The occasional observations of Carolyn Kephart, writer

Friday, November 19, 2010

Just Out!

I've gathered five of my short stories into a collection entitled PenTangle: Five Pointed Fables. It's available for the Kindle at, and will be appearing soon at Barnes and Noble, Smashwords, and various other e-book stores. (If it isn't listed as available, give it a day or so.)

Although I'd originally thought of using an actual pentangle for the cover, it looked too literal and didn't really fit the content. I finally decided on a starfish, because they're so strange and lovely.

The stories are all very short, fantastical, and meant to elicit reflection:

   The Kind Gods: Did the old gods really die? A warrior seeks answers at the burial-mound of his greatest enemy.
   The Heart's Desire: A government scryer's life is a prison until she and her bodyguard discover the ultimate secret language.
   Last Laughter: A cautionary tale about a wicked court jester and his comeuppance. First published in Silver Blade Fantasy Quarterly.
   Regenerated: Cela always hoped she’d find Jorgen again someday…but was this really Jorgen? A tenderly bitter tale of love and giant lizards, first published in Quantum Muse.
   Everafter Acres: Happily Ever After isn’t always perfect, but dark knights can be illuminating.

Five's my lucky number, so I'm hoping the book does well.


Friday, November 12, 2010

Hot News

Today my novel The Ryel Saga: A Tale Of Love And Magic is being featured on the popular e-book site Daily Cheap Reads, and as an extra boost to the day I've been interviewed at Two Ends of the Pen, a terrific writers' blog.

What a great way to end the week!

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Unreasonable Things

Oh, reason not the need! ~King Lear

During the Fall season I become at once nostalgic and merciless. I remember the past and either want it back or wish that it had never happened, and I sort out and/or get rid of whatever I feel I no longer have a need for. Useless knicknacks and trinkets, clothes that no longer suit me, shoes that never were comfortable, books and magazines that only take up space and collect dust, beliefs that no longer hold water...away with them. Winter is a spare, lean season only weeks away now, and I want to meet it on its own terms.

But some things I keep in defiance of mutability or reason. I love paper with a scribe's reverence (I love pens too, but that's another fetish for another blog entry). Empty books I'll probably always leave blank, delicate handmade washi  I just like to look at, origami paper too lovely to wreck by folding...I keep them safe and dry and bring them out now and then to contemplate, imagining possibilities. Here are some I recently collected on my travels to Japan and Taiwan; click on the images to enlarge them.

 Very fine origami paper. The picture doesn't do justice to the splendor of the gold highlights.

 A Japanese gift topper. I just can't bear to give it away yet.

An empty book that says it all, in shiny white with black flocked velvet. 
Anything I wrote in it would seem futile.

I suppose I acquired this in the naive hope that the contents would magically open up into the swan pictured on the wrapper. Had I looked closer I'd have realized that I'm expected to construct the bird myself from the enclosed myriad of tiny pink and red squares of paper. Maybe in my next life...

A couple of extremely teensy models (only a couple of inches high) based on very large buildings. I can't bring myself to pop them out of the cardboard and construct them.

A perfect notebook for an ironic angst-filled autobiography.
I'm saving it for later.

Regarding writing matters, I was recently interviewed by David Wisehart on his popular blog Kindle Author. David asked an intriguing array of questions that I greatly enjoyed answering. See what you think!


Saturday, October 02, 2010

Visions Of The Mystic East, Part Three

The two earlier installments of my Taiwan travels focused on exotic cuisine and gorgeous temples. This final segment will concern other aspects of Taipei, and some attractions outside the city. As with the first two parts, I was the photographer; click the images twice for the biggest view.

The bamboo-inspired tower of Taipei 101, which until recently was the world's tallest building. Within its towering shadow lies the city's upscale fashionable district, where European-style luxury combines with an elegance uniquely Eastern.

Inside Taipei 101's world-class shopping mall. Besides the trendy high-end boutiques one finds the world over, there were shops on the top floor's viewing area full of museum-quality Eastern jewelry and sculptures in coral and jade, with equally fabulous prices. I contented myself with the panorama of the city, watching as the sun slid into the mists, night stole over the land, and the lights came on little by little until everything sparkled as far as the eye could see.

Ooh la la! Frothy finery at one of the dozens of full-service bridal establishments on Taipei's 'Wedding Street.' Marriage is a very big business in Taiwan, with every step of the elaborate ceremony painstakingly planned and no expense spared. Brides change outfits several times during the big day; this gown seems destined for an especially grand ball.

This picture is so Taipei--a pearl tea break with a 
clearly cherished pet along for the ride. 

The entrance of Taipei's huge Jade Market. Antiques and other rarities are also sold there, making it a wonderful place to while away an afternoon. Expertise in jade takes long study, and I confess I couldn't see what made one bangle cost ten times as much as another; they all looked lovely to me.

Not everything in the Jade Market was expensive. These stone bead bracelets were only a couple of dollars apiece, and kindred bargains abounded.

The Flower Market is right next door to the Jade Market. Both take place only on weekends, and are thronged by tourists and townsfolk alike. Fresh flowers are a way of life in Taiwan.

Antique implements once used for drying the island's fragrant, famed Oolong. These were in the workroom of Taipei's oldest existing tea shop, where the proprietors, two charming sisters, gave us an after-hours tour of the premises and a tasting of rare brew thanks to T. C., who seems to know everyone!

Hip little bhikkus in a Buddhist religious goods shop. It was very hard to maintain my Zen equilibrium and not take one home with me, but I contented myself with a pair of moon blocks for my own personal divinations.

A view of Taipei's superlative subway--always spotless, civil, and on time to the instant. It's usually much more crowded than this picture shows, but we were coming home late from a perfect evening at the lively seaside district of Danshui, where Taipei goes to play on the warm summer nights.

A view not of a court lady's pavilion, but one of Taipei's restful parks. Every inch of the pond's surface was crowded with huge sweet heavenly pink lotuses, one of the glories of early summer in the Orient.

A surprise moon window view in a quiet neighborhood street. Every corner I turned in Taipei, I found something fascinating.

An exhibit demonstrating how the once-notorious Snake Alley in the old Dihua district got its name. Thanks to recent municipal improvements in the form of a new covered arcade and bright lighting, the place isn't nearly as raffish as it used to be.

Outside of town:

Besides exploring the city, we had a chance to visit some fascinating places on the outskirts, thanks to the kindness of Hub's colleague Otto Kong. As a pleasant finale, he and his wife invited us into their home for a memorable dinner of the freshest possible fish.

The serene spiritual fortress of Dharma Drum Mountain. Our visit there was an experience in order, generosity, kindness, and being deeply and happily at one with the world.
The midday meal at Dharma Drum is provided free of charge to the retreat's hundreds of visitors. Despite the crowd, everything was so well-organized by the numerous volunteers that we were served in a matter of minutes. The food was vegetarian and simply delicious; I finished my bowlful down to the last grain of rice.

Buddhist nuns at Dharma Drum. The moment I said hello, they all smiled and greeted me with the Namaste. Their grace and sincerity were deeply moving.

Otto showed us yet more equally unearthly, unforgettable places:

Natural statuary at Yehliu Geopark, an incredibly strange and 
beautiful landscape on the edge of the sea. 

The park's most famous formation, 
The Queen's Head. 

The above image really must be clicked twice for the full enlargement. On a prime location overlooking the ocean stands this fantastic city, inhabited solely by the dead. Confucian tenets honor ancestors, and palatial tombs like these attest to the most profound filial piety. The day was drizzly and gray and the place was deserted, adding to the solemn, eerie atmosphere.

A stucco relief (huge, covering an entire wall) portraying a gathering of the gods, in an eye-bogglingly gorgeous temple at an otherwise plain little town named after the goddess of mercy, Guanyin.

I'll always be grateful that I had a chance to visit such a fascinating country. As a final image for this, my third and last Taiwan blog post, here's a pair of perfect bunches hanging out at a favorite fruit market:

I hope you enjoyed the travelogue as much as I enjoyed the trip! My upcoming posts will be all about Fall, the season that resonates most with me.


Friday, September 03, 2010

Visions Of The Mystic East, Part Two

Thanks to everyone who read the first installment of my sojourn in Taiwan. Part One described culinary adventures; this entry will explore the spiritual side, which left a deep, inspiring imprint on my imagination. Taipei is a city of sometimes startling contrasts, where ancient folkways in the older parts of town are a world apart from the trendy district shadowed by the towering spire of Taipei 101. Hub and I visited as many temples as we could, and our friend T. C. Yuan  took us to even more, far from the beaten tourist track. The photos featured here were taken by me; click on them for a larger view. For Part Three, click here.

T. C. announces himself to the world beyond this at the Confucian Temple. The prevailing belief system in Taiwan mingles many teachings, creating a uniquely independent view of one's relationship to the divine. There exists no formal notion of a church in its Western sense: no stipulated assemblies, no specified hours of worship, no sermons, no hymns, no commandments, no dress code. Temples can be devoted to the Buddha, Confucius, the traditional Chinese gods, or all three together. One visits a temple for as long as it takes to ask the intercession of the higher powers or to commune with a loved one; there are no seats, but padded boards allow worshipers to kneel in comfort as they pray or cast oracle blocks.


Offerings at Longshan, one of the oldest temples in Taipei and thronged at all hours. My first visit there was at night, and the place was packed. Even though it was right next to a train stop and across from a busily trafficked shopping street, once I passed through its gates I entered a different plane of reality. I'll never forget the gold-drenched splendor glowing in the light of red lanterns, the otherworldly fragrance of jasmine and incense rising on the warm spring air, the clatter of moon blocks (bwa bwei), the soft floating strains of meditative music, and the sense of feeling at once utterly transported, and completely at home.

Flower offerings at Longshan: small bouquets of jasmine and other blossoms attached to paper saucers, sold by vendors outside the temple gate.

Well-worn moon blocks. One asks the gods a question, takes a pair of blocks at random and throws them on the temple floor. If the result is one flat side and one curved, then the answer is yes; two flat or curved sides down means try again. Three throws per question is usual.

 An exquisitely folded paper basket full of flowers, set atop a temple plinth as a decoration.

Offerings at the highly frequented temple of Gong Kuan, who is both the god of literature and the god of war. Note the beribboned pyramid of Taiwan Beer in the foreground. Both deities and departed loved ones receive gifts, usually of food, drink, or flowers; some temples accept meat offerings.

Another view of the lavish offerings at Gong Kuan temple. A small donation buys a paper bag full of gifts for the gods: candles, incense, snacks, and joss money. Shops outside the temple sell more offerings. It's an eye-widening display, at once a symbol of life's impermanence and the human need to connect with a realm beyond this flawed reality.

Rituals are as simple or as complicated as one feels necessary, but T. C. kindly showed me the customary method of visiting a temple. One enters, takes a bundle of incense--which is always available, abundant, and free--lights it, and makes a tour of the altars, starting with the one belonging to the principal god. After some moments of homage, a stick of incense is left in the burner of each shrine. This one is dedicated to the Buddha of the Four Directions, originally a Hindu deity.

A joss oven--very restrained in design--part of a temple complex. Paper 'god money' is burned not only in ovens like this one, but in metal barrels made for the purpose and found everywhere in Taipei's older, traditional neighborhoods.

A sidewalk offering table displayed by a local business to insure the favor of the gods. Offerings are left out for a few hours, then brought back indoors after the deities have enjoyed their essence. The red and gold stack of paper at the upper left is joss, which in addition to being produced in enormous quantities and sold for next to nothing is made not by machine, but by hand.

Here was a high point. We'd visited the Raohe night market, one of the most crowded we'd yet seen, with two lanes of one-way-only pedestrian traffic hemmed in by shops and divided by a long row of food stalls and tables packed with friends and families enjoying themselves; there wasn't even room for the usually ubiquitous motor scooters. T. C. (visible in the right foreground) promised us a surprise at the end, and he stunned us with this temple. It had four stories, and was more dazzling/elaborate/marvelous than any other we'd yet seen, which by this time in our visit was saying a great deal.

An altar to the God of Examinations at the Raohe temple, with offerings of test papers, snacks, and other items more unlikely. Some of them put me in mind of a favorite night market delicacy, scallion pancakes.

One of the unique features of the Raohe temple were the big decorations of  silk and wire lantern sculptures that seemed to float from every floor over the courtyard, many of them featuring playful tigers for 2010. This flower arrangement caught my eye.

A balcony on the way up the hundreds of steps leading to a very special temple on Taipei's outskirts. T. C. guided us to this wonderful place, and we felt privileged to be able to see it. The day was thick with mist, lending an air of exotic mystery that was quaintly dispelled by the down-home organic neighborhood atmosphere around the sacred precinct: kids running about playing, people snacking at the nearby outdoor eatery or shopping for amulets, and dogs perfectly welcome.

The third and concluding part of Visions will describe Taipei's modern side, as well as some noteworthy sights outside the city. I really enjoyed writing this entry, although it took a while to complete because of the hundreds of snapshots that I needed to sift through, and the photoshopping necessary for the chosen ones. Thanks for reading!

Ja ne,


Monday, August 16, 2010

Visions Of The Mystic East, Part One

Note: Click the photographs twice for the biggest view. Part Two is here.

I've been busy since my last entry. This was the most traveled summer I've had in a long time, and it started early. For three amazing weeks in May I drank in the extraordinary energy, spiritual depth, and pervasive civility that make Taiwan unique in the world. Enter the dragon...

The Taipei experience would certainly have been far less eventful had Hub and I not been fortunate enough to be shown the city by our friend T. C. Yuan of the Institute of Physics at Academia Sinica. Not only did T. C. introduce us to fascinating places and wonderful delicacies we'd otherwise never have known about, he did so with patience, charm, and stamina. Xie-xie ni, T. C.!

T. C. at the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Gardens.

Taipei is huge, with a vast population, but the principles of Confucianism and Buddhism go very deep. During the three weeks I was there, I noticed some surprising, extremely pleasant things about the city. First, there are no 'bad areas.' You can go anywhere in safety, any time of the day or night. The subways are marvels of pristine efficiency, and people actually line up politely to board. There's no homeless problem. Cars don't blast thump speakers, and graffiti doesn't seem to exist. Young people seem happy and purposeful. Education is highly esteemed, and courtesy is endemic. There's no custom of recreational drinking; public intoxication is virtually unknown. Children and the elderly are treated with touching kindness and respect. I hope none of these things ever change.

Because many people agree that one of the most memorable parts about travel to exotic places is the food, this entry will focus on the cuisine of Taipei, and the ways and places I enjoyed it. I'll be posting a second entry later about Taipei's many other fascinations, and some sights outside the city.

Since the climate's hot and muggy, people like to go out in the evening when things cool off, and they throng the night markets, which are another of Taipei's notable features. Eating is a popular activity, as can be seen from this picture taken at Taipei's biggest such market, Shihlin.

Above, traditional night market cuisine. Although I sampled and enjoyed many of the wares, I have to admit I never tried one of the most touted offerings, stinky tofu; I couldn't manage to get close enough to taste it. Seriously, it's got a pong you can detect a block away, but braver souls than I insist it's delicious. Maybe next time...

Night market fruit. Taiwan is famed for its fruit, and this particular stall had some of the best I've ever tasted. I particularly recall the melt-in-your-mouth mangoes; the fragile yangmei berries that I'd never seen before, dearly love, and can't get in the U.S. because they don't travel well; and the crunchy, juicy wax apples that deserve a much more appetizing name. I'm sure I'll eventually learn to savor durian; Hub adored it.

Culinary adventures:

One of Taipei's thousands of hard-working independent food vendors. Sidewalks are crowded with stalls selling all kinds of food and drink, from early morning until into the wee hours.

Another takeaway stall, at a covered morning market.These do a brisk trade until the lunch rush ends, after which they shut up shop. Morning markets sell everything from food to clothing to housewares to jade jewelry, at bargain prices. I had an enthralling time exploring them, and although I was always the only Westerner there, no one seemed to notice save to smile in welcome.

A visit to world-famous Din Tai Fung is de rigeur for any Taipei stay. In the steamer are the restaurant's signature delicacy, crab roe dumplings; T. C. has just enjoyed one of them. The restaurant features charming waitresses in crisp uniforms, and a big window on the kitchen lets you admire the impeccable skill that goes into making those little gems of edible art.

Pearl tea (or bubble tea) is a uniquely Taiwanese beverage: a tall cup of sweet cold milky matcha (there are variants, but matcha was my favorite) with a thick layer of pearl tapioca at the bottom, black from previous simmering in caramelized sugar. A wide-gauge plastic straw allows the tapioca to be slurped up along with the drink. It's addictively delicious, and oh, how I miss it. My favorite purveyor was Ten Ren, a chain of tea shops where you can be treated free of charge to a gracious ceremonial tasting of rare island Oolongs in delicate porcelain cups.

Food becomes art with the exquisitely fresh offerings at Farm To Table, a dining experience where ambiance combined with food in perfect harmony.

At a busy Cantonese restaurant we'd never have found without T. C.'s expert guidance, we ended a delightful dinner with this rich, gorgeous cake, reputed to have been Madame Chiang-kai Shek's favorite dessert.

Most of our night market forays concluded with a visit to a temple. Used as I was to the spare, serene, unfrequented shrines of Japan, exploring Taiwan's places of worship was an adventure for the senses. I always came away dazzled by the gold and scarlet, my memories full of the murmur of chanting, the clatter of oracle blocks, the mingled fragrance of incense and jasmine, the riot of gods. Temples and other otherworldly venues will be the subject of my next post, which can be found here.
Xai jian for now,


Note: All of the photographs, with the exception of the pearl tea image, were taken by me on my Canon PowerShot SX110.