Cover image for The Mathematician's Shiva : a novel
The Mathematician's Shiva : a novel
Rojstaczer, Stuart.
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Publication Information:
New York, New York : Penguin Books, 2014.
Physical Description:
366 pages ; 21 cm
" A comic, bittersweet tale of family evocative of The Yiddish Policemen's Union and Everything Is Illuminated Alexander "Sasha" Karnokovitch and his family would like to mourn the passing of his mother, Rachela, with modesty and dignity. But Rachela, a famous Polish e; migre; mathematician and professor at the University of Wisconsin, is rumored to have solved the million-dollar, Navier-Stokes Millennium Prize Problem. Rumor also has it that she spitefully took the solution to her grave. To Sasha's chagrin, a ragtag group of socially challenged mathematicians arrives in Madison and crashes the shiva, vowing to do whatever it takes to find the solution-even if it means prying up the floorboards for Rachela's notes. Written by a trained geophysicist, this hilarious and multi-layered debut novel brims with colorful characters and brilliantly captures humanity's drive not just to survive, but to solve the impossible"--
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For readers of This Is Where I Leave You and Everything Is Illuminated, "a brilliant and compelling family saga full of warmth, pathos, history and humor" (Jonathan Evison, author of West of Here )

When the greatest female mathematician in history passes away, her son, Alexander "Sasha" Karnokovitch, just wants to mourn his mother in peace. But rumor has it the notoriously eccentric Polish émigré has solved one of the most difficult problems in all of mathematics, and has spitefully taken the solution to her grave. As a ragtag group of mathematicians from around the world descends upon Rachela's shiva, determined to find the proof or solve it for themselves--even if it means prying up the floorboards for notes or desperately scrutinizing the mutterings of her African Grey parrot--Sasha must come to terms with his mother's outsized influence on his life.

Spanning decades and continents, from a crowded living room in Madison, Wisconsin, to the windswept beach on the Barents Sea where a young Rachela had her first mathematical breakthrough, The Mathematician's Shiva is an unexpectedly moving and uproariously funny novel that captures humanity's drive not just to survive, but to achieve the impossible.

Author Notes

Stuart Rojstaczer was raised in Milwaukee and has degrees from the University of Wisconsin, the University of Illinois, and Stanford. For many years, he was a professor of geophysics at Duke University. He lives in Northern California.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

There are rock stars; then there are math stars. Apparently, both have their groupies, and this debut novel may win Rojstaczer a few. But fictional Rachela Karnokovitch's math groupies don't show up until she dies; then they run roughshod over her grieving but wacky family. Sure, in life, they all admired her. In death, they are mostly trolling for the solution to a confounding math problem she is rumored to have solved and kept secret. And the family, particularly son Sasha, who wants nothing more than a family-only shivah, or period of private mourning, must referee the intruding geniuses. Hilarity ensues as these Mensa poster children descend upon the family home and Rachela's office in search of said solution. Of course, what would a proper Jewish funeral be without the sudden appearance of an estranged relation? And what social graces may exist among the dysfunctional Karnokovitch brood are stretched to the limit by the ever-maddening horde. Interspersed with Rachela's recollections of growing up under Russian anti-Semitism, Rojstaczer's tale maintains a satisfying balance between humor and warmth.--Chavez, Donna Copyright 2014 Booklist

Publisher's Weekly Review

High math, Eastern European history, and American culture converge in this hugely entertaining debut from geophysicist Rojstaczer. After Rachela Karnokovitch, a Polish emigre and University of Wisconsin professor regarded as her generation's leading mathematician, dies from cancer in 2001, her middle-aged son, Alexander, a meteorologist also known as Sasha, is tasked with organizing the shiva for her. Though his family is challenging enough, Sasha's real difficulties begin when dozens of his mother's colleagues descend on Madison to pay their respects. Brilliant, awkward, lovable, and selfish, these superstar mathematicians prove to be less interested in mourning Rachela than in uncovering her secrets-particularly her rumored solution to one of math's most famous enigmas, the Navier-Stokes problem. The ostensible mourners rip up floorboards, hold seances, and even read meaning into a 40-year-old parrot's squawks, all the while discussing the charms and pitfalls of Eastern European identity and the perpetual shock of life in America. Counterbalancing their antics are flashbacks to Rachela's childhood flight from Poland during WWII. These passages, presented as excerpts from her memoir, add depth to an already multilayered story of family, genius, and loss. Agent: Henry Dunow, Dunow Carlson & Lerner. (Sept.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

Library Journal Review

Following the death of Rachela -Karnokovitch, a famous Polish émigré mathematician and professor at the University of Wisconsin, a group of ragtag mathematicians from all over the world descends on Madison in the middle of winter to crash the family's small, private shiva. They hope to discover the solution to the million-dollar Navier-Stokes Millennium Prize Problem, which Rachela was rumored to have solved and taken to her grave. This 2014 National Jewish Book Award winner for outstanding debut fiction also received a 2015 Sophie Brody Award "Honorable Mention." (LJ 9/15/15) © Copyright 2015. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected proof*** Copyright © 2014 Stuart Rojstaczer CHAPTER 1 Tonight it's Just Us "How's your mother?" Yakov Epshtein asked. Yakov's goatee was flecked with gray. Over the years his cheeks had ballooned and taken on a happy glow. His clothing choices for work had migrated from a cheap sagging suit, pressed white shirt, and thrift-store tie circa 1984 to a polo shirt and jeans with tasseled loafers sans socks. He was waiting, perhaps, for the day that global warming would bring the ocean to the Great Plains. This miracle, if it took place, would be welcome to Yakov but not necessary. Life in America had been good. I was in Yakov's office, its well-worn vinyl floor covered with the grime of twenty years of use slightly mitigated by perfunctory cleaning. It was early afternoon eleven years ago, in the winter of 2001. The wind outside barely blew. The sky was crystal blue. Looking through the double-paned glass, those inexperienced with the Midwest might be fooled into thinking it was warm outside, at least warm for January. Both Yakov and I knew better. "My mother is hanging in there," I said. "You know her. She's not going down until she's ready." "A remarkable woman." Yakov was from Russia. When a Russian mathematician mentioned my mother, this phrase "remark- able woman" would often follow. It was a phrase my father would use as well, but often in a sarcastic way. Yakov had come to the United States in 1986 and taught at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln. He was lucky to have eventually found this job. Many of my parents' acquaintances who had emigrated from Russia in the 1970s and 1980s were doing things far afield from mathematics in order to put food on the table. I, unlike Yakov, had come to the United States as a young child. My memories of the former Soviet Union were fuzzy at best. Given what I had heard about Russia from my parents and their friends, I knew that this fuzziness was not a bad thing. I was giving a talk at Nebraska's atmospheric sciences department, but when people in the math department heard I was coming, they filled up half of my appointment schedule. I was used to this. It was never about me. It was about my mother. She was the stuff of legend. She was five foot eight, a tall glass of water by European (and maybe even American) standards, who tended to tower over men, including my father, in her heels. She favored gray or burgundy suits tailored by a local dressmaker and owned well over two hundred pairs of shoes, an obsession that she said derived from her poverty during World War II. She would probably have been even taller had she not starved during the war. My mother never needed a microphone. When she spoke it was with the cadence of an oracle. She had been banned from teaching calculus at her university simply because she scared the hell out of freshmen. When my mother was ten years old, she was living in an Arctic Circle work camp where her father, a Jewish Pole/Russian (every decade or so, control of his hometown would change from one country to the other), was sentenced to hard labor for being a capitalist Enemy of the People. At school on the frozen tundra along the Barents Sea, my mother showed a remarkable facility for mathematics. In Russia, math is not just a means to an end. It's a glorious art. Suddenly, my mother's family got a little bit of meat and flour in addition to their wrinkled potatoes and onions. Another Enemy of the People, a professor of mathematics, was told to tutor my mother three times a week. Like many, he never made it back home. My mother, formerly a Pole, then a full-fledged citizen of the glorious USSR due to the Soviet annexation of her hometown after the war, was sent to Moscow for further study in 1945. These were heady times in Russian mathematics, and the most admired mathematician of all was her advisor, the great Kolmogorov. My mother began to publish papers when she was sixteen. She defected to the West in 1951, after giving a talk in East Berlin. My mother became a tenured professor at the University of Wisconsin at the age of twenty-two. At twenty-eight, she was offered a tenured professorship at Princeton, which somehow promised to ignore its rules on nepotism and hire my father as well. She turned them down. Like Kolmogorov and many of his acolytes, she believed that cold weather was required for the creative mind. New Jersey simply was too warm. Plus, according to her, Princeton was a haven for anti-Semites, and she'd already had her fill of that in Russia and Poland. She stayed in Wisconsin. In 1999, after sixty-nine years without a single major health issue, my mother was diagnosed with advanced lung cancer. Her doctor told her to expect to live three to six months. "Nonsense," she said. "I have a good year of things to do." A year and a half later, she was down to eighty-five pounds. As I walked out of Yakov's office, I got the call on my cell phone. "I'm going to die today," she said. Excerpted from The Mathematician's Shiva by Stuart Rojstaczer All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.