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What We're Reading: May 25-31

Maureen Corrigan hails the "genius" of Stieg Larsson's vision, as revealed in his final "Girl Who" mystery. Is Anthropology of an American Girl the next Catcher in the Rye? Neda Ulaby says no. And novelist Aimee Bender evokes the taste of love in The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake.

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest

The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet's Nest

By Stieg Larsson

In this anxiously awaited final installment of what everyone calls The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo series, Stieg Larsson gives readers a look backward into the grotesque childhood that shaped his heroine, Lisbeth Salander, into the asocial street fighter and crackerjack computer hacker she became. As in the preceding mystery, The Girl Who Played With Fire, Salander is the still point of a furiously churning plot that involves, in this case, high-level business corruption as well as a rogue special-ops agency secreted in the Swedish government. For most of this tale, Salander lies immobile in a locked hospital room; meanwhile, her sometime partner in crime, investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist, frantically races around Sweden trying to save Salander, who's been accused of committing a ghastly triple murder and assaulting her own monstrous father. Blomkvist bets that the uncommunicative Salander isn't guilty of the crimes; but because she's Salander, Blomkvist knows she's not really innocent, either.

The full genius and compassion of Stieg Larsson's vision is revealed with the publication of The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest. Larsson was a feminist and the larger mystery that his incomparable series probes is the mystery of misogyny — most explicitly in this furious whirlwind of a final book. Without sentimentalizing his enigmatic heroine Lisbeth Salander, Larsson gives readers a deeper understanding of the sources of her singular patterns of thought and prickly emotions. Salander, who weighs in at 90 pounds, speaks in sullen monosyllables and sends out aggressively mixed sexual signals, is the most charismatic and powerful woman to prowl the mean streets of detective fiction since Miss Marple laced up her walking shoes. The fact that, as far as we know, there will be no further installments (Larsson died in 2004, shortly after delivering his three mystery manuscripts) makes finishing this series — which, all together, forms one monumental novel — a melancholy experience. — Maureen Corrigan, reviewer for Fresh Air

Hardcover, 576 pages; Knopf; list price, $27.95; publication date, May 25

Anthropology Of An American Girl

Anthropology Of An American Girl

A Novel

By Hilary Thayer Hamann

Anthropology of An American Girl follows the romantic fixations and travails of one Eveline Auerbach as she progresses from high school in Sag Harbor, N.Y., to college at NYU in the 1980s. She roams through the Hamptons, Jersey and Manhattan, trying to locate her place in the world and carve out a personal mythology. The novel was self-published a few years ago, then picked up by Spiegel & Grau and allegedly re-edited.

The blurbs on the back jacket compare the author to Jane Austen, George Eliot, Edith Wharton, Henry James and J.D. Salinger. That's a lot to live up to, and I'm sorry to report that author Hilary Thayer Hamann doesn't manage it. Hamann is splendid when it comes to describing bedsheets ("soft and dry, like cooking flour when you are little and you dig in with a metal spoon"), a boyfriend's eyes ("a beautiful horizon, dominions of clouds and winds of ice and insinuations of birds") or clothes ("Her silk shirt caught the light the way pearls do, the way pearls in light look like milk on fire"). But it's difficult to describe her narrator as anything other than empty and pretentious. Eveline says practically nothing, ever, to anyone, nor does she do much, but she's constantly being congratulated by everyone around her for her intelligence, discernment, bravery, soulfulness and, particularly, beauty. Three pages cannot pass without someone marveling at how cool or gorgeous Eveline is. Through it all, Eveline is a blank recorder of others' fascinations with her. It is hard to share them. Can anyone do an "anthropology" of just one person? This book feels more like a case study of narcissistic personality disorder than a novel. — Neda Ulaby, NPR entertainment reporter

Hardcover, 624 pages; Spiegel & Grau; list price, $26; publication date, May 25

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake

The Particular Sadness Of Lemon Cake

By Aimee Bender

Until she's about to turn 9, Rose Edelstein seems to be a normal little girl, especially in comparison with her older brother Joseph, a scientific genius who is her mother's favorite. Then her mother bakes her a lemon cake with fudge icing, and Rose, upon eating a slice warm from the oven, recognizes a strange new emotional flavor — the moroseness behind her mother's cheerful mask. From then on her emphatic sense of taste intrudes upon every bite of food. Meanwhile, her brother's growing social withdrawal overshadows his precocious brilliance. Rose and Joseph share a fragile bond in this Los Angeles household haunted by neurotic limitations. Their father is so phobic about hospitals he waited out the children's births on the sidewalk. Their mother has a wide array of thwarted ambitions. This sensual and detailed portrait of Rose's coming of age as a "magic food psychic" also reveals the complicated negotiations within a family where missed connections are the norm.

Aimee Bender's audacious, sexy and surreal short stories (The Girl in the Flammable Skirt, Willful Creatures) did not fully prepare me for the richness and depth of this empathetic and exquisitely paced novel. In the Edelstein family, which lives in a Los Angeles neighborhood combining American families, Eastern European immigrants and "screenwriters who were usually having a hard time selling a script," Bender has created a set of characters who could be modern-day West Coast descendants of Salinger's Glass family. Salinger fans should find familiar Rose's alertness to hypocrisy, her haunting vulnerability and her yearning love for her brother Joseph. The fabulist elements of The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake are stunning, but what makes this novel a keeper is the sheer beauty of the language Bender uses to describe love. — Jane Ciabattari, NPR book reviewer

Hardcover, 304 pages; Doubleday; list price, $25.95; publication date, June 15

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