Thursday, December 13, 2007

Sons and Other Flammable Objects

Too many novels are populated by characters that the reader forgets almost as soon as the last page is turned and the book closed. Others, with any luck, offer one or two memorable ones to whom the reader is sorry to say goodbye. And then there are novels like Porochista Khakpour’s Sons and Other Flammable Objects that contribute a whole family of unforgettable personalities.

The Adam family, mother, father and son, fled Iran for France when life became unbearable for them there but ultimately started new lives for themselves in Los Angeles. Xerxes, son of Laleh (who soon Americanized her name to Lala) and Darius Adam was so young when the family left Iran that he has only vague snatches of visual memories of his life there. He really came to consciousness only after arriving in California and, for the most part, he is a product of American culture. But still he senses that he is different and that that difference is the product of life inside the apartment of his parents who are, and always will be, Iranians at heart.

His parents are certainly a contrast of styles and messages. Lala is a naively good-hearted woman who is ready to embrace most things about American culture but her husband Darius expects her to stay inside her Los Angeles apartment and to live, as closely as possible, the same lifestyle that she left behind in Iran. Darius is a suspicious man by nature and his suspiciousness is compounded by the bitterness that he feels for having been forced to leave everything that he could not carry in a few suitcases behind when he fled Iran. He expects to rule his family with an iron fist and, as his wife and son become more and more independent of him, he resents the impossibility of making that happen. He is not a happy man.

The clash of two such very different cultures had a devastating impact on the Adam family. As Xerxes approached maturity, father and son hardly spoke to each other, and when they did, it was never pleasant for either of them. Darius and Lala grew farther and farther apart as she demanded more and more personal freedom from him. That was bad enough, but then came the events of 9-11 and all three of the Adams suddenly felt as much pressure outside the home as they did from within it.

Sons and Other Flammable Objects is a revealing portrayal of the struggle that immigrant families sometimes face when first-generation Americans grow up with a value set that differs greatly from the one held by their immigrant parents. Porochista Khakpour has written a remarkable first novel that still has me thinking about Darius, Lala and Xerxes and hoping that they are doing well. I won’t soon forget them.

For another viewpoint on both the book and its author see this post that I made back in October about the supposed feud between Carolyn See and Porochista Khakpour. Khakpour took great offense to the very personal review that See wrote of this first novel and responded on her on blog to the points made by See. Thus, the feud was born. I have to say that, after now having read the novel in question, I have to side with Khakpour and say that See’s criticisms are largely unfounded. It’s almost like she read a different book than the one I read.

Rated at: 4.0


  1. I've never heard of this novel but it sounds interesting. I'd especially like to see how the author explains (if he does) why his characters have such names. I've studied the historical figures, but I didn't know Darius and Xerxes were still common Iranian names.

  2. Oh man, J.S., where you been!;)
    This novel is on my best of the year list. I had heard about it over and over in the New Yorker and the NY Times and Radar etc etc etc and so I was about to be inclined to not believe all that hype. So glad I did! The book is incredibly powerful. And yes, she does get into the names in a big way! Part of the fun of this novel is how she mixes in history with popculture and political clashes with personal turmoil.

  3. J.S., I see that Kaela has mentioned that the various names are key parts of the story...that's true, and they are well-explained, including the family's surname.

    If not for the "author feud" I would probably have missed this one, too, so Carolyn See did her a favor by jumping on the book with both dirty feet.

  4. Kaela, I agree that the strongest argument for reading this book is the way that relatively current historical events are used as the backdrop for everyday life. It was interesting to "relive" some of that history through the eyes of those seeing it from a completely different perspective than mine.


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