Starting a Successful Blog…When You Have No Clue! by Gundi Gabrielle

Starting a Successful Blog When You Have No Clue by Gundi GabrielleThis book (more like a long article) allowed me to start this website, so it’s only fair that I review it.

Before I read this book, I thought self-hosting on WordPress was next door to impossible. I tried to get an SSL certificate for another website I own, and was completely adrift. Every “help” page was written in a language that I almost understood, but not quite. Common words were used in a technical way that eluded me, and trying to figure them out just lead to more confusion. I didn’t know what I didn’t know, and couldn’t seem to bridge the gap. How could I therefore install WordPress on my own? Gabrielle made the process very easy to follow, and I was able to transfer this site from WordPress.com to a self-hosted WordPress.org site without much trouble.

Ironically, the one issue I did run into was getting an SSL certificate. My hosting provider offered one for free, which I didn’t know. Before you buy any hosting package, I recommend checking to see if your host offers some kind of SSL certificate before you sign up. It’ll save you a headache.

If you already know how to set up a self-hosted WordPress site, then there’s no reason to buy this book. If you want to use one of the many free articles and videos on this topic to get started, then I wouldn’t get this, since it gives you information you can find for free on the web. This book is only a dollar, though, so if you’re looking for one book to get you started, instead of toggling through a million articles online, I would recommend reading this book.

This book only shows you how to set up your website, plus some tips for choosing a theme. If you’re looking for a more comprehensive guide, look elsewhere.

Announcing the Newsletter

I’ve just started a newsletter for this site. You can sign up on the sidebar or via the Newsletter page. It’ll feature preorder announcements, book giveaway announcements, newsletter-only giveaways (not just books, but stationary, postcards, dolls, pictures, anything), and news that I find interesting.

I plan to post a few representative back issues so potential readers can see what the newsletter is like. Right now, it’s set up to automatically send out the latest blog posts every week.

Thanks to Mailerlite for making the whole process pretty easy to follow.

Photo by Estée Janssens on Unsplash. I wish my notebooks looked half as neat as hers.

October Updates

A picture of an autumn tree at the bank of a river. Photo by Fred Russo on Unsplash.

Happy October. Here are some brief updates on the website:

  • Changed the theme from “Writer” to “Twenty-Fifteen.” Writer is a very versatile theme, but the learning curve was a little steep, and I don’t have enough free time to study it. Twenty-Fifteen works well enough, and loads significantly faster. Since my site seems to go down at least once a week, I’m hopeful that this theme update will at least partially solve the problem.
  • Had some issues with the Jetpack social media extension, so I started using the WordPress default for “social links menu.” The way the menus are organized seems a little overcomplicated to me, though that may be a legacy of the Writer theme, or some other theme I’ve used in the past. In any event, the links are up there now.
  • I’m looking into mailing list clients. There are so many out there, and everyone has a different recommendation. “Try Mailchimp, it’s free.” “Try Aweber, it’s so versatile.” “Constant Contact has the best overall package.” “Substack is made for authors.” Some articles that are pretty clearly P.R. puff pieces for this or that company. Once I settle on a client, I’ll let you know.

Photo by Fred Russo on Unsplash.

“10 Notable Figures Who (Probably) Died Virgins”

An illustration from Christina Rossetti's Goblin Market, by her brother, Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

I published a short piece on vocal.media, “10 Notable Figures Who (Probably) Died Virgins.” All but one of the figures are from the 19th or 20th Century, though I’m sure there were many lifelong virgins in earlier centuries. I’m just not educated/literate enough to know who they are.

Here’s an excerpt:

There is no way to prove a negative. You can’t prove that someone has never had sex, and absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. However, based on what is known about these notable figures, they were either chaste, near-chaste, or very, very good at keeping their private lives private.

Read the whole thing here.

Love Sex Fear Death by Timothy Wyllie and Adam Parfrey (Feral House, 2009)

The Process Church, which started in 1966, was out of step with the times in many ways: the group eschewed drugs and drug use; their priests dressed all in black, with Mendes goats on their robes; they openly worshipped “Jehovah, Christ, Satan and Lucifer”; their logo, a cross between a cross pattée and a swastika, was out of step with the “peace and love” platitudes of the time.

Although they never reached the massive popularity of other new age movements, the Process Church attracted a small but persistent interest among musicians, artists, and other creative types since its inception. The cult published several magazines that are sought-after by collectors––a reprint of several is currently selling on eBay for the low, low price of $199.99.

Whether intentionally or not, Wyllie’s book reflects many of the patterns delineated in Rogue Messiahs. “The Process did have all the hallmarks of a cult,” Wyllie writes in the introduction, “charismatic and autocratic leaders, devotion to an unconventional ideology, personal poverty, obedience, celibacy (from time to time), and a strict hierarchy, with secrets held between the levels.” The end of the world formed a large part of their worldview––Processeans “viewed life through the lens of an impending apocalypse.”

Despite their reputation (the group was linked, erroneously, with Charles Manson and his “family”), Wyllie doesn’t mention any animal sacrifices, human sacrifices, blood oaths in the moonlight, or other Satanic melodramas. This doesn’t mean the group was sweetness and light. Mary Ann MacLean, the group’s autocratic leader, often forced her followers into distressing or even traumatizing situations in order to maintain control. For example, she forced her inner circle to have sex with each other in highly choreographed orgies (though this was not, as claimed in one book, a rite of initiation into the cult––most members had no idea this was going on). The impact of these orgies was devastating:

[C]hildren were conceived who didn’t know their true parents; pairs who had no desire for one another were shoved together; heterosexual men were persuaded to perform acts clearly distasteful for them; and the women were sometimes treated like goddesses and sometimes like whores.

Reading this book made me think of a Simone Weil quote: “Imaginary evil is romantic and varied; real evil is gloomy, monotonous, barren, boring. Imaginary good is boring; real good is always new, marvelous, intoxicating.” The Process Church’s magazines featured cutting-edge graphic design, unconventional interviews with celebrities (what does Muhammad Ali think of life after death?), provocative articles that tackled deep questions of being and belonging. The Process Church passionately opposed vivisection; they criticized the Church of England (in a concern-trollish way) for being too wishy-washy about their own beliefs. And yet the Processean reality was the same dreary one that many cult members endure, from the women of NXIVM to members of the Sea Org: despair, humiliation, and shame under control of a domineering leader.

If you want to get an inside view of life within a cult, especially in a cult’s inner circle, I’d recommend this book. Wyllie was with the cult at its beginning and, after a leave of absence, followed the cult through the turmoil of the late 1960s. Wyllie was also the art director for the group’s magazine, and a member of the group’s short-lived band, which gave him an interesting perspective on the Process Church’s attempts to spread their message to the wider culture.

Cruddy by Lynda Barry (Simon & Schuster, 2000)

Cruddy by Lynda Barry.The book starts with a suicide note, addressed to “Anyone Who Finds This.” The book, in fact, is a sort of extended suicide note; since she’s about to die, Roberta Rohbeson can finally tell the truth about that road trip with her father. She’s never told anyone before. Now she’s going to tell you.

Roberta is sixteen, living in “a cruddy rental house” with her mom and her sister. The book intersperses chapters detailing her sixteen-year-old life with descriptions of the fateful road trip five years earlier. There’s copious abuse and trauma in both narratives, but Roberta is a fighter. She can find a way out of any situation, however harrowing.

The book is hard to read at times, written in a trippy, adolescent style. The style fits the subject, but it’s still an acquired taste. Take this paragraph as example:

He looked very relaxed laying on his back in the straw. He seemed to be somewhere around our age, a little older maybe, and he was looking very much like a typical glue-sniffer dropout. The extreme relaxation of the guy was interesting to me. A very fat fly lifted itself and made a worn-out buzzing sound and flew a lopsided circle around his face. He followed it with his eyes and said, “Not now.”

The book is full of abuse in many forms: casual, intentional, emotional, homicidal. In the end, we’re led to believe, Roberta kills herself––that’s it. No one grows, nobody learns anything. Maybe that’s the point.

Rogue Messiahs: Tales of Self-Proclaimed Saviors by Colin Wilson (Hampton Roads, 2000)

Colin Wilson may be a flawed thinker, deserving neither the reverence nor the revulsion he inspired in turn, but he is very good at introducing the reader to new authors and ideas. This book showed me some common aspects of messianic movements that I might have otherwise missed:

  • Many would-be messiahs figures preach that the end of the world is close at hand. During the end of the world, only the figure and his followers will be saved.
  • Messianic cult leaders often use their ministry to gain sexual access to many willing participants. Wilson discusses some of these men’s exploits in graphic detail, which is both disturbing and darkly hilarious.
  • As messianic movements grow in power and influence, their leaders become more paranoid and grandiose. Prophecies of the end-times often grow more dramatic. The results are often tragic: Waco, the Tate-LaBianca murders, Jonestown, etc.

There’s a lot of bad behavior, and abuse of power, detailed in this book. If the recent Hollywood sex abuse scandals have turned your stomach, I’d give this book a miss. However, if you want to get some insight into messianic cults throughout history, this book is a good starting point, if you take Wilson’s intellectual deficits into account.

The Haight-Ashbury: A History by Charles Perry (Wenner Books, 2005)

The Haight-Ashbury: A History is a detailed, in-depth history of the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood, focusing on the late-1960s counterculture years. Perry shows how the neighborhood evolved during this time, and how the “hippie” subculture evolved with the neighborhood. The book covers every concert, every new venue that opened and closed, every “happening” on a week-by-week basis. This can make for arduous reading, but it makes the book a great starting point for more in-depth research.

Although Haight-Ashbury started as a student neighborhood, it quickly became the locus of a new artistic movement. Beginning in the mid-sixties, concerts, multimedia shows, student cafes, and other “happenings” bloomed in the neighborhood. Kids would parade around the neighborhood in outrageous costumes from the neighborhood’s many second-hand clothing shops. The remaining beatniks, now in their thirties and forties, called this new generation “hippies,” i.e. junior hipsters. The name stuck.

The police looked the other way––at first. Haight-Ashbury formed a “buffer zone” between the mostly-black Fillmore and the mostly-rich Pacific Heights. Some students want to wear costumes, put on a play, even smoke a little dope? Not a priority.

After 1967’s “Human Be-In,” though, the neighborhood attracted thousands of runaways, who in turn attracted many shady characters: dealers, pushers, pimps, hustlers, acid heads, speed freaks, junkies, crazies, and other ne’er-do-wells. Charles Manson lived in Haight-Ashbury for about six months, picking up girls who would later become part of his “family.”

I’d recommend this book to anyone interested in 1960s culture and counter-culture. Perry is a little too close to his subject matter to be objective, but it’s still an invaluable resource for anyone who wants to know what happened, and what it felt like.

The Case Against Satan, by Ray Russell (Penguin Classics, Reissued 2016)

Cover of The Case Against Satan by Ray Russell. The Case Against Satan details a young woman’s exorcism at the hands of a bishop and a priest. The bishop, traditional and hard-line, clashes with the modern young priest; the girl, who may or may not be possessed, tries to use this conflict to her advantage. At just 140 pages, the book doesn’t waste any time, taking us through the whole experience in brief but powerful chapters.

Russell’s spare but expressive prose drives the story and adds to the horror of the situation. Some of his characterizations feel a little on the nose, from the bigoted crank to the perverted, murderous father. The recent sexual abuse scandals also color how one views this book. Despite these qualms, the book managed to hold my interest to the end, and the final revelation is both surprising and satisfying.

The Case Against Satan delves into the role unconscious motivations may or may not play in an individual’s salvation. Would God damn you to hell for an action you committed unconsciously? The anguish surrounding this question reflects a growing anxiety about how psychology was revealing and restructuring our views of the mind, even of the soul.

There’s a subtle irony in the title. The modern priest, Gregory Sargent, doubts the existence of the devil. Over the course of the book, he comes to believe that Satan is a real creature that wills evil. Who is making “the case against Satan” here––and what kind of case is it? Are we arguing that Satan is wrong, or debating his existence?

Last Night at the Viper Room, by Gavin Edwards (It Books, 2013)

Cover of Last Night at the Viper Room, by Gavin Edwards.I’ve never seen a River Phoenix movie.* After reading this book, I’m not sure I want to. Not because he sounds untalented, but because this book hints at the darker side of Hollywood that’s now coming to light.

Let me clarify. Edwards never says that Phoenix abused, or was abused, by anyone in Hollywood. A few situations detailed in the book seem…dicey, to put it charitably, but there’s plenty of disturbing content here without stooping to speculation.

River Phoenix was born into the Children of God cult, which preached and practiced child sexual abuse. River lost his virginity at age four. It was okay, he insisted later in life; “I took a vow of chastity from ten to fourteen.” The family (then the Bottoms––yes, they named their son “River Bottom”) lived as missionaries in Venezuela, where River and his siblings sometimes sang on the street to earn money. His parents were either too brainwashed, dissociated, or unaware of the abuse to leave after River’s early experiences in the cult.

The Bottoms eventually left the Children of God and moved to Hollywood. They changed their last name to “Phoenix,” symbolizing a new beginning. River wanted to change the world through music, though he took some acting jobs to make money for the family. As time passed, he decided that he could also change the world through acting.

Phoenix co-starred in Stand by Me with Jerry O’Connell, Wil Wheaton, and Corey Feldman. This section is hard reading, given Feldman’s descriptions of endemic sexual abuse that he endured as a young actor. Did his costars suffer the same fate? Was River seen as an “easy target,” given his background? Last Night… doesn’t say, but these unanswered questions cast a shadow over the entire book. Even potentially innocent comments, such as River’s (and Corey’s) agent comparing child actors to meat, look more sinister in light of the scandals now engulfing Hollywood.

By all accounts, River Phoenix was a gentle and kind person until the last six months of his life, when his addictions consumed him. I felt sorry for him, but mostly I felt angry at all the people who failed him, both through action and inaction.

 

*Since writing this, I’ve seen Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. He was a good actor. I’m still not sure I want to see any more.