IN CHINA WITH HARPO AND KARL by Sibyl James (Calyx: $9.95). The American writer Sibyl James spent most of 1985 and '86 in China, teaching English, and this affectionate memoir is based on the journal she kept there. James is fascinated by the details of Chinese daily life: She notes the smells in the streets and restaurants, the bitter taste of herbal potions, the sounds of Beijing at night, the fit of clothing cut for Chinese, rather than Western figures. In her weaker moments, James seems to lose the forest for the trees, and her obsession with minutiae sometimes suggests an Erma Bombeck column about dining in the Orient. But her better chapters provide an interesting peek at the day-to-day existence of ordinary people, far removed the from the intellectual and political turmoil that would convulse China a few years later.