about the mechanics of ice harvesting are more than made up for by compelling human drama. -- Mike Rosen-Molina

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