Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Julienne van Loon's Beneath the Bloodwood Tree

By Tracy

I read this book over the Christmas holidays (it came out in 2008, from Allen & Unwin) and have been meaning to blog a short review of it ever since.

This extraordinary novel stands apart from so much current writing for its unsentimental representation of contemporary Australian life.

Pia Ricci, a kind of antiheroine in all her real human imperfection, has built a life for herself on returning to the mining town of Port Hedland, where she grew up before her parents’ separation. A life of sorts, running smoothly and efficiently, it appears at first, if repellently detached and self-enclosed.

What Pia unearths beneath the bloodwood tree of the book’s title is both real and symbolic, linking her (outside her conscious knowledge) to the novel’s two other main characters, the dying woman Maureen Barnes, and the Dutch nurse Joachim Kalma, in Australia on a temporary working visa.

The story alternates deftly between their viewpoints in the third person, in language that begins baldly, almost too sparsely, as if in broad, bright brushstrokes, before growing more specific and complex, yet remaining always highly readable.

Understatement is what helps build the novel’s tensions. If in some ways it might seem the book is crowded with topical “issues” (ranging from domestic violence through stalking through euthanasia to immigration, mining industry etc), each of these, whether foregrounded or left as troubling backdrop, is handled with a subtlety that means the book is not overloaded.

You won’t find an overt critique of, say, the greed that drives Australia’s primary industries, but its outline or shadow is arguably there not only in the portraits — for instance, of the repulsive Dick Barnes — but in the intimations of moral decay creeping up on all the book’s cast. It’s a compelling and very disturbing read that leaves you turning over notions of morality and ethics in the way you might after reading Camus or Highsmith. Both literary and accessible in the best senses of each term.

Monday, April 27, 2009

My first-ever vegan sponge cake

By Tracy

<--BEFORE

Rose Elliott is a vegan-recipe genius.

I've never tried making a vegan sponge cake before, and many people think it can't be done, because traditional non-vegan sponges are so egg-reliant.

But since Rose Elliot's Vegan Feasts, as I mentioned before, was so good for the vegan cream recipe, I decided to try out her formula for this too. (My first impression of her book, years ago, was that it was a bit simple and obvious -- but I had overlooked her gift for "veganizing" traditional items. A friend of ours in England used to make a really popular chocolate cake that she had adapted from a Rose Elliot book by doubling the cocoa!)

The trick is in using a small amount of soy flour mixed in with the ordinary wheat flour. The cake also contains orange juice, not enough to give it an orange flavour but enough to add colour.

I overfilled the cake (not that anyone complained) with strawberry jam and vegan cream, so it's a bit messy, but the taste and texture met with all-round approval.

<-- AFTER (& there is even less of it now...)

Saturday, April 25, 2009

ANZAC Day and Pacifism

Written by John, to express sentiments held by both John and Tracy

Stated straight out, we believe ANZAC Day is an extension of the State’s desire to keep the population militarised.

From school classrooms where it is the prime focus of nationalist propaganda through to the television screens across different stations — interdenominationally, if you like — through their trans-vector fronts such as religious organisations (which have vested interest in the militarisation of the State to protect themselves and to use as a vehicle or vector for their own imperialisms), ANZAC Day focuses aggression.

We have no problem with acknowledging the horror of war, the brutal loss of ‘civilians’ and ‘soldiers’, and lamenting of humanity’s folly in allowing war to happen in the first place.

The inculcation of State values is, of course, desired by much of the population — though if such people were aware of having been propagandised, no doubt many would still choose the path of glorification rather than lament.

When the dawn services call to memory men and women who died in war, they cast it as sacrifice for the nation, for the country. This may or may not be true in individual cases, but it certainly can’t be made as a generalisation.

My Auntie Dulce is one of the last still-living wives of a Gallipoli veteran, Harold - a soldier of the 10th Light Horse, who came to believe in peace and never war. Uncle Harold, who would never march on ANZAC Day, never trade in what one might call the ‘currency of medals’, used to say, ‘Don’t let them glorify it – it’s not glorious, it’s brutal.’ And he felt that if talking about it would help people understand it was brutal, then that was worthwhile – but not if it was intended to glorify.

So we don’t object to the conversations that come out of ANZAC Day, but we do object to the militarisation of our children at school, our ‘selves’ as part of the country.

To give a sad intensity to this lament, we are disgusted to see that the Australian Defence Minister used this day to announce in Afghanistan that ‘diggers’ had ‘killed’ a hundred Taliban. Crowing over their skill in killing, the hierarchy cast it against the background of personal and collective sacrifice for the nation. Disgusting.

Did they mention the Afghan children killed by Australian troops in ‘crossfire’ during a military activity a couple of months back? We doubt it.

ANZAC Day is not about the people killed by ‘our’ soldiers, but about affirmations of the State as a military entity. Military entities require selective memories as much as they require poetry and art to feed their myths of glory. Every poem we write should be an anti-war poem. Every poem should be an affirmation of non-violence. Violence begets violence — and you don’t need to be part of a religious hierarchy to make this call. Pity religions didn’t abide by this observation.

ANZAC gatherings without uniforms, without weapons, without the military at all, would be an alternative — if people must gather for such things. By all means, lament the loss of humans, the death, the maiming, the damage to the environment, animals, plants. Lament the damage to the spirit of all. Not a gun in sight. Never. Read Wilfred Owen, read Leon Gellert or any of the many women poets of the First and Second World Wars (for example) who wrote against war and if not combatants experienced the horror in equivalent (or greater) measure. Poetry as activism.

Friday, April 24, 2009

More on a Poetics of Gradients

by John

I find this blog space useful (at the moment) for ‘thinking aloud’. I have been filling my journal — my hand-written journal! — with notes about writing poetry and living on a steep hillside block. The physical effort to move around the block is rewarding but exacting, even if one is reasonably fit and healthy. The string of poems arising out of this experience, this interaction (how could there not be poems? — angles are what we deal with every day...) is becoming central to the manuscript I am working on. Not all would enjoy walking ‘our’ place — some would come and look and leave before they had to negotiate the steepness, even with the many trees and rocks to assist in their movements. The landscape I am writing is in counterpoint to the landscape of Thoreau’s Walden.

So, I have already written and published a number of poems about this, but I have also been keeping an ear and eye open for poems about climbing hills. For hill, valley, and high places, early (in particular) R. S. Thomas is superb. I am deeply attracted to his negative affirmations, his ‘grim’ negotiations with loss, and his beyond-irony observations of the imposition and liberations of patterning, mapping, demarcations (of nation, myth, labour, failures of belief and refusals to conform to imposed ‘belief’):

There’s a man still farming at Ty’n-y-Fawnog,
Contributing grimly to the accepted pattern.
The embryo music dead in his throat.

(R. S. Thomas, ‘The Welsh Hill Country’)

The Reverend Thomas’s centralising of the human within ‘creation’ is always displaced (certainly in the earlier verse) by a discomfort with the relationship between human, nature, and creator, and often a questioning of what divisions exist between these. The hills themselves are an interesting case in point, almost existing outside the triangle, operating at a tangent (and gradients) to the will of things.

This morning I came across another poem that seemed apt in many ways. It’s from a book I just received for review from the Sydney Morning HeraldThe Other Way Out: New Poems by Bronwyn Lea (Giramondo, 2008). The poem entitled ‘Red Hill’ combines a clarity of affirmation offset by a haunting sense of threat that comes no matter the familiarity of climbing the same hill over a long period of time. It’s a poem that has the language of gradient (though it doesn’t specifically use that more mathematical descriptor/definition), poised to a point of absolute concision:

— the acute
angle of the world
to my cheek
rising as if to slap or kiss me
even to lie
down I am near
vertical & filled with steep
inclination —

(Bronwyn Lea)

The physicality of both body and spirit and the intellectual processing of the co-ordinates are deftly handled.

The hill we live on would not ‘slap or kiss me’ — it is too stony and too ‘defiant’ to register me/us in that way. Strangely, I know no matter how long I walk its slopes, it will resist me, but do so with indifference.

Gradient poems will always deploy words like ‘steep’, ‘incline’, and terms related to angles (‘acute’, ‘obtuse’, ‘right’...), but the point is how these terms relate to the emotional, social, political, and ethical space of the poem. The specificity matters and brings different impressions. An acute angle makes for a very different tension to an obtuse angle: not only in the different description of place, but also, obviously, in the effect the angle has on how the reader ‘feels’ the description. You can climb a steep angle but you have to scale a right angle, so to speak. I am interested in the inside of an angle as much as in the outside. The radian of an angle is part of the world I am examining: part of the sphere, part of the 360 degrees of a conceptual (and a literal) ‘planet’ I am trying to create around the specific place, around Jam Tree Gully, around this de-mapped ‘Walden’ (or not Walden).

What I am getting at, under the weirdness and irrelevancies, is that when we paint poetic portraits of place, we in fact create a very real mathematics of that space. In so many fantasy novels, writers include maps — and indeed it was the maps that originally attracted me so strongly to Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings when I was at high school (I went on to read the book twenty-six times and to write my final Year Eleven school paper in literature for my teacher Bill Green about it) — as a validation of the ‘fantasy’ (and/or speculative fiction) writer’s imagined world, of its ‘real spatiality’, as if the map makes concrete the projected imagined.

But I want to do the opposite — in my maths I want to de-map, to undo the recording of topographical features and the routes between them by allowing those features and routes to appear as they ‘naturally’ do on any given occasion: to alter and morph with erosion, changing movements of animals, new growth and death of old trees, and so on.

I have mentioned my problem with people disturbing the bush by using GPSs to go off-track, to make new routes between points. I am not advocating the arbitrary making of paths through spaces, but rather the following of paths as they grow and change. A lot of what I walk along are kangaroo paths. No map can be ‘real’ outside the moment of its making. It needs constant adjustment. Google Earth is an imperialism of mapping, not a liberation from its strictures, in the same way as GPS denies what’s there to follow points given without subjectivity via a satellite. How the satellite looks is relevant: whether it’s speaking electronically to a GPS or we’re examining pictures taken. The use of angles, the use of circles, the use of poems written out of the line (out of Eudumus), out of rays, is an alternative to merely creating a ‘map’. It is active and changing. Adjustments can be made.

Maybe pertinently, a couple of days ago we took young Tim to the Maritime Museum at Fremantle. Actually, we took him to see the Bon Scott statue, but after that had some spare time so thought we’d take him to see the harbour. One of the exhibitions was based on French exploration of Australia, and the display of early maps was fascinating. Curatorial paraphernalia confirming the drives of ‘exploration’ rang loud, and the stuffed animals spoke their own refutations, but the early maps of the southern land with their mix of hypothesis, guesswork, and solid charting, affirmed for me that the Idea (Platonic Forms, in some ways) of place is more accurate than the material. The maps, the more confirmed they are, become imitations of the land itself, and through imitation become separated from cause and effect. In other words, the map, though made through the senses, actually desensitises response to place.

Over the last week the locality around Jam Tree Gully has been assaulted by scramble and quad bikes hacking up the reserve firebreaks and along the boundaries of where we live. In swathes of ecological destructiveness, these violent pleasurists (along with the shooters around the place), use intimidation and aggression to impose their sense of control and mapping on animals, plants and humans of the place. I am told that many of them are city blokes come up during holidays to stay with other motorbike enthusiasts, getting overexcited at the ‘space’ and consequently ‘cutting sick’. I understand their compulsions, and would be a hypocrite if I didn’t acknowledge that as a kid around the farm I did similarly, but by the time I was in my mid teens I’d come to the conclusion that the destruction and violence of the activity cancelled the thrill and the pleasure.

Okay, that’s my learning curve and why should it be anyone else’s? Because there’s a growing awareness that such destructions have consequences far outside their locality and that it affects the riders as much as anything and anyone else...?

Is there an activist position to be had here? What do I do? Confronting them and declaring the wrongs of it likely means being targeted — I am told this has been happening lately. You’re selected (I use the word specifically) for special treatment. Okay, so I will try and dialogue with them. Will the riders listen? Who knows. But that’s the first activist step: dialogue.

Second and concurrent step: I will write poems, and maybe even read one to them. Seriously... sometimes it works. Poetry can really matter. Many bike riders of whatever modus operandi are operating as ‘outsiders’. I’ve known a few patch-wearing bikies in my time with whom I’ve had some excellent conversations about music and lyrics. In a territorial organisation, aesthetics and decodings are vital. I will certainly read poems to others around the place who are concerned about this damage (soil diseases/pathogens are also easily and readily spread via motorbike wheels). The terror and trauma being inflicted on the kangaroos and birds in the reserve, along with every other living thing, must be extreme, and needs to be countered. From the ‘official’ point of view, the riding of two-strokes through long grass is a fire risk, and this is another concern to all who live there.

But I mention this for another reason. One of the things that attracts riders to this place is the topography: the firebreaks cut through rocky ground, through treed slopes that become incredibly steep in places. It’s a rough and no doubt exhilarating ride. The riders charge down one valley wall and loop up another. The roar of their bikes shatters the valley air with a ringing that is beyond any ‘for whom the bell tolls’. The riders communicate with revs from one point to another. Triangles bend in 3D space. The rush down to the base of the valley (which is not broad) and the massive impetus downwards, then pulling up and slowing before impelling the machines with more revs to charge up the other side, is like a random and cut-loose amusement park ride. The down-up-down thrill. The bike does the work, but the rider’s excitement and consequent bodily activity work in parallel, or in unison.

In the act of thrill, the riders’ is a poetics of gradients as well. Not about conservation (as I hope mine is), but about concentration, focus, and separation from real-time, from the apparent limitations of ordinary movement (without the aid of a motorbike or other machinery). A kind of simulacrum of natural movement (the riding of a motorbike more in contact with the elements than the driving of a car) that multiples the adrenaline outcomes with less of the physical exhaustion.

The experience is repeated over and over until it sends those experiencing its side-effects around the twist (sorry, but it does). A machine poetics of gradients. If a bike travels up a hill at x speed and the hill has a gradient of...? It’s their outlaw poetry, but what I want to tell them is that it’s actually conservative and predictable: the outlaw act is, rather, to try to protect the ecology and to resist the urge of adrenaline, endorphins, and ‘pleasurism’ and ‘leisurism’, no matter how dark its origins, no matter how angry its rationalisations, or, conversely, how much ‘fun’ it might be.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

You never know who's reading poetry...

By Tracy

The UK’s Guardian has a long interview this weekend with the actor Viggo Mortensen, probably best-known as Aragorn in Lord of the Rings. The article only caught my eye because the caption mentioned poetry.

So I browsed through to see what Viggo recommends (he also writes his own), and the interviewer tells us:

“He’s suddenly concerned that I don’t have reading material, so he dashes up to his hotel room to get me a book of poems, El Dorado, by Dorothy Porter. ‘I think you will like this. She’s a woman poet from Australia.’”

(May her poems continue to be read and shared...)

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Lightning Place -- Jam Tree Gully (and assorted photographs)

By John

Took a series of high-resolution photographs of some of wildlife on the block. See smaller versions of photos below. The kangaroos are in the reserve beyond our place, and despite the fence, have free access to our place, as does all the wildlife.

The movement of birds, insects, and reptiles, across their territories is unhindered by fences in the area, and it’s our desire for this to be the case with mammals as well.

So, below we have a thornbill looking out from its roosting-place after feeding and territorial movements with other thornbills and also other species of feeding birds around the block.


















There are photos of a golden whistler,

















mistletoe birds,

grey shrike-thrush, magpies, an eagle,






















and white-chinned honey-eaters gathered around a hairline fracture on the twenty-thousand-gallon rainwater tank, gripping the oxidation and lime extrusion to drink, in the hot, dry atmosphere of the place.























Also, an orb weaver spider, bull ants and Papilionidae butterfly.















Yesterday was a stormy day throughout the district. When we arrived back at Jam Tree Gully, Tracy flicked the power on (we keep it off whenever possible and by October, as we’ve noted before, plan to be entirely without electricity other than some solar cells to use only when absolutely necessary), and found that no water was coming out of the taps.

This meant the pump had gone — we are not on mains water supply but rather have a massive concrete rainwater tank plus two air-pumped bores as back-up. I went out to check the pump, and found the housing around the power outlet that drives the electric pump entirely shattered.

A storm was in progress so I couldn’t look closely but we discovered today via Mum and J. (who went out for a visit) that it had been lightning-struck — with a six-inch-long and one-inch-deep scar in the concrete wall of the tank, the electrics burnt out, and concrete shrapnel everywhere.

The lightning strike had followed one of the oxidised hairline cracks through the thick concrete (reinforced with steel mesh inside) — a thin line of moisture that completed the circuit so to speak, allowed the arc across the gap, to discharge.

I’d been working out in the storm, and given I’ve been struck by lightning in the past, and been in planes and houses struck by lightning on more than a few occasions, as J. said, another chapter has been added to my memoir of ‘lightning and me: a relationship’!

A few weeks ago, I wrote a poem about being on the top of the hill (which is really the north-easternmost edge of the Darling Range, looking out into the wheatbelt), and watching a storm brewing, so powerful that it looked like a storm within a storm. That poem will appear in a special issue of TriQuarterly edited by Ed Hirsch and due out next year, I think. It is certainly a poem that is central to my gradually-taking-shape Jam Tree Gully/Walden manuscript of poems.

Speaking of which, on the WW Norton Poems Out Loud website, a related piece of mine entitled ‘Visitors’ has just appeared. It looks at the relationship between what I am doing and Thoreau’s Walden, and includes another poem from the manuscript.

No doubt I will have more to say down the track on the lightning incident. It will obsess me. One thing that has come out of it, or, rather, something Tracy and I had been thinking of doing anyway, that is now confirmed, is to place another water-tank further up the hill on the block so as to entirely gravity-feed the house. When we are off-grid, a water pump won’t work anyway (though we will retain it with a solar cell for back-up); anything that relies on gravity is altogether more reliable and more sensible. The hill is very steep, and the storm forces that gather overhead concentrate on this high-point of stone and trees, so why not make use of it?

A perfectly good novel -- and yet...

By Tracy

I’ve been reading my third Lionel Shriver novel: A Perfectly Good Family. It’s an older one than We Need To Talk About Kevin or The Post-Birthday World, which was one of my Christmas presents, but has been republished after them, at least here in Australia. (Shriver had brought out a number of novels before she came to major prominence with Kevin.)

A Perfectly Good Family is highly readable and very compelling – it’s lured me temporarily away from my PhD reading – but then it is school holidays...

It’s the story of three adult siblings, white Southerners in the USA, who haven’t lived together for years, who come together again after their parents’ death because the family home has been willed to them all (plus one – see below!*).

The two wildly different brothers don’t get on at all – and the narrator Corlis, the “middle child”, who has spent her life negotiating between the two of them, must choose which way to cast what is more or less a deciding vote in the house’s fate.

(That house is a Reconstruction mansion in the US South... which must make it symbolic in more than the familial sense, for the characters – in the wider cultural and political sense, it’s not just any old mansion, but a piece of “historical” metonymy.)

The novel’s technically well-handled – apart from one scene that I think was overplayed, dragged out, when Corlis and others clear out the freezer in which her mother had stored years’ worth of leftovers. Every inch of the metaphor is examined, and there’s no reason it shouldn’t be effective, except that I think it goes on too long.

The novel’s title is an echo of the late mother’s catchphrase about this or that food item being still “perfectly good”, in a kind of eternal unwillingness to face transience, corruption, deterioration. (I think here of Hodge & Mishra's description of white Australian culture as wilfully "hebephrenic" -- she'll be right, mate -- and their call for "paranoid" readings of the literature, that go to the truths of colonial violence -- in their book, The Dark Side of the Dream.)

Shriver is very good, too, on the agonies of mother-love, or mother-ambivalence, especially in a scene where Corlis goes through her late mother’s dressing table, pots and scents and jewellery, only to counter her own emotionalism straight after, with a cruel and bathetic act that undoes the moment.

On the whole, the story’s excruciating in the best Lionel Shriver manner – you wince as you recognise all-too accurate behaviour and evasions – Shriver seems to leave no stone unturned. It’s the sort of harshness I associate with Mary McCarthy in The Group, except that there’s some compassion here, and a recognition of the utterly mixed nature of human personality. Shriver’s not standing back to say “you people”, but “we people”.

She also shows us the ambiguities and imperfect mixtures in purportedly held political views (Kevin was like this too), so that ultimately, while you’ll find a lot of reference to the world outside the individual (bourgeois) family, it’s mostly as a means of constructing their psyches for the reader; there’s no absolute political stance, only a lively “dialogism” and a clear depiction of the way that contradictory attitudes can exist within individuals and indeed families.

When this is used for humour and irony, it sometimes treads a fine line between satire of unintentional racism and participation in it. Two of the siblings, not wanting their house to sell, wish to be rude to prospective buyers – but the first to turn up are a well-off African-American couple. Since the siblings were brought up by a father who spent his life fighting for civil rights causes and on behalf of African Americans, Corlis and her brother squirm now in a predictable white middle-class self-scrutinising fashion.

This is meant as satire on shallow white guilt, but it only gets there by deploying still another stereotype, one that’s meant to overturn the “poor black” stereotype, yet is just as glib in its way. It doesn’t satisfy as a piece of satire, and it got me thinking about why humour that treads this line often wobbles. (I have problems watching, say, Ricky Gervais, that I don’t quite have if I watch Chris Lilley, and maybe asking myself why that is would be material for another blog entry...). This is the juncture at which I have to state that as a privileged white in a racist, colonial country, I read Shriver from the demographic position that makes my own critique of her, as John points out, equally compromised.

To be fair, I haven’t got right to the end yet, so it will be crucially interesting to see what Shriver does at last with these issues. (*One of the plot engines, pressuring the sale of the house, is that a fourth share in the parents’ will was left to the ACLU; this is resented by the three siblings each in his or her own way, and yet it seems to me to be part of the book’s point – again ambivalently presented – the unaddressed social and political dimension of the family story, the fourth who is there alongside the three...)

But any book that drives you to write about it before you’ve finished (as if you just can’t let it end) must have some narrative and psychological power.

Friday, April 10, 2009

"Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus"

By Tracy

After the cruel folly of the Pope's and Cardinal Pell's statements on condoms -- statements which lead to suffering and death -- we now hear Dr Phillip Jensen (Sydney Anglican Dean) partly backing up Pell, with the following qualification, according to the Sydney Morning Herald:

"In terms of adultery, in terms of divorce, in terms of grandchildren, yes we are in big trouble as a society because of the sexual revolution," he said.

"It came out of Virginia Woolf and that crowd (in England in the early 20th century).

"It's a century-long movement that has happened.

"In my view, it's a disaster. It has ruined lives. It is ruining our society."

The mind boggles -- Virginia Woolf? (Was Jensen perhaps traumatised by her works and her "lifestyle" as a student, like Sarkozy with his Princesse de Clèves?)

There's also a strange non-sequitur in the statement: "adultery... divorce... grandchildren"??? (Perhaps he was misquoted.)

But despite all the absurdity, it's ultimately not something to joke about, since it entails the potential suffering of so many people.

John adds: with the Catholics and the Anglicans, the fruit doesn't fall far from the tree...

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Vegan pizza and other treats

By Tracy

This is what the kids had for dinner tonight: vegan pizza, topped with Redwood's melting "Cheezly" (a vegan cheese that comes in several different varieties).


There are other ways you can make vegan cheese and cheese sauces, many of which are detailed in Joanne Stepaniak's The Uncheese Cookbook, now revised as The Ultimate Uncheese Cookbook.

Nutritional yeast, which often sells in Australia under the name "savoury yeast", is one of the ways vegans make "uncheesy" sauces, fillings and toppings (such as for lasagne).

As far as pizza goes, you can of course put anything vegan on it. This one was mushroom, olive, and tempeh strips.

The other vegan undairy item pictured here is vegan cream. We had a vegan "Devonshire tea" for K's 18th birthday a few days ago, and I adapted a method from both the Wakeman & Baskerville book I've mentioned before, and Rose Elliot's Vegan Feasts. The vegan cream is made by combining, little by little, a very slightly heat-thickened cornflour, vanilla and soymilk sauce with some whipped-up Nuttelex. The texture is such that it can be scooped, piped or shaped -- and as W&B say, even floated on coffee if you thin it a little. It tastes good and doesn't have that grainy texture that tofu-creams sometimes have. (Though I like them too...)

A People's Princesse?

By Tracy

It always amazes me how novels once published take on a life of their own... and even another life, centuries later.

The Guardian recently reported on a revival of interest across France in La Princesse de Clèves (The Princess of Clèves), the famous seventeenth-century novel attributed to Mme de La Fayette.

This revival is not directly for the work's own qualities but because President Nicolas Sarkozy has repeatedly given vent to his loathing for the book, which is a story of virtuous refusal and self-denial (young woman in an arranged marriage falls in love with another man but does not wish to succumb -- to say any more will spoil the plot if you're about to rush out and buy a copy in solidarity with the French Sarkozy-resisters -- not that you'd probably be able to buy it here anyway...) It's part of a whole context of protest against Sarkozian "reforms", including in the education sector, that have been making this very unpleasant President even more unpopular.

What intrigues me as a reader (and a writer) is just how far a book can travel from its earlier meanings.