Dilated Pupils 

What's hot in East Bay stores this month: Back to school, with pretense and gloom.

Some people have all the luck. Twentysomething Barnard grad and drop-dead-gorgeous model Marisha Pessl sent New York publishers into a feeding frenzy last year to see which of them could shell out the highest six-figure advance for her debut novel, Special Topics in Calamity Physics (Viking, $25.95), a coming-of-age mystery that hit the national best-seller lists right out of the gate this month and is going strong at East Bay bookstores. But while it has always been perfectly standard practice to jealously dump on glamorous, overpaid new authors and accuse them of having less talent than you do, suddenly that's not okay. The New York Times Book Review slammed Pessl, and now the litblogosphere is asizzle with antisnark screeds insisting that this year's model, whom some dub the next Jonathan Safran Foer, be judged on her actual writerly skill. Done and done. The novel takes pretension to new heights. Spouting arcane cultural references with every breath, Pessl's teenage narrator seems designed for the purpose of making masochistic readers feel stupid and hideous. A sample: "'I'll drown you ...,' Hannah said in a severe voice (see '1940 publicity still for Torrid Zone,' Bulldog in a Henhouse: The Life of James Cagney, Taylor, 1982, p. 339). Jade said nothing." But hey: It is a back-to-school book, as the narrator hops from campus to campus.

Also given an academic setting is Booker Prize shortlister Michael Collins' new novel, Death of a Writer (Bloomsbury, $24), in which a grad student saves a suicidal professor, cracking open a child-murder cold case. Meanwhile, Tom Wolfe's still-popular I Am Charlotte Simmons (Picador, $15) is new in paperback: Told in the voice of a ditzy first-year student, it was actually written by an old man who has no idea how young people think. You could do better with Yee-Fan Sun's First Digs (St. Martin's, $19.95), a guide to decorating on the cheap. Go on, decoupage those picture frames.

And don't even bother looking for the hippest cultural scene on campus. "Mainstream" doesn't exist anymore, according to Wired editor Chris Anderson, whose chart-topping The Long Tail (Hyperion, $24.95) analyzes how American culture has fractured into a million little niche markets. So choose whatever offbeat interest you want — whether it be the Trekkies for Mumia Committee or the Nude Badminton Society — secure in the knowledge that no one will judge you harshly.

But whatever you do, do it pessimistically. This year, nihilism is again the new black, and optimism only marks you as a newbie. If you can't suppress the urge to smile, grab a copy of Barbara Ehrenreich's deathly Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream (Owl, $13 you'll never see again). Ehrenreich lets you know that your degree won't be worth the paper it's printed on (by underpaid serfs, probably), as the promise of capitalist society slowly crashes around us.

Have a great fall semester.

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