Elsa Hart’s Chinese Library Adventure

Two weeks ago, Elsa Hart‘s fabulous debut, JADE DRAGON MOUNTAIN, about an 18th-century exiled librarian who must learn the truth about a Jesuit priest’s death, arrived on shelves and is raking in rave reviews!

“In addition to being a satisfying mystery, JADE DRAGON MOUNTAIN also powerfully evokes the aesthetics of the time and place it describes. Its visual vistas often resemble centuries-old watercolors…” — The Wall Street Journal

“…perfectly melds history with the mystery genre for a lush look at China on the cusp of change…. one of the year’s most engrossing debuts and establishes Hart as an author to watch.” — Associated Press

“Hart’s sure command of historical complexities, conflicts between cultures, and plot twists leads to a satisfying conclusion.” — Publishers Weekly, starred review

“The mix of history, thriller, and layers of storytelling make for a complex and rewarding novel that deserves a wide readership.” — Library Journal

“Part mystery, part exploration of a culture fading into history’s shadows, Hart’s novel is a fascinating, intelligent debut…. Think Agatha Christie writing Shogun—Hart’s captivating debut has solid cross-genre appeal.” — Kirkus Reviews

“Decorated with a careful attention to detail, this old-fashioned mystery suits its setting in atmosphere and pacing, drawing the reader into an exotic territory. …the first in a series sure to please fans of Laura Joh Rowland’s Sano Ichiro mysteries, set in Japan, and those who enjoyed the magical Malaysian setting of Tan Twan Eng’s Garden of Evening Mists.” — Booklist

How did Elsa Hart get such fabulous detail in her book? Why, research on location, natch! Here’s a piece she wrote about an encounter in the out-of-date foreign language collection of a provincial Chinese library…

I am sitting in my quiet little corner of the library. My chair is in a recess so all anyone can see of me is a dirty blue converse sneaker. I can hear Sherlock Holmes: “But the shoes reveal everything, Watson. Observe the heels, emblazoned ALI STRS, an approximation of the authentic ALL STAR logo. They were obviously purchased in China. They are dirty, which means she has had them for a while, but not long enough to know that the accepted practice is to take shoes to the laundry in order to maintain their clean appearance. The style of the shoes, familiar and therefore comforting, suggests she anticipates homesickness. She is using a library card as a bookmark, which means she has established proof of residence in the city. Clearly she has not been in China long, but intends to stay for some time.”

Anyway.

The bookshelves are five levels high and about four feet across between each divider. Sitting here, I can see from the top to the bottom of three lengths of shelving, a total of 15 distinct shelves. Two of them are full of coffee table books about interior design and landscaping, titles like Paris Apartments, Pools, and Asian Gardens. One shelf is full of computer guides, such as Crafting a Computer and UNIX: the Textbook. The next two shelves return to the topic of dwelling space, big books with expensive thick paper and glossy pictures: Wallpaper and 500 Years of Italian Furniture. There are five entire shelves dedicated to a shiny new collection of Norton Editions, maybe 150 books, paperback, spines the signature palette of solid dark colors, white title text, with the author’s last name in black across a pale band at the top. It’s difficult to pick representative titles. My eyes make a giddy pass over War and Peace, Middle English Lyrics, Ben Jonson’s Plays and Masques, Utopia, Kafka’s Selected Stories, Middlemarch, Alice in Wonderland, The House of Mirth, Madame Bovary, The Sound and the Fury, Anton Checkhov’s Short Stories… on and on.

Farthest to my right, by the windows, there are three shelves full of The Great Ideas Series, each dark blue hardcover stamped with a title (The Interpretation of Dreams, Being and Time, Critique of Pure Reason, Lectures on Jurisprudence…) and, underneath, China Social Sciences Publishing House. Finally, there are two shelves full of those books you see at library sales, black spines with gold shield emblem and names in gold set against powder blue, forest green, and brown red bands: Plato, Aristotle, Virgil, Plutarch, Shakespeare, Gibbon, Darwin, Montaigne

So I am enjoying the sense that I am surrounded by old friends, when I hear someone approach. I shift in order to make a sound so that the person won’t be startled at the sudden sight of me.

It was a man, pale with pink cheeks and a sweating forehead. He was about 50, round, with just a few wisps of pale blonde hair on his head. His eyes were blue and his white eyebrows invisible. I said hello, and he said hello back.

“You’ve found a quiet corner,” he said.

“Yes,” I responded, “I like it here because of all the Norton books. This library is so wonderful!”

His expression turned incredulous and he made a soft dismissive sound, a sort of fast exhale through his nose. “You think so? You are serious?”

I was embarrassed and stuttered, “Oh, well I just think, um, the selection is so amazing.”

Again, “You think so? I am very unimpressed.” He pulled a book from the shelf, Cinema Architecture. “Look,” he said, and by this time I had identified his accent as German, “Who would read this? It’s such a waste of money. And they never throw anything away. It’s all outdated. They have books on computers from the 80s. It’s so stupid. Such a waste of money.”

I stood my ground. “Well,” I said, “I think the collection is very good. If you read everything here you would know so much!”

He grunted, “useless information.” I was starting to hope he would leave, but he continued, “You can chart the history of China in these shelves. There are books, American books, there in the back from 1918. Collectibles. Then of course there are no American books. The 30s, the 40s, the 50s, nothing. Then you get German books, German and French books. And you can see stamped in them the date they were acquired. Then you get to the 80s and the 90s and you get books, American books again, but now they are all about making money, starting a company, how to get rich.”

I was confused. He spoke with passion, but it all seemed contradictory. Who was he? Did he despise the collection or love it? Clearly he knew it well. I repeated, “Well I’m glad they have these Nortons. That’s fascinating to know about the history.” He pulled Anna Karenina from the shelf and said, meanly, “When is the last time you actually read Tolstoy?”

Now, I have had a lonely day. I am living by myself in rural China. I am in a library because the books feel like friends. And I am trying to write a scene about a biologist, a Jesuit, a Qing government official, and an 18th century astrological instrument. I am not to be trifled with. “I have read Tolstoy very recently, actually. I love Tolstoy. And the Maude translation of War and Peace is my favorite.” He looked like he didn’t quite know what to make of me. I suppose I am wearing a bright green tshirt proudly stamped with the words “AFRICAN ELEPHANT: polar cawso of the dwindlie mabers of Alrlean elephants” and I haven’t brushed my hair in about a week. Come to think of it I’m not sure when I last showered. Ah, first impressions.

Anyway, his next remark was about the lack of organization. I agreed that there didn’t seem to be a shelving scheme, but said that I sort of like the idea of the books moving about on their own, visiting other books.

“But it’s stupid to have so many copies of the same book,” he said. I responded that yes, I had noticed that you can find different copies of, say, War and Peace, scattered about. He said, “Once I checked out a book, a biography of Hitler, and I didn’t finish it before I had to return it. I think to find it again I’d have to look on every shelf.” At this point he wished me a friendly enough good afternoon and walked away. About fifteen minutes later he returned, proudly holding A History of Italian Fascism and two volumes of a Japanese-German Dictionary. All three books were old and looked like antiques. It was at this point that my interpretive abilities failed me. He was excited about the books, but I could not tell whether he was (a) mocking the library; (b) displaying genuine excitement from the point of view of a historian; or (c) revealing that he was a supernatural Nazi vampire villain escaped from a Hellboy comic book.

Since I wrote the above the stranger returned, smiling, holding six books. They were in fact three copies of War and Peace, one split into three volumes and another into two. He rearranged the beautiful row of Norton texts, inserting his three copies of War and Peace next to the Norton War and Peace. He wandered away again.

Three minutes after I finished writing that last paragraph, I heard him shout, “They are locking you in!” I looked up and realized that the lights were off. I shut my computer and hurried to the front desk. He was checking out his books. The place was deserted, and the main door was already shut. I wondered if I would actually have been locked in. It would have been a bit like From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. Though the library I think has fewer resources for survival – no snack machines and no fountains. I thanked him and hurried out, a bit worried that if I stayed to walk out with him the uncomfortable interaction would continue.

Now I’m sitting on a bench at the edge of the lake. I passed through a cloud of stinky tofu to get here. It really smells awful. A famous Hong Kong movie martial arts sidekick is named after it, apparently: Chou Doufou. Next to me there are two men in suits with briefcases and cigarettes relaxing after work. There are four young women blowing bubbles, and a portrait artist sleeping in his chair under a big red umbrella, his sample portraits mounted on a board behind him.

JADE DRAGON MOUNTAIN is available now from Minotaur Books. 

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