Looking Forward to June 2014

looking forward

looking forward


The Best of May 2014

best of monthly wrapup

The Map Thief

map thiefTitle: The Map Thief: The Gripping Story of an Esteemed Rare-Map Dealer Who Made Millions Stealing Priceless Maps
Author: Michael Blanding
Genre: Non-Fiction, Crime, History
Pages: 320
Publication: Gotham, May 2014

In June 2005, E.  Forbes Smiley III pulled a handkerchief out of his pocket, and dropped the blade for an X-acto knife on the floor.  The rare map dealer was sitting in the Beinecke Library at Yale University flipping through books containing rare maps.  A librarian noticed the blade, contacted university security, and before long Smiley was under arrest.  Incomplete cataloging at libraries, light security, and the trust of librarians allowed him to effortlessly walk out of libraries as esteemed as the New York Public Library and Harvard University with valuable maps folded up in his pockets.  Eventually he would admit to stealing 97 rare maps.

Smiley was an expert in rare maps, but he was not a businessman.  He alienated others in the field, bouncing checks and developing a reputation as a dishonest dealer, potentially dealing in stolen maps.  He spent money he did not have – living a lavish lifestyle and employing half of a town in his attempts to recreate an idyllic small New England town.  Before long he was in tax trouble as well.  As the bills piled up, Smiley got desperate.  One theft led to another when he discovered how easily the maps could be taken and resold, but he still couldn’t seem to get himself out from under a situation of his own making.

Much of the first part of the book tells little of Smiley’s story, but instead focuses on the history of maps, their influence on history, and the evolution of map collecting.  While not what I initially expected, I found the history both fascinating and necessary.  Enlightening on its own, it provided the necessary context when the maps Smiley sold and stole were discussed later in the book.  I found the outcome unsatisfactory, mostly because I have no patience for those who steal from libraries, but the journey was informative, interesting, and entertaining.

And we are lucky enough to have a Q&A from the author, Michael Blanding!

How many maps did Forbes Smiley steal?

Smiley admitted to stealing 97 maps from six libraries—Harvard, Yale, New York Public Library, Boston Public Library, the British Library, and the Newberry Library in Chicago—worth over $3 million in all. However, the libraries accuse him of taking many more. In all, they are missing around 250 maps, and have evidence that he stole at least a dozen of them. The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle—but we may never know for sure exactly how many he stole.

How did he steal them?

In many cases, the maps were contained in rare books, and Smiley was able to go into a library and just rip them out or cut them out with a razor blade when no one was looking. In other cases, he would request a folder full of maps and just take one. Then, he folded them and put them in the pocket of his blazer and just walked right out. Library catalogs often don’t specify which exact maps should appear in which books or folders. So Smiley could rip out a map worth $100,000, and walk out without anyone knowing it was missing. Many of the map library curators knew him as a respected rare-map dealer and trusted him almost like a colleague; he abused that trust to walk out with rare maps right under their noses.

How could he ever sell these rare maps? Wouldn’t someone know they were stolen?

Maps aren’t like works of art, which exist in only one copy and are strictly catalogued by museums. A rare map might exist in a dozen or more copies, both in libraries and private hands, with no way of knowing if another copy isn’t hidden in someone’s attic somewhere. Smiley sold mostly to other dealers he’d worked with for years, and they apparently believed them when he told them that he was quietly selling off copies of old maps from the collection of old clients. When these dealers then sold them to collectors, they could openly display them with no idea that stolen property was hanging in their offices and living rooms.

Wow! How did old maps get to be worth so much?

As art began getting pricier in the 1980s, many wealthy collectors turned to maps as a less expensive way to decorate their homes and display their wealth and knowledge. A doctor or stock broker might not be able to afford millions of dollars for a Monet or a Picasso, but they could afford a few tens of thousands for an original map print that might be equally beautiful, and come with an interesting history going back hundreds of years to boot. Map prices really began skyrocketing in the 1990s, when they became trendy for home decorating.

What did he do with all that money?

Like most thieves, he spent some of the money on luxuries—nice clothes, fancy dinners, travel… But most of it, strangely, went to a small town in Maine that Smiley essentially tried to buy and remake into his vision of a perfect New England village. He bought the post office, a general store, and a restaurant, and spent a lot of money fixing up the town and employing its residents. Not everyone in the town liked his ideas, however, and he ended up getting into a messy feud with the neighbors across the street who owned a marina. Eventually the dispute grew into a lawsuit that divided the whole town.

What caused Smiley to steal?

Smiley was never a good businessman, and from the beginning of his career as a map dealer, he was always overextended and owing money to people. He also claims that his own gallery was robbed back in the late 1980s, putting more pressure on his business. As map prices rose in the 1990s, he began competing fiercely with other dealers, who drove up prices on him at auction and made him pay more for his maps. The final straw, however, was the flap over the town up in Maine; he began hemorrhaging money on legal bills at the same time he was trying to keep his businesses there afloat. One day in a library he realized that he could fold a map into the size of a credit card and slip in his jacket pocket, then sell it the next day for $30,000 to make his payroll up in Maine. That started him down a slippery slope that led to more and more thefts.

How was he caught?

Smiley was caught in June 2005 when an attentive librarian at Yale University noticed an X-acto knife blade he had dropped on the floor. When library staff looked him up, they saw he was a rare-map dealer and began to get suspicious. A Yale police officer followed him out of the library, and when they searched him, they found a map of New England by John Smith in his pocket that they were able to match to one of the books he’d been using. Once he was arrested, the FBI sent out notices to other libraries, which began to discover that they too were missing maps from books Smiley had used. The case unraveled from there.

Where is he now? Is he in prison?

No, he served only three years in prison, despite pleading guilty to $2.3 million in thefts. In part that was because of the assistance he provided to the FBI in recovering the 97 maps, only 18 of which they had enough evidence to charge, earning leniency from the judge. Smiley got out of prison in early 2010, returning to his home on Martha’s Vineyard, which he was able to keep despite the money he still owes to dealers and collectors. Crime doesn’t totally pay, however. Last I spoke with him, he was working as a landscaper making $12 an hour, and still struggling to repay the millions he owes.

Could this kind of theft happen again?

It could and it has. Since Smiley’s sentencing, there hasn’t been a major case of map theft in the United States, though there have been several in Europe to the tune of millions of dollars. Many of the libraries have taken precautions since the Smiley case, increasing security and surveillance, and taking digital photos to catalog their collections. Map dealers, too, have become warier of buying stolen material. However, there is still a great deal of secrecy that is endemic to the map trade. Libraries are often reluctant to publicize when they are missing material, and dealers are often reluctant to reveal what maps they are buying, or ask too many questions about where they came from. All of that makes it easier to get away with selling stolen material. Unless something changes, as one former map librarian told me, it’s not a matter of if there will be another case of rare map theft, but when.

Murder in Merino

murder in merinoThe Seaside Knitters series takes place in Sea Harbor, on the coast of the Atlantic.  A series of locals find themselves trying to rights wrongs and help the police solve local crimes.  One of the main characters, Izzy, owns a knitting shop where she meets with family and friends (her Aunt Nell, the eccentric elderly Birdie, the lobsterwoman Cass) on Thursday nights to knit, share food, and brainstorm.  The books are light whodunits, but the characters are warm, friendly, and familiar and the setting is one of my favorites – a northeastern coastal town – with all that brings – good seafood, unpredictable weather, and breathtaking scenery.

In this latest installment, Murder in Merino, there’s someone new in town and Jules Ainsley is raising some eyebrows as the beautiful woman jogs around town and is seen spending time with Cass’s beau.  When she insists on buying Izzy’s old house, even though she’s never been inside, it begins to look like her vacation may become permanent.  But when a local is found murdered in the backyard, Jules becomes the chief suspect.  What is Jules doing in Sea Harbor and what is she hiding? If she isn’t the murdered, then who in this small town is?  To add to the chaos, local politics, business partnerships, romantic difficulties, and planning for Nell & Ben’s 40th wedding anniversary have everyone on the run.

I have read previous books in this series and this was like coming home to a familiar set of friends.  I want to spend a Friday night sharing food and conversation with the gang in Nell & Ben’s backyard, I want to be invited to join the Thursday night knitting group.  And I want to have the time and talent to knit like they all do!  While I will gaze wistfully at the included pattern, I know it will never be one that I will complete…  While the mystery was puzzling, and I didn’t figure it out until near the end, I wanted to shout at the group to notice clues that were being dropped in front of them!  But the mystery in this series always takes a backseat to the characters, their relationships, and their warmth.  If you enjoy cozy mysteries, these are great to throw in your bag as you head to the beach this summer.

Title: Murder in Merino
Author: Sally Goldenbaum
Genre: Fiction, Mystery
Pages: 320
Publication: NAL Hardcover, May 2014

I received this book as an ARC in return for an impartial review as part of the Great Escapes Book Tour on Escape With Dollycas Into A Good Book.  The author is giving away a hardcover book at each stop, so leave a comment below for the chance to be randomly selected to win!  Check out the rest of the tour stops:

May 6 – Melina’s Book Blog – Review, Giveaway
May 7 – Our Wolves Den – Review, Giveaway
May 8 – Books-n-Kisses – Review, Interview
May 9 – Griperang’s Bookmarks – Review
May 10 – rantin’ ravin’ and reading – Review, Interview, Giveaway
May 11 – Mother’s Day
May 12 – Books Are Life – Vita Libri – Review
May 13 – deal sharing aunt – Review, Giveaway
May 14 – Back Porchervations – Review
May 16 – Community Bookstop – Review
May 17 – Booklady’s Booknotes – Review, Interview, Giveaway
May 19 – Watching the Words – Review
May 20 – A Chick Who Reads – Review
May 21 – Satisfaction for Insatiable Readers – Review
May 22 – Brooke Blogs – Review


Chestnut Street

chestnut streetMaeve Binchy wrote a collection of short stories, tales from inside the lives of the people living on Chestnut Street in Dublin.  And in this, what will unfortunately most likely be her last published original work, those stories are collected.

It is difficult to review a short story collection, there is so much at the same time that there is so little.  So I’ll just mention a couple of my favorites.  Bucket, the window cleaner who goes everywhere on his bicycle and will do anything for his delinquent son.  Liberty, the frustrated girl whose parents are worried about everyone’s freedom but deny hers.  Dumpy Dolly and her perfect mother, who may not be so perfect after all.  Lillian with her kind heart, letting people step all over her, and with a fiancé that no one likes.  Nessa, whose American aunt may not be as cultured, well-off, or understanding as she seems.

What happens behind the closed doors of the homes on Chestnut Street is life, in all its beautiful ugliness.  Each story left me wanting more, a whole book that would tie all of these stories and all of these people together.  Because is as the case with so many short stories, it seems like someone forgot the ending.  Nevertheless, these are captivating glimpses into life for an array of interesting characters.

Author: Maeve Binchy
Genre: Fiction, Short Stories
Pages: 384
Publication: Knopf, April 2014