Exploitation, Economics, and How to Sex Blog 

This month in Books, a legal Devil Wears Prada, making the dismal science prove it, and how to cash in on the Internet sex revolution.

Chambermaid
By Saira Rao
Grove Press

An ambitious young woman is launching her career in a big city. A heartless, merciless boss feels her reputation gives her carte blanche to terrorize underlings. The tantalizing — and steadily intensifying — whiffs of a romance are fomented by industry Stockholm syndrome. Insider intrigue, double crosses, and maneuvers abound by the wheelbarrow. The involuntary relief on the part of readers, observing safely from behind the fourth wall, is that we don't have to trudge 1,000 hellacious miles in the narrator's pumps.

All of the above brings to mind, almost unavoidably, Lauren Weisberger's The Devil Wears Prada, but Saira Rao's protagonist in Chambermaid isn't suffering for fashion — she's slaving away for jurisprudence. Sheila Raj is fresh from Columbia Law School and grin-and-bearing-it through a much-coveted Philadelphia federal clerkship she hopes will propel her to an ACLU job. The shriveled, troll-like harpy she works for, Judge Helga Friedman, routinely harasses her charges to make with legal opinions way earlier than necessary, sprays them with gobs of chicken salad during conversations, flaunts an offhanded racism, misremembers and screams clerks' names, and deflects compliments and discussions alike by exclaiming "I'm rilly rilly busy!" — even when she's anything but. Exhausted, gun-shy Raj — "SHHHEEEBA!!!" to the judge — and her peers nickname their taskmaster's office "the torture chamber."

As you might expect, Chambermaid follows its Indian-American heroine's yearlong metamorphosis from stuttering simp to confidence-exuding counselor, and a well-sketched supporting cast, authentic ethnic family interludes, and Raj's own wicked, self-depreciating sarcasm string us along until plot points elevate this book to the level of page-turner. Raj's inattentive doctor boyfriend lays bare a void we can sense but Raj is too harried to acknowledge; a death-penalty case appeal unites the coworkers and makes law suddenly feel less theoretical than real; a rival judge is groomed for a US Supreme Court seat, and Judge Friedman enlists her charges to dig up dirt. This is all rather exciting in and of itself, but what truly ensnares is the competitive Ivy League bitchery among young attorneys, the impenetrable cliquishness, the brutal tension as everyone clusters around a computer to find out if they passed the Pennsylvania bar exam.

Chambermaid delivers post-law school ennui without the frayed nerves and student-loan debts endured by lawyers. Better yet, it makes us root for them. You get an insider's peek into their world, and then are allowed to return to your own grind. — Raymond Cummings

Competition: The Birth of a New Science
By James Case
Hill and Wang
In the preface to Competition: The Birth of a New Science, author James Case suggests a number of goals for his book. He hopes that it will begin a dialogue about the "science of competition," which will eventually lead to the establishment of academic departments of that name. He intends it as a review of "the nature and sources of man's existing knowledge of competition" — topics ranging from the creation and victory of IBM's chess-playing computer Deep Blue to the mating and food gathering behaviors of animals. Through new discussions of market-related competition, he aims to debunk orthodox economic theory as it has developed since Adam Smith's 1776 The Wealth of Nations. Finally, he "hopes to encourage at least a few readers to join the growing chorus of agitators for open and public debate between orthodox and heterodox economists." Case mentions this last goal causally, and yet it is both the most significant objective of the book and the one he most successfully achieves.

In particular, Case values the participation of experienced natural scientists, who normally shun economic discussions because economics is not rooted in experiment. Biologists, chemists, physicists — these men and women would not publish theories that they could not test and prove, much less use them to drive public policy. Why have economists gotten away with theory-driven propositions for so long? Case wonders. How can we bring about future changes to this unnatural trend?

Case suggests two primary ways: technologically and sociologically. His first solution is computer modeling, and he begins to build this argument in his examination of Deep Blue. In later chapters, it's clear that the development of a "science of competition" rests on economists' ability to generate and run programs that challenge or confirm predictions about consumer and market behavior. In the 21st century as never before, technology offers methods for revealing the strengths and weaknesses of orthodox economic theory, and Case believes that economists must take advantage of them. By so doing, they will improve their standing with natural scientists and open discussions regarding future collaboration in decision sciences.

Open debate is important across the sciences, but it is crucial among economists themselves. Currently, few university economics departments offer courses in nontraditional economic theories. Most government decision-makers are deaf to all arguments that fall outside of orthodox economic thought. Heterodox approaches to economic problems are discussed "underground" — among members of the Association for Heterodox Economics, for example, and the International Confederation of Associations for Pluralism in Economics. In these organizations, thoughts and theories regarding new approaches to economic practice are developed and discussed, but they have little power to influence institutional, societal, or global change. By gathering together, economists who support the development of heterodox theories and natural scientists can promote and publicize new ways of thinking about competition. This is Case's hope for the future. And Competition is a guidebook and a plea. — Darcelle Bleau

Naked on the Internet: Hookups, Downloads, and Cashing in on Internet Sexploration
By Audacia Ray
Seal Press

Pornography is inescapable: in spam filters, in mass-market magazines, on CD racks, all over those sketchy web sites where unauthorized rap mix tapes can be had for "free," and in public, thanks to the normalization of porn-ish fashions. For most heterosexual men, such overstimulation is welcome. For women — who more often than not are the subjects of the pornographic gaze — the matter is more complicated. Though Naked on the Internet's title implies some To Catch a Predator moralizing, what's found inside is just the opposite: a guide for women considering breaking into sex blogging or other online sex specialties. Author Audacia Ray has spent time engaged in many of the pursuits she writes about — to both earn a living and strive for a stronger sense of self-empowerment — and it's clear that she hopes Naked will inspire readers on the cusp of baring it all online, either enterprisingly or self-expressively, to take the plunge safely. What's startling is how many risks and restrictions such newfangled freedom carries.

We meet "period porn" ingénues such as Furry Girl and Trixie Fontaine, who launched a separate site named "Bloody Trixie" after her spycam's credit-card processor balked. Ray rightly calls this a double standard: "Though credit-card-processing companies seem to have no problem with double- and triple-penetration sites, bukkake, and electricity play, most of them regard menstruation and other forms of blood play as out of bounds." Then there are folks such as Goose and Gander, a married couple who sex-blog anonymously because, as Goose explains, "Our locale is pretty conservative, and people can be excoriated for having alternative sexual views. Some days I feel strong and powerful for having the blog, and some days I feel like I'm taking a big risk." On the other hand, Jane Crowley's frank sex-blogging allowed her to understand better her desires and forced an end to an unhappy marriage, but ultimately it alienated her from friends and loved ones alike.

Ray devotes some humdrum ink to cyberdildonics, dating sites, the pitfalls of trusting health info online, and her own point-and-click awakening and ladder-climb — from college student to sex museum employee to model to web mistress to $pread executive editor — but non-target-market readers may find more value in Ray's levelheaded take on the online sex industry. This assumes, though, that the secondary audience for Naked is geriatric or has just emerged from a long coma. In an age where transparency is often for sale and information is a hyperlink away, being informed that hot aural podcasts can be had, that gothed-up alt-porn is flourishing, or that "companionship" can be found and arranged as easily as ordering from 1-800-flowers.com isn't anywhere near as interesting as it might have been five or six years ago. — Raymond Cummings

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