City Shelves: Mainsail Collection at the Walnut Place Laundromat


Mainsail Collection at the Walnut Place Laundromat. Curated by Librarian John Helling.


City Shelves: Mainsail Collection.

City Shelves are small, themed collections of books placed strategically around Kansas City in locations where people have a little bit of spare time.  The idea is to enable people to use that spare time to do something it’s harder and harder to find time to do these days:  sit down and escape into a good book.  But these aren’t just any books…they’re chosen by a librarian to form a collection that is carefully curated.  Nothing boring or lame here, this is just the good stuff. Readers will have access to a project blog where they can leave their thoughts, book reviews, photos, or whatever else.

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Tell me, wasn’t that the best time, that time when we were young at sea; young and had nothing, on the sea that gives nothing, except hard knocks – and sometimes a chance to feel your strength…”  From Youth by Joseph Conrad

Mainsail Collection: The ocean is enormous and terrifying and beautiful.  It’s brutal enough to produce the Great White Shark, which is an animal that reached peak efficiency at killing things millions of years ago and basically stopped evolving.  It’s vast enough that the Giant Squid, twice as long as a giraffe is tall, has been able to stay hidden from science until the 21st Century.  It’s so alluring that human beings, perhaps compelled by some primordial memory, have never been able to rid themselves of the urge to conquer it, an urge so powerful that they set out on journeys of many thousands of miles over hostile water in vehicles made of wood and tar and powered by the wind, for god’s sake.  The books in this collection contain stories, some fictional and some factual, of people who heard the call and were driven by their imaginations into the blue wilderness. Or, they are of people who had no intention of braving the open ocean but had it thrust upon them by fate and chose to survive.  All of them, whatever the circumstance, found themselves at some point at death’s door in a strange place.

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, by Jules Verne (fiction) – Perhaps the most well-known fictional exploration of the sea and its mysteries, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea tells the story of Captain Nemo, a man without a country and haunted by his past, who has taken to the sea in his fantastical submarine Nautilus to exact his revenge on the civilization that wronged him.  The crew travels to exotic locations, fights monsters of the deep, and has other adventures that have been captivating imaginative minds for quite a long while.  This Illustrated Classic edition has been “adapted for young readers.”

The Bounty, by Caroline Alexander  (non-fiction) – Fletcher Christian decided that he had had enough of Captain William Bligh’s unbending discipline, so one bright day in April 1789 he set him adrift.  Christian and his crew returned to edenic Tahiti, while Bligh and eighteen crew members loyal to him faced the open Pacific with only a quadrant and a pocketwatch to find their way home.  Fleeing cannibals, desperate for food and water, Bligh managed, almost a year later, to make it back to England to report the crime.  The aptly named HMS Pandora set off in pursuit of the mutineers, but its fate too was cursed.  Bligh’s original goal, which all this drama and suffering was apparently worth risking, was the cultivation and importation of the breadfruit plant to England.

Over the Edge of the World, by Laurence Bergreen (non-fiction) – Ferdinand Magellan set out in 1519 with five ships, 260 sailors, and two goals.  To sail completely around the world, and to conquer in the name of Spain.  Three years later the Magellan and nearly his entire crew were dead, and most of the survivors who made it home were too weak to stand or even speak, but they had done it.  Over the Edge of the World combines research with contemporary accounts to form a portrait of a singular, but often maniacal individual who drove his crew to the ends of the earth and paid the ultimate price for it.

Near Death on the High Seas, edited by Cecil Kuhne (non-fiction) – Human beings have by no means lost their taste for adventure since the age of the explorers.  There are still those who venture out, alone, into the blue yonder, ready to face whatever trials have been set for them.  Whether they are sailing from South America to the Pacific Islands on a raft made of balsa wood, purposefully racing in the world’s most dangerous and unpredictable waters, or risking their lives to save a fellow sailor, the stories that these people tell when they come home (if they do) are what put fire into the heart of the next generation.

The Odyssey, by Homer (fiction) – Ten years after the ten-year Trojan War, Odysseus is cursed by the  sea god Poseidon himself after he blinds his son, the Cyclops.  What follows is Odysseus’s struggle to return home to his wife and son, and to take back his home from the hundred-odd Suitors who have moved into his house in an attempt to convince his wife to marry one of them.  In a satisfyingly mythic fashion, Odysseus overcomes numerous obstacles (although not a single one of his crew of sailors manages to survive) to return home and reclaim his life.

Unbroken, by Laura Hillenbrand (non-fiction) – Louis Zamperini was a track star, running the 5000 meter race in the 1936 Berlin Olympics.  Although he didn’t medal, his 56-second final lap was fast enough to draw the attention of Adolf Hitler, who shook his hand after the race.  When World War II broke out, Zamperini joined a bomber crew and was sent to the Pacific.  His plane crashed, killing everyone but Zamperini and two others, who survived on the open ocean for 47 days only to wash up into the hands of the Japanese military who promptly locked them up in a camp designated for non-POWs, where they were mercilessly tortured.  This is not only a story of survival, but also of redemption and forgiveness (and will soon be made into a movie directed by Angelina Jolie).

Seaworthy, by T.R. Pearson (non-fiction) – William Willis was a true badass and/or crackpot.  Born in Germany, he came to America as a 15-year-old deckboy where he jumped ship.  He roamed America for a few years before finding himself in New York and educating himself at the public library.  His landlady had a brother who was imprisoned for murder on Devil’s Island, so he did what any decent tenant would do and successfully broke him out of jail using a plan that involved him putting on actual leper’s clothes as a disguise.  When he was in his 60s, he decided to build a raft and sail it across the Pacific with a parrot and a cat for crewmates, because hey why not.  Surprisingly, he was successful, but even more surprisingly he decided to do it again, and then do the Atlantic because, again, why not.  As the book jacket states, when his hernia got too painful to bear he did what any thinking human being would do and hung himself upside down from his mast.

Tales of Land and Sea, by Joseph Conrad (fiction) – No one evokes the excitement, the fear, the danger of the unknown like Joseph Conrad.  His classic Heart of Darkness provided the inspiration and tone for Apocalypse Now, and was inspired by Conrad’s own experiences as a gunrunner in Africa.  His shorter fiction is tighter and more accessible, but still maintains that sense of wonderment and creeping horror.  The stories collected here are often autobiographical; Conrad lived a fascinating life.  He was born in Poland, joined the French Merchant Marine to avoid getting drafted into the Russian Army. He didn’t learn English until he was in his middle-teens, yet went on to be one of the most famous writers in that language.  If you’re looking for a toehold in this giant book, try Youth, a story about five sailors sharing a drink and telling the story of a shipwreck.

Sailing Alone Around the World, by Joshua Slocum (non-fiction) – Joshua Slocum was the first human being to sail around the world completely alone.  This tale isn’t one of deprivation and hardship, as Slocum stopped often at ports,  but what’s great about this book is the author’s keenly observant eye and dry New England wit.  He’s got the sharp narrative voice of a natural writer and relates his tale with the same tone you might expect if you were sitting across from him with a beer in your hand.  It’s not often that adventurer’s of Slocum’s caliber happen to also have a gift for writing and are able to relate their own stories with such ease.  Reading this book is like hearing the tale at fireside firsthand.

The Adventures of Ulysses, by Bernard Evslin (fiction) – This is The Odyssey rewritten for a younger audience.  All of the monsters, adventure, and epic journeys but with writing that’s a bit less stuffy.

The Voyage of the Frog by Gary Paulsen (fiction) – Gary Paulsen is the king of young adventure writing.  Paulsen is a bona fide badass in real life; he’s completed the Iditarod dog race, which fewer people have done than have climbed Mount Everest.  The Voyage of the Frog is about a 14-year-old who puts out to sea before he feels ready in order to fulfill his recently deceased uncle’s wishes to have his ashes scattered out of sight of shore.  Suddenly the winds are high, the sea is rough, and a storm comes up…

The Chronicles of Narnia:  The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C.S. Lewis (fiction) – Please forgive this book its ridiculous cover, which is an apparent attempt to appeal to Kids These Days.  C.S. Lewis is a fantasy legend, and in Dawn Treader he moves beyond the typical hero-villain dichotomy to explore the three-dimensional personalities of his protagonists.  They are tempted, they sometimes succumb, and they must prove themselves to be worthy of the word Hero.  It’s the increasingly rare fantasy novel that doesn’t focus on hack-and-slash or crazy, convoluted wars, but rather turns inward and discusses human nature.  All of this, of course, while still providing the reader with dragons, adventure, and fun stuff too.

The Great Wide Sea by M.H. Herlong (fiction) – Ben’s mom just died, and now his dad is insisting that he and his brothers accompany him on a sailing trip.  The close quarters and grief are driving everyone crazy.  They’re just starting to make progress when suddenly Ben’s dad disappears from the boat, leaving the brothers to fend for themselves in the face of an oncoming storm.  Fast-moving and high-paced, this book delivers the goods while also exploring the grieving process and the dynamics between brothers and fathers.

Island Series, vols. 1 and 2 by Gordon Korman (fiction) – Six kids are on the ocean as part of a team-building exercise when their boat sinks from under them and they are abandoned by the adult in charge (how rude).  After a week adrift on the wreckage they finally wash ashore, but their troubles are just beginning.  The kids have to deal with hunger, wild boar, smugglers, fevers, and a host of other problems.  This series is like  Lost minus all the terrible, plot hole-riddled sci fi.

Curated By John Helling

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