Picks and Pans Review: Iron and Silk

updated 03/02/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/02/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

by Mark Salzman

The author was a young Yale graduate when he began teaching English at a medical school in Hunan province. This elliptical, dazzling collection of essays about his two years in remote China is a joy to read from beginning to end. Salzman was no ordinary visiting teacher. He speaks Chinese fluently, and he spent much of his time there studying the martial arts. Because of his facility with the language, he moved about with great freedom, and this book is a deceptively simple, beautifully told account of his various adventures. Salzman's interest in the martial arts, in music and in calligraphy gives him access to a large number of people outside the college where he teaches. He becomes the private pupil of a great kung fu expert, is befriended by a simple fisherman who takes him to visit his family (Salzman frightens the children with a ghost story) and has problems with the bureaucracy that he transforms into funny tales. He meets a couple of considerate ex-convicts on a train, acts out the movie E.T. to great applause, befriends a shy young woman doctor and tells dozens of anecdotes with insight, humor and surprise endings that make it all seem like wonderful fiction. Iron and Silk is a modest, charming account of a young man's wholehearted plunge into an absolutely exotic foreign experience. Reading it, sharing his life and impressions, is exhilarating. (Random House, $16.95)

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