Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Iron Staircase (Book Review)

The Iron Staircase
Translation of: L’Escalier de Fer
By Georges Simenon
176 pp. Harvest/HBJ 1981

Etienne Lomel believes his wife Louise might be poisoning him. Although he is only 40, he is in terrible physical condition. He is breathless after walking up stairs, visibly losing weight, and always tired and apathetic.

After eating meals, he often feels a burning sensation in his throat, dizziness, and a pain in his chest. The doctors aren’t sure what the problem is and tell him to make a note of what happened just before each attack—what he ate, what he was doing.

Sometimes he feels ashamed of his “evil thoughts” that maybe Louise wants him dead. Perhaps it isn’t really true. After 15 years of marriage, he still loves her and wants to continue their relationship. But is she having an affair?

They live above a stationery shop. It is his wife’s business, having inherited it from her father. Everything belongs to her. Lomel owns nothing of his own and must ask her for money. He is totally dependent on her. She’s the boss. The iron staircase of the title leads from the first floor up directly to their bedroom and the other rooms where they live.

Lomel often stands at the top of the staircase listening to what is said downstairs at the shop. He wonders about the men Louise meets there every day—perhaps she is serious about one of them? He spends his days fretting and speculating about his wife while trying to recover from his illness.

We learn how Etienne and Louise first met 15 years ago. She was married to her first husband at the time. Etienne came to her shop on business and they soon began an affair. Louise’s callousness is seen when her sister-in-law died: all it meant to her was the chance for a long rendezvous with her lover, Etienne, since her husband had to go away for the funeral.

Etienne and Louise agree to marry, but what about her husband? During one of his visits, she tells Etienne that her husband has become seriously ill. After a few weeks, the husband dies. Etienne doesn’t question her about it.

He believes she poisoned her husband, as she might be poisoning him now, to get him out of the way and marry a younger man. Etienne has the same symptoms that her previous husband had immediately before he died: weight loss, tiredness, and heart trouble. For the 15 years of their marriage, he had never asked his wife how her former husband had died.

Part II opens with Etienne seeing a doctor and asking if it’s possible to determine if he is the victim of arsenic poisoning. At first, the doctor isn’t sure. Etienne resolves to stay with Louise in spite of her and not to die. He takes the blame for his poor attitude. He tells her and their friends that he is a new person.

Later he goes to the doctor again for more arsenic testing and the doctor finds positive results. Etienne finally has proof that Louise is trying to murder him. He tries to figure out what he will do. The doctor suggests he is obligated to go to the police but Etienne refuses to give him any information and leaves.

Etienne goes back home and acts naturally. Whenever he eats or drinks something he believes is spiked with poison, he leaves the house and throws it up. He decides to spy on his wife by following her and find out where she goes. Etienne sees her at the post office where she reads a letter that makes her very happy. He sees her receive additional letters in the following days, probably from the same person, her new lover.

Etienne follows his wife as she leaves the shop one day and sees her go to a restaurant. He waits and after an hour, he sees her leave arm-in-arm with a man. He sees them kiss as they part. He recognizes the man as Roger Cornu, son of a printer in their stationery shop.

Even now, knowing everything, Etienne still wants to keep Louise, and to keep living. He realizes he is as much to blame as his wife for the death of her former husband, since he agreed to marry her while she was still with him. Feelings of guilt over the death of the ex-husband often possess him. He wants their relationship to remain as it is, keeping to themselves with their silent secrets.

Etienne follows Cornu to his workplace and home, not finding him. But he is told the name of the restaurant where he usually hangs out. He then goes to a gun shop and buys a revolver. Afterward, Louise will understand, he believes, because he did the same thing she did before. He can’t afford to lose her because he is completely dependent on her.

He goes to Cornu’s favorite restaurant and sees him there, writing a letter, probably to Louise. Etienne then goes to Cornu’s home and lies in wait for him during the night. When Cornu arrives, he notices Etienne standing outside, and calls to him. Etienne is surprised Cornu recognizes him so easily, but shouldn’t have, since they are so similar, two steps on a staircase.

Simenon masterfully sets up the reader throughout the narrative for the strange, brutal resolution. Etienne hesitates to pull out his gun. He is unable to kill Cornu, as he is the same as himself and Louise’s ex-husband. Unable to change from the kind of person he is to someone like his wife, he can’t traverse the “iron staircase” that separates them. Cornu, knowing his own guilt, is stunned that Etienne doesn’t pull out a gun and shoot him. He bids him goodnight and goes inside. Half an hour later, sitting outside, Etienne shoots himself.

Long out-of-print in English, The Iron Staircase, with its psychological drama and pervading existentialist atmosphere, echoes Simenon’s French peers, such as Sartre and Camus. It is one of his finest efforts.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Top 10 Places to Move the KSM Trial

The plans of President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder to hold the trial of 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM) in Manhattan have gone awry.

Security and cost concerns have reached a fever pitch, not to mention the longstanding opposition to granting a terrorist at war with America a civilian trial instead of facing a military tribunal.

At the least, a new venue is needed and various sites are being proposed. Here is the list of the top 10 places to move the KSM trial:

10. Dearborn, Michigan. The Muslim capital of America and the home court in the "Great Satan" for KSM. Holder would select this locale if he wants to be sure KSM receives a trial decided by a jury of his peers.

9. Los Angeles. Holder would track down and recruit the same jurors from the OJ Simpson trial on the grounds that as long as Obama wants to do favors for terrorists, like giving them the same rights as all Americans, this is a good way to do it. Marsha Clark, Chirstopher Darden, and all those lovable defense lawyers would be asked to reprise their roles as well.

8. Austin, Texas. The home base of Alex Jones, leader of the "9/11 was an inside job" conspiracy theory. Jones could be called in as an expert witness (and simulcast on his radio show) that KSM, Osama bin Laden, and al Qaeda had nothing to do with 9/11. It was a plot by George W. Bush. A plane never crashed into the Pentagon, no, it was a missile. Holder and Obama seem like the sort of folk who would be ripe for this explanation.

7. Las Vegas. Where does a show trial belong if not in the entertainment capital of the world? If you want a good show, you go to Vegas. Nevada Senator Harry Reid would be granted the right to give a campaign speech during the proceedings and distribute his campaign literature in the lobby. It's only fair since he's got a tough election coming up.

6. Washington, DC. Specifically, Rep. Barney Frank's apartment, the same one from which a male prostitution ring was run. Holder and Obama are prostituting the American justice system with this trial, so what better way to drive home the symbolism. And Barney won't mind, he can use the opportunity to expand his rolodex.

5. San Francisco/Berkeley. Ask the locals: Are you with us or against us? What do you suppose they would say? Holder would ask them all: We can release into your community KSM or George W. Bush; which one do you want? KSM, of course, playing the modern-day role of Barabbas.

4. Parmatown Mall, Parma, Ohio. The location of Rep. Dennis Kucinich's local office near Cleveland. Kucinich, one of Congress' most liberal members, has stated that KSM and Osama bin Laden deserve the same basic rights as all Americans, according to the Constitution. This civilian trial is a victory for him. Congrats. The trial participants can shop in the mall during downtime but be careful in the parking lot.

3. Governors Island, New York. This former royal hangout has been trumpeted as a great location by some, despite the lack of a jail, its proximity to NYC, and the security problems of transporting KSM there. But on the plus side, the Smothers Brothers were born there, and high comedy is expected.

2. Chicago.
Obama's old stomping ground, not to mention Al Capone. You can get any kind of verdict you want in Chicago as long as you know how to play the game, and Obama may not have a clue how to govern in a democracy, as opposed to a socialist state, but he knows how to play a Chicago-style game.

1. Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Forget the civilian trial. Judge KSM at a military tribunal, and then hang him. Everyone wins. Or hold him there until he croaks. Legal experts say, oh no, military tribunal judgments aren't as tough as those in civilian courts because the former wants to prove it's fair and the latter wants to prove it's not a pushover. But the experts forget the question here isn't about getting the right verdict, it's about the rights we should give to terrorists as war with America.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Bin Laden Joins Global Warming Scam

It is a well-established fact that global warming hawkers, such as the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), have used faulty and dishonest research and numbers in attempting to promulgate their agenda.

Many people are rejecting the idea of man-made global warming as they realize they have been had by unscientific research crafted to further the economic interests of its adherents.

Little surprise, I suppose, that Osama bin Laden has now entered the fray, blaming global warming on the United States and the Western world. He is looking for ways to injure the US economically, and prodding the world to reject US goods is seen by him as simply another weapon in his anti-US crusade. Whether he really believes in global warming or not is beside the point.

Bin Laden continues to struggle in maintaining his own relevance. Recently he took credit for the (failed) Christmas Day attack on an airliner bound for Detroit. Bin Laden has been running and hiding since 9/11, afraid to pop his head out of its hole for fear the US will blow it off. His personal survival is his priority.

President Obama recently said since 9/11, "we" have put in a series of measures that make us much safer now than before. "We?" It was the Bush Administration that gets the credit, not Obama. Thanks primarily to George W. Bush, bin Laden remains a peripheral figure, unable to do anything but take credit for failed attacks and issue ignorant statements about global warming.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

O'Keefe: Right Idea, Wrong Approach

Conservative activist James O'Keefe wanted to record embarrassing video of Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu's office staff ignoring phone calls from constituents, according to his lawyer. He was arrested with others and charged with interfering with the phone system.

Landrieu's constituents have long been complaining that they can't get through to her office. She has become notorious for a special deal that gives Louisiana $300 million in Medicaid money in exchange for her health care bill vote.

Landrieu's shameful behavior, and the corrupt political system operating under the Democrat-controlled Senate and Obama's Administration, should be front-page news.

O'Keefe, unfortunately, seems to have taken the wrong approach. He should never have done anything illegal. And there is no need for that, since so much corruption and poor service to voters can easily be uncovered legally.

Update 012910: O'Keefe has posted a statement. It's up to the courts whether any laws were actually broken.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Why Aliens Ignore Us

The Royal Society in London has been discussing the reasons why we haven't made contact with aliens from other planets.

We have been listening to radio waves from outer space and sending out our own for 50 years but still no contact. Why?

There are 3 reasonable explanations:

1. There are no aliens. There is no one out there to hear our signals, or see our TV images, or visit the Earth. We are alone. If that is the case, it suggests life on Earth is an experiment and that we really are the center of the universe, despite our position on the edge of the Milky Way galaxy. But why such a large universe for life on only one planet? What's the game?

2. Aliens are unable to contact us. They can't send signals that reach us, or that we understand. Perhaps they haven't sent a signal in our direction. There are technological hurdles that they haven't surmounted. They can't visit us in person, most likely because the distance is too great.

3. They refuse to contact us. Would advanced civilizations really want to contact us? Are we a desirable civilization? There are dangers. Whenever a more technologically advanced society on Earth interacted with a lesser society, the result was often tragic for the less developed people. Perhaps aliens fear us, and what we might do to them. It could be they are already aware that we have nothing that they want. We could be seen by aliens as galactic "trailer trash." Backward, ignorant, violent, and dangerous with nothing to offer them. They may well be "hiding" from us to delay any potential interaction.

If they were out there and amenable to communication, it seems we should have heard from them by now. There is some problem, without question, and the problem is one that we haven't really come to grips with yet. We don't want to believe the truth. We aren't ready for it.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Osama bin Laden Answers His Son Omar

A few days ago, an interview with Omar bin Laden, one of Osama's sons, was published in Rolling Stone magazine. He was asked if his father was planning more attacks against the West. He answered:
"I don't think so," Omar says. "He doesn't need to. As soon as America went to Afghanistan, his plan worked. He has already won."

As if on cue, Osama has apparently released an audio message claiming responsibility for the Christmas day airline bombing attempt on a plane bound for Detroit. In addition, bin Laden, in a direct contradiction to the words of Omar, said he is planning more attacks as well.

In 2008, Michael Scheuer questioned whether Omar is an al Qaeda disinformation agent and merely pretending to be a messenger of peace.

Omar has his own twisted logic and conflicting emotions about his father and the West, but to view him as a willing agent for al Qaeda is absurd. He would never be accepted as such a person and it is obvious from his interviews that he is at war with himself in trying to come to terms with his family obligations, his father's legacy, and his own beliefs.

Could Omar turn to the dark side and unequivocally support his father? Yes, but that hasn't yet happened. And it may never happen. The uncertainty will always remain.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Massachusetts Done with Kennedys

Debate "moderator" David Gergen asked Massachusetts Senate candidate Scott Brown about blocking health care reform if he won "Ted Kennedy's seat" and Brown famously responded that it wasn't Kennedy's seat, it was the people's seat.

That's true, and it was a memorable line, but it also can't be denied that symbolically, the seat was Kennedy's and to continue the symbolism would be to elect Martha Coakley, a Democrat who would vote for Obama's health care plan.

But with the Republican Brown surging in the polls and seemingly poised for a historical upset, there may be more going on here than just a repudiation of ObamaCare and the scary governance of the Democrat-controlled Congress.

By electing Brown, Massachusetts is symbolically breaking with the Kennedys, and indicating that the Kennedy legacy has run its course and the people want to move forward, leaving the Kennedys behind. A big part of Brown's appeal may be a rejection of big government as championed by Ted Kennedy.

If Massachusetts rejects a continuation of the Kennedy legacy, what would that portend in the future? Democrats outnumber Republicans 3-1 in the state. Overturning that demographic won't happen overnight. But this is an opportunity for voters to indicate they've become weary and exhausted with the Ted Kennedy legacy and are looking for a new approach.

UPDATE: 01/19/10: Not only did Brown win, but a poll released today found that the vast majority of Massachusetts voters don't want a senator to carry on Ted Kennedy's legacy but want someone to "go in a new direction with fresh ideas."

To what extent were they all "going along" with Ted Kennedy's big government politics merely because he was a member of the American Monarchy--the Kennedy Family, and now that he is gone and no one to continue, will it all fall like a house of cards?