16 January 2017
The Mathematician's Shiva by Stuart Rojstaczer
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 émigré 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 Ph.D. 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.
If I said The Mathematician's Shiva was really funny would you believe me?
Well, it is. This book is LOADED with kooky academic math-nerd humor in among all the my-mother's-shiva-has-been-invaded-by-non-family-members-and-what-the-hell-all-is-going-on-in-this-house scenes. This is a really wonderful novel that examines how one remembers and honors a parent when that parent isn't just a private person. Sasha also discovers a lost part of his family over the course of the week. Rojstaczer also uses the setting of Madison - a college town in the midst of winter to his advantage. If you've been to UW's campus, you'll know exactly where he has put his characters.
And I learned a bit (I think) about Russian-Polish Judaism (I was raised Lutheran so the specifics were all a bit fascinating). I appreciated greatly how words or phrases in Russian/Polish/Hebrew/Yiddish(?) weren't always translated and that made the dialogue and writing seem very natural.
An excellent debut novel (also, A+ cover design Penguin, I love it).
Dear FTC: I won a copy of this book waaay back when it was published in a Goodreads First Reads contest. I read it then, but somehow never managed to get it reviewed on my blog. So I'm doing it now.