Monday, November 19, 2012

Literary Monday - Vietnam as you've never seen it

I was a child when the Vietnam war (the one the USA was involved in - there were a lot of conflicts that involved Vietnam, or Indochina as it used to be called) was going on.  The news was boring and it seemed like the same thing every night, so I didn't pay much attention.  The first novel about or set in Vietnam that I remember reading was Up Country by Nelson Demille, published in 2002.  I originally picked it up because it continued the story of Paul Brenner, one of Demille's characters who appeared in The General's Daughter.  It's a fairly fat book, but once I started reading, I couldn't put it down.  Up Country is based loosely on Demille's own experiences as a soldier in Vietnam and I recommend it highly.

I just finished another outstanding book set in Vietnam:

The Headmaster's Wager by Vincent Lam - this is Vincent Lam's first novel, although he has previously published a collection of short stories.  Percival Chen's father went to Vietnam (Indochina) to work when Percival was a child, and never really returned to China except for a few brief visits, although he did support Percival and his mother.  When the Japanese invade China during World War II, Percival is able to obtain a visa for Vietnam because his father lives there, and he and his new wife travel to Vietnam for what they believe will be a short stay, until the war ends.  But it is easy to make money in Vietnam and they end up staying permanently, with Percival first working in the rice trade, and later, opening a very successful English language school.  Percival is not always a likeable character - the word "hubris" describes his actions throughout much of the book.  He is self-centered, he likes to flash money around and has quite a few vices, he does not pay attention to managing his school, he ignores what is going on around him in the belief that nothing will change.  I repeatedly found myself wanting to slap some sense into him.

A number of themes run through the book in addition to Vietnamese and Chinese history:  fathers and sons, love and loss, friendship and betrayal, awareness and naivete, changing realities and disbelief.  Very well-drawn characters, excellent pacing, and a plot that keeps building all contribute to the book's excellence.  Vincent Lam based the story on his grandfather's experiences as a Chinese national living in Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s.  I look forward to reading more from him.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Missing Tuesday - George Smith IV

(I have been trying to post this since last Tuesday and keep getting interrupted.)

I love going on cruises – it’s my favorite way to vacation. But since 1995, at least 165 people (both passengers and crew) have gone missing from cruise ships. Are they victims of a shipboard crime wave or an unfortunate accident? Did they disappear voluntarily or plan to take their own lives? Unfortunately, in the majority of cases, there is no answer. Disappearances almost always occur in the middle of the night, when the ship is far out to sea.

The disappearance of George Smith IV from the cruise ship Brilliance of the Seas in 2005 is one of the most-publicized continuing mysteries of the cruise industry. Although George’s family has accepted the fact that he is no longer alive, they are still waiting for answers about how he died.

George Allen Smith IV was born in Greenwich, CT, on October 3, 1978, and grew up in the suburb of Glenville. He grew to be 6’2” and played high school football. With his father, he managed the Cos Cob Liquor Store in Glenville. George’s family describes him as very devoted to his family; college classmates say he was a quiet student and a friendly guy, well-liked by everyone.

George, age 26, and Jennifer Hagel, age 25, of Cromwell, CT, met in Newport, RI, in 2002, and were married there in a clifftop ceremony on June 25, 2005. Jennifer was an elementary school teacher, beautiful and outgoing, with a great personality. Four days after their wedding, the couple set sail on a 12 night honeymoon cruise of the Mediterranean on Royal Caribbean’s Brilliance of the Seas, sailing from Barcelona, Spain, a trip that they had planned together. The Brilliance of the Seas is a very large ship, carrying almost 2300 passengers. They had a balcony stateroom on the 9th deck of the ship. The personable young couple soon made new friends on board the ship.

Halfway through their honeymoon cruise, they spent the day ashore in Mykonos on July 4, then returned to the ship and changed for dinner. They had a romantic dinner in one of the shipboard restaurants, and then went to the casino to meet up with another couple also on their honeymoon. They also connected with several young men that they had met on the cruise.  There was a rumor on the ship that George was carrying large sums of money, and a report that both had talked about how people were stuffing cash into their pockets at their wedding, and that they had brought all the money with them on the cruise. When the casino closed at 2:30 a.m., they moved on with their friends to the disco. They were all drinking heavily, and Jennifer began flirting openly with other men, including one of the casino staff. At some point, someone brought out a bottle of absinthe (not sold on the ship). Jennifer and George got into an argument, and at least three witnesses said that both George and Jennifer were very drunk, and that Jennifer kicked her husband in the groin before walking out of the disco at 3:15 a.m. Later, Jennifer said that George was mixing alcohol with two prescription medications, Zoloft and Clonazepam.

The ship docked in Kusadasi, Turkey, at 6:14 a.m., and passengers were cleared to go ashore at 6:39 a.m.  When Jennifer awoke on the morning of July 5, she was not immediately concerned that George was not in their stateroom. She believed he had continued partying after she went to bed and had simply fallen asleep in their new friends’ room, as had happened on at least one other evening on the cruise. She and George had appointments at the ship’s spa for massages; she went to the spa to keep her appointment and thought that George would join her there when he woke up.

Around 8:30 a.m., over two hours after the ship had docked, several passengers on their balconies noticed a large bloodstain on one of the lifeboat canopies. At least one passenger photographed the bloodstain. Blood was also found on the Smiths’ balcony railing, in their cabin, and on the side of the ship. A search of the ship initially showed three missing passengers: George and Jennifer Smith, and one other passenger. Jennifer was located in the ship’s spa shortly before 10 a.m., and the third passenger was also found. Three officers came to the spa to talk to Jennifer and tell her that George was missing. When questioned, Jennifer said she did not remember anything after leaving the casino until she woke up in their room that morning. While it has been suggested that Jennifer was drugged for her to go into such a deep state of unconsciousness that she remembered nothing afterwards, it is also possible that she was just extremely drunk.

Thanks to the access cards, security cameras, and passenger accounts used on the ship, George and his friends left an electronic trail of their movements. After the disco closed at 3:30 a.m., George and his friends went back to the Smiths’ room since George was too drunk to walk on his own. When George realized that Jennifer was not with them and not in the stateroom, he asked the other men to help him locate her, but they were unable to find her. They all returned to George’s room at 4:02 a.m., where the partying apparently continued. Sometime between 4:00 and 4:30 a.m., George’s companions returned to their own room and ordered room service, even taking pictures of the food because they were amazed at the quanitity.

The passengers in the neighboring staterooms, Cletus Hyman, a law enforcement officer from Redlands, CA, and Pat and Greg Lawyer, said they heard what sounded like a loud party and a drinking contest in the Smiths’ stateroom that night around 4 a.m. Mr. Hyman called the Guest Relations desk at 4:05 a.m. to complain about the noise. He thought he heard at least one voice out in the corridor, and then what he describes as an argument on the balcony that lasted about a minute, involving three voices. At around 4:15 a.m., he heard voices saying “good night” softly and when he looked out his door, he saw three men walking away. Pat and Greg Lawyer who were staying on the other side of the Smiths’ room also called Guest Relations to complain about the noise. They said they heard three male voices talking quietly outside their room, although they did not look to see who it was. They believe two of the men spoke with accents.

By now, it was approximately 4:15 a.m. Based on witness testimony, either three or four men had left the Smiths’ stateroom. The Smiths’ neighbors heard someone talking in a conversational tone in the Smiths’ room, and sounds like furniture was pushed around and cabinets being opened and closed, as though the room was either being put back in order or searching for something. Mr. Hyman said there was only one voice speaking, and after about ten minutes, the voice moved to the balcony, where he heard one of the metal balcony chairs being moved. It was quiet for a minute or so, and then he heard what he described as “a horrific thud” coming from the Smiths’ balcony, strong enough that he felt the vibration in his room. He said his first thought was that someone had fallen on the balcony. He did not hear anyone leave through the Smiths’ door, which he normally did.

When security personnel finally responded to Mr. Hyman’s call about the loud noise in the neighboring room, it was 4:30 a.m. and everything was quiet.  Mr. Lawyer suggested they might want to enter the room because it sounded as though the room was being trashed, but the security staff opted not to do that when there was no response to their knocking. 

Shortly after 4:30 a.m., Jennifer was discovered passed out in a corridor on Deck Nine, but on the other side of the ship from her own stateroom. She had made it to the right deck, but was too disoriented to find the correct room.  If she had made it back to her own room after leaving the disco, the night would most likely have ended differently: George’s friends would not have entered the room, or she could have prevented him being pushed or falling overboard, or she too might have ended up in the ocean. Jennifer was able to tell the staff who she was and her stateroom number.  Crewmembers stayed with Jennifer while two other staff went to her cabin to try to locate her husband.  Unaware of the first visit by security staff just a few minutes earlier, they entered the room around 4:45 a.m. looking for George and found the room empty. Two security officer and a female crewmember took Jennifer by wheelchair back to the Smiths’ cabin, entering the room at 4:57 a.m., and helped her to bed.  As they were leaving, Mr. Hyman stuck his head out the door and mentioned that he had heard a commotion in the room about an hour earlier. The security personnel assured him that they had seen nothing amiss in the room and then left.

George was reported missing to the Turkish police, and Jennifer and Josh Askin, one of the men who had been partying with the Smiths, were taken ashore to be questioned by police. Askin had heard the page aboard the ship asking George and Jennifer to check in with them, and volunteered the information that he had been with George in the early hours of the morning.  At 6 p.m., Captain Lachtaridis had the crew wash the bloodstain away the bloodstain on the lifeboat and prepared to depart for the ship’s next port of call. When Brilliance of the Seas returned to the Bahamas where it is chartered after the cruise, the captain filed a report calling George’s disappearance a “probable accident.” The Turkish police and Royal Caribbean turned over their findings to the FBI, including over 100 security tapes from various points on the ship.

In addition to his wife, George was seen with four men in the early morning hours of July 5, 2005, before he vanished: Josh Askin of California; and three Russian-Americans, brothers Greg and Zachary Rozenberg and their cousin Rostislav “Rusty” Kofman of Brooklyn. All four men were in their late teens or early twenties. The Turkish police interviewed Askin, but none of the others. When contacted by the FBI, they insisted that they had all left George’s room by 4:15 a.m. and returned to Kofman’s room to order room service. Askin said he returned to his own room around 5:15 a.m.  All insist George was alive and well when they left him in his own room. Askin met the Rozenbergs and Kofman on the ship; there is no reason to think that he would be covering for them, or they for him.

The young Russian men had already been warned by ship personnel regarding their behavior. During the 48 hours after George vanished, there were several more incidents involving the Rozenberg brothers and Kofman. The Rozenberg family, Kofman, and the Askin family (13 people in all) were removed from the ship in Italy after an alleged sexual assault on a female passenger that at least two of the young men participated in and videotaped. That case is still being investigated by the FBI.

Royal Caribbean officials are blamed for failing to lockdown the ship when it reached the port of Kusadasi, allowing passengers and crew to leave the ship. But at that time, they were unaware that anyone was missing. The Turkish police investigated the crime scene for about two hours, but were rushed off the boat in the afternoon, so that the cruise ship could continue on to its next scheduled port of call. Jennifer at first criticized the cruise line for abandoning her in Turkey to fend for herself, but Royal Caribbean officials say that is not true, that a crew member stayed with her from the moment she learned that George was missing until she left Turkey to return home. The Smiths’ stateroom was sealed to preserve a potential crime scene, and ship personnel provided clothing for Jennifer from the shops on board the ship.

In January 2006, Royal Caribbean allowed forensic specialist Dr. Henry Lee aboard to collect forensic evidence from the Smiths’ room.  He collected samples, photographed the scene and took measurements.  He wanted to perform an experiment throwing a mannequin off the balcony, but Royal Caribbean denied him permission to do this.

In May 2012, a new piece of possible evidence was made public. A video taken in the dining room onboard the Brilliance of the Seas shows the four men who had been with George prior to his disappearance, sitting around and talking about his death and apparently mocking him, while the search for George was still going on around them. The four men took the video themselves, apparently passing around a flip phone.  The FBI has had the video in their possession since 2005. Were the men admittiing that they had killed George, or was it just a bunch of young callous guys sitting around, trying to impress each other?

Cruising is still one of the safest forms of vacation, particularly for women, singles, and seniors. Millions of people vacation on cruise ships every year. The crime rate is minute compared with the rate of crime on land. It is a fact that people do dumb things when they are on vacation, things they would never do when they are at home (if you don’t believe me, watch a few episodes of “Vegas Strip” on TruTV). If you get drunk or high enough, it might seem like a good idea to stand on the rail of your balcony, or jump off and take a swim in the ocean.

In the years since George Smith vanished, cruise lines have changed their policies and practices regarding missing passengers. Now when a passenger is missing, no one is allowed to leave the vessel until a thorough search has been performed.

In 2010, Congress passed the Cruise Security and Safety Act, which stipulates more onboard security personnel, crime response training for security officers, and improved communications between cruise lines and the FBI and Coast Guard. In addition, the International Cruise Victims Association founded by Kendall Carver, father of Merrian Carver who vanished on an Alaskan cruise in 2004, is advocating background checks for all crewmembers, higher railings, more and better security cameras, security bracelets for all passengers and crew, complete documentation of all persons boarding or leaving the ship, and access to records and security videos for investigators.

Jennifer received a $1.1 million settlement from Royal Caribbean in 2006. George’s family challenged the settlement and Jennifer's position as executor of her husband's estate, but a probate court approved the settlement and the ruling was upheld in Superior Court in 2008. A portion of the money went to create a charitable fund in George's name.  Included in the settlement was an agreement from Royal Caribbean to turn over the evidence they collected at the time of George's disappearance from their own internal investigation.  In 2009, Jennifer remarried, to financial analyst Jeff Agne, and they have a child.  While the mystery of George's disappearance will undoubtedly stay with her forever, she is a young woman and deserves to have a life.

What really happened to George Smith IV? A number of possibilities exist:

- George was earmarked for murder because it was believed he had a lot of money in his room. Was his death the result of a robbery gone bad?

- A bunch of drunk guys got into an argument that ended horribly, and then panicked and threw George’s body overboard.

- Young drunk guys can do stupid things, like dare each other to stand on the balcony railing of a cruise ship traveling through rolling seas.

- Like a lot of men, George enjoyed a good cigar. Passengers mentioned smelling cigar smoke from the Smiths’ balcony earlier in the cruise. Possibly the opening and closing of doors that Mr. Hyman heard was George looking for a cigar, and then going out on the balcony to smoke. If he decide to get up on a chair so that he could sit on the railing to look out while he smoked, it is entirely possible that he lost his balance and fell overboard because he was extremely drunk.

On an interesting side note, a lengthy article about George’s disappearance was deleted from Wikipedia, the popular online encyclopedia.  Since Wikipedia has stories about Natalee Holloway, the Springfield Three, and Etan Patz, I am at a loss to explain why this particular article was deleted.

If you have any information about the disappearance of George Smith IV, please contact the FBI.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Literary Monday - Something evil this way comes...

We are working on a huge weeding project at the library (new boss, new focus, new projects, etc.), and I've been coming home from work pretty tired every night.  So I didn't do much blogging last week, hope to do better this week.

I have one title to review this week:

The Various Haunts of Men by Susan Hill - This is the first title in Susan Hill's Simon Serrailer mystery series.  Prior to this book, Susan Hill was best known for The Woman in Black (recently made into a movie) and Mrs. deWinter, a sequel to Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier.  The mystery series was recommended to me by one of our patrons who is an avid mystery reader.  There is a serial killer at work in the small English town of Lafferton, a very clever serial killer whose victims appear to have nothing in common, which baffles the Lafferton police force.  There are a lot of characters and the narrative skips around among their various stories, which is one of the few negative comments I can make about the book.  Good psychologial suspense reminiscent of P. D. James and Ruth Rendell.  If you like either of these writers, you will enjoy this series.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Literary Monday - Vanished Worlds

I have two titles worthy of note this week.  I didn't totally love either one, although a lot of people did on

Arcadia by Lauren Groff - I heard about Arcadia because it kept appearing on "best books" type of lists.  A group of idealists and dreamers abandon their former lives and drop out of society to follow a Utopian dream of building a communal society, living off the land and off the grid.  The story is told from the viewpoint of Bit, the first child born into their communal society in 1968.  The first half of the book details their lives as they found a commune called Arcadia, through its high point and gradual decline.  Bit watches his parents labor for the commune, doing backbreaking work, suffering poverty and hunger in the name of the greater good, until things fall apart.  The second half of the book turns futuristic as Bit and the other commune residents return to the outside world, with most of this section set in 2018.  The world has become a scary and dangerous place, with a pandemic looming.  Bit longs for the Arcadia of his childhood, and when his mother becomes ill, he returns to Arcadia to care for her.  But the community is long abandoned and Bit realizes that the sense of community that he craves has migrated to urban areas, since you can't have a community without people.  I have to say that I liked the second half of the book more than the first half.  Maybe it's because Bit as a child is definitely a watcher, while in the second half of the book, he is forced to be more involved in life.  There are parallels to Animal Farm in the first half of the book, when one of the newer residents asks why some people lived in the splendid mansion on the grounds and did very little work, while others lived in hovels and were expected to labor from dawn to dusk.  I was dissatified with some of the unexplored or unexplained relationships - why bother introducing them if they're just going to be left hanging?  Recurring themes include hope, dreams, and love, found and lost and found again.

Tell the Wolves I'm Home by Carol Rifka Brunt - I waited a long time to get this book from the library, and there was a lot of hype about it, so I really wanted to love it.  The narrator, June, is 14 years old.  Her favorite uncle, Finn, who is a famous painter, is dying of AIDS.  June believes she is a misfit and that Finn is the only person who understands her.  When he dies, June learns that Finn had another "special friend," Toby, his long-time partner who knew all along about June and relates to her sense of loss.  June feels betrayed because she thought that Finn belonged only to her.  Like many children, June thought Finn's life revolved around her, and although she resents Toby, she wants to spend time with him to learn more about their life together.  Tell the Wolves I'm Home is a coming of age story, and June does a lot of growing up during the course of the book.  The author does a great job of capturing the paranoia of the early 1980's, in the days before AZT and other drugs when AIDS was still a death sentence and many people had no idea if AIDS could be transmitted through casual contact like a handshake.  The parents are silent and secretive at a time when they should be helping their children to deal with their grief.  In a lot of ways, June is a cool kid with a vivid imagination:  she is interested in art and music, she likes to pretend she's from the Middle Ages, she wants to be a falconer.  Greta, June's older sister, is the pretty, smart, popular, talented one, but she is incredibly jealous of June's relationship with Finn.  The relationship between the two sisters is unneccessarily dramatic and overwrought.  Greta is obviously meant to be the villain of the piece, the person you're supposed to hate - I just found her annoying.  Only later in the book do you realize that Greta feels just as much a misfit as June does, but in different ways.  I liked some parts of the book but others just dragged or seemed like filler.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Wheat Belly Wednesday - Slow Cooker Chicken Stock

My biggest news this week is that I just adopted a new dog.  My new boy's name is Zeke and he came from Best Friends Animal Society in Utah.  He is a hound mix, not a golden retriever like Luke is.  When I volunteered at Best Friends earlier in the month, Zeke was one of our sleepover dogs.  He is 12 years old, a senior boy, and the sweetest friendliest old guy.  His former owners had left him at Animal Control in Los Angeles (which is fortunately a no-kill shelter).  Zeke had a number of health issues, including being quite overweight, needing to visit the doggie dentist, and having arthritis in his hips and knees, and Best Friends made sure he got the care he needed.  After I came home from Utah, I kept thinking (and worrying about Zeke), so I contacted Best Friends about him, and the short version of the story is that he traveled via United Airlines to Chicago last Friday.  He has been with us for a week and is settling in.  He is still learning the household routine and establishing boundaries with Luke and Teddy (like letting them know when they are getting too close when Zeke is eating). 

I often need chicken stock or broth for recipes and was quite surprised to learn that not all commercially available stocks and broths are gluten free.  You need to read the label, and unless it specifically states that the stock or broth is gluten-free, assume that it has gluten in it or was made in a factory that also processes wheat.  Even some of the organic brands contain gluten.  Aldi, Trader Joe and Costco's Kirkland brand of stock or broth all state on the label that they are gluten-free.

Of course, the best chicken stock is the homemade kind.  Not only do you know for sure that it's gluten free, it's delicious!  You can also control the amount of salt in the recipe.  The recipe for slow cooker chicken stock is based on my grandmother's chicken stock recipe, except she used to simmer the stock on the stovetop.  When she would roast a chicken on Sundays, she would pick as much meat as she could off the bones and save the carcass, the neck, the back, and the drippings from the roasting pan for chicken stock.  She would scrape everything into a big kettle, add vegetables and water, bring it to a boil, then lower the heat and let it all simmer for hours.  Making the stock in the slow cooker means I can turn the slow cooker on when I leave for work and come home to at least a half gallon of hot chicken stock and a house that smells like heaven.  Since you're working from cooked bones, there is no foam to have to skim off the top like there is when you make broth from raw chicken.  This method works well with turkey bones, too, so don't throw out that Thanksgiving turkey carcass (note that turkey stock is usually fattier than chicken stock).  The dogs absolutely LOVE a ladle of warm stock over their kibble.  Enjoy as is with vegetables and/or cooked rice, or in recipes.

Slow Cooker Chicken Stock:

1 chicken carcass or the bones from 4 chicken breasts or leg quarters, with cooked skin and roasting pan drippings
1 large onion, peeled and cut into eighths
2 carrots, washed or peeled and cut into four pieces
2 celery ribs, washed and cut into four pieces
1 t. salt
5 peppercorns
1 T. dried parsley

Place all ingredients except water into the crock of your slow cooker.  Add enough water to cover everything and stir to mix ingredients.  Water should be about 1/2 inch from the top of the crock.  Cover, plug in, and turn on low setting.  Allow to cook for 8-10 hours - don't lift the lid while the stock is cooking, as this will just add to the cooking time.  You can let the stock cook for up to 14 hours, since the slow cooker heat is so low and even.

When the stock is finished, allow it to cool slightly.  If you have the lift-out kind of crock on your slow cooker, remove the crock and place it on a cooling rack for about an hour.  Strain the stock into a large storage container or a 3-quart stockpot.  Cover and refrigerate overnight.  In the morning, remove and discard any fat that has hardened on top.  If the stock has jelled, it will liquify as soon as you heat it.  Makes 2-3 quarts of chicken stock.