The Mathematicians Shiva a novel

by Stuart Rojstaczer

Book, 2014



Call number




New York, NY Penguin Books, 2014


" 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"--… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member bowedbookshelf
"…smart people do stupid things far more often than most people realize."

This beautifully conceived novel revolves around the death of a world-class mathematician and the resolution of a proof about turbulence, or the chaotic movement of air and water in the atmosphere during a hurricane.
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"Actually, it is more than this. The big D in the Navier-Stokes equation is called the material derivative, and it refers to watching velocities of fluids change not from a fixed reference frame but from one in which you are riding with the storm. When I think of Navier-Stokes, sometimes I imagine myself as a Lilliputian in a tiny canoe that has been lifted up and tossed high in a fun-house mirror. I watch as the fluids careen against and flow around me." Wouldn’t it be great if the turbulence in our lives could be described and defined and nailed down with scientific precision? We could coolly assess a situation and recognize just when things are going to fly out of control, in which direction, and with what force. "Tornados are a good metaphor for how bad things happen in our lives. They build from small disturbances that usually don’t mean a thing and almost always dissipate. But somehow one particular random bad event attracts others, and all of them together grow and attract more nasty stuff. Once it gets to a critical size, the odds of it growing even larger are no longer remote."

Rachela Karnokovitch was the stuff of legend--a brilliant mathematician immigrant to the United States. Born in Poland and raised in Siberia, she escaped to the United States in advance of her husband and her child and was welcomed with open arms into the IV League academic community. However, she preferred the chill of Wisconsin rather than the warm Princeton climate. She hated and derided any modifier to her genius, e.g., female mathematician, though the rarity of that made her even more precious, at least in the eyes of her husband and son.

Could there be a more unique premise for a novel than the funeral of a genius mathematician rumored to have held off dying in order to solve a major problem? This funeral gathers to itself a constellation of weird but bright individuals all circulating about that star of genius to see if the here-to-fore unannounced solution to the problem is anywhere apparent in Rachela’s papers. They sit shiva in her house for seven days. They search the office, walls, and floorboards of her house. They eat the food offered by neighbors, and drink continually. They generally make themselves a nuisance, though not without mathematician jokes, academician jokes, and a gradual but reluctant acceptance of reality.

In searching for the solution to the math problem, her son comes across Rachela’s diary. Rachela’s remembrances interspersed with shiva-sitting prompt her son to consider the big social questions that face us as humans: "Our capacity for love isn’t like a gallon jug that you fill up from a rest stop as you take a drive across the country. It can swell, and sadly, it can shrink. Less is not more. Less is less, and more is better, although I can’t say that I fully understood that at the time of my mother’s death. I’m a whiz at science and math. In matters of people, I am indeed a slow learner."

This is a first novel, though it does not read like one. It is a profound meditation on life’s large questions, on math, on academia, on love and marriage. It is told with humor, pathos, honesty, and the understanding that long experience and large intellect can bring. The writing is mature, assured, and graceful, and the author instinctively seems to understand the requirements of fiction. We readers can follow anywhere, even to a funeral, as long as it has passages like the mathematician Rachela as a child in Siberia encountering a bear as she scoured the woods for lily bulbs to supplement her inadequate diet.

I was offered a copy of this book by Penguin Random House in exchange for an honest review.

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LibraryThing member muddyboy
The focal point of this novel is the death and funeral of a Jewish woman mathematician (Russian immigrant) who became one of the leaders in her field. The book is told through the eyes of her son. The central theme is that she discovered the solutions to some mathematical problems that have
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mystified her peers who have swooped into town both to pay her homage but also to search for her secrets. A sub theme is that because she is a woman she was cheated out of awards and credit for her work. Nicely written and thought provoking.
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LibraryThing member Richj
A well written novel about the funeral rites of a world-famous female mathematician who escaped the gulag to almost (or more) solving mathematics hardest problem. Mathematicians from all over gather for the seven day shiva (or for their own interests) as do her family, expected or not. Narrated by
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her son who knows what mathematicians and his Polish family are like. There are a lot of sides to this novel. The humor is always broadly or subtly there as is the caring, the personal struggles, the interest of mathematics (the best hidden theme) and world history. Broadly accessible. The more math you know, the more you will enjoy this. A great first novel, hope there are more.
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LibraryThing member Cherylk
This is not my typical style of reading but every once in a while I do like to branch out and try no books and I love checking out new authors.

So glad that I did take a chance on this book. It is a gem. Like finding a friend. Instantly I formed a bond with Sasha, his mother, and the other
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mathematicians. Each of the mathematicians were different in their own way but this uniqueness brought dimension to the story as a whole. As the story progressed I felt like a close member of the circle of friends with Sasha and his mother. As more details emerged about her, I was more and more impressed. The author brought life to the characters, Also I was impressed that with the author's background of being a professor of geophysics that he was able to bring the story into an understandable level for me the reader without using big words or trying to show his intelligence. A great showing for Mr. Rojstaczer's debut novel.
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LibraryThing member Amusedbythis
The Mathematician's Shiva is an original, heart-warming read of a brilliant immigrant family. Rachela Karnokovitch survives the Holocaust and then the Soviet Union by being a child prodigy in mathematics. She defects to the United States and is later joined by her husband and son, the primary
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narrator of this novel. The novel is the family's story as well as how Rachela cheats those who have cheated her of recognition. Primarily set on her deathbed and during the seven days of shiva following her death, it is full of a cast of mathematician characters that the reader can imagine are real. There are intricate descriptions of mathematics, cross-country skiing, Russia and Poland that enrich this loving tribute of a son to his larger than life mother. This is a wonderful book.
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LibraryThing member julie10reads
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 emigre; mathematician and professor at the University of Wisconsin, is rumored to have solved the million-dollar, Navier-Stokes Millennium
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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. Summary BPL

Quite funny. Witty yet wise family conversations; dysfunctional relationships; Jewish food; ill-mannered mathematicians; THE MATHEMATICIAN'S SHIVA is a play waiting to be staged! A large cast of truly memorable characters each with distinct insights on love, life and, of course, mathematics!

The shiva hijinks are punctuated by excerpts from a fictitious memoir entitled A LIFETIME IN MATHEMATICS by Rachela Karnokovitch--my favourite parts of the story. Her memories of living in exile with her father during WWII are literally and figuratively chilling.

8 out of 10 Highly recommended!
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LibraryThing member Brainannex
A love letter to a mother, a colleague, a wife, a friend. Peopled with such a vivid cast of bizarre characters that you can't help but love them. Yet, still a funny book which is a difficult thing to pull off.
LibraryThing member pw0327
I picked up this book at Carmichael Books in Louisville. The title caught my attention. As a mathematician wannabe, things that has mathematician in the title grabs my attention.

I must say that I was not disappointed by this impulse purchase, even though I thought the plot and story was a little
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thin, I thoroughly enjoyed the characters and the quite accurate descriptions of the neurosis and naïveté of the very intelligent.

The premise is that the narrator is the son of a genius woman mathematician who had passed away. Her genius and reputation was such that many of her colleagues and rivals came to observe shiva for her in the hopes of discovering an important mathematical proof. While the premise seem quite thin, the author was quite nimble and adroit in describing the quirks and foibles of the mathematicians who had congregated, the deceased mathematian's extended family, as well as a number of other very quaint characters.

The story arc is one of a son's remembrance of his life as it reflected his mother's life. While the story was not extraordinary, the book kept me spellbound and interested in its entirety. In fact, it was a stay up late to finish the story kind of book.

While the book itself does not delve into the machinery of doing mathematics, it does do an excellent job of relaying the mathematical intellectual history.

In the end, it is a nice book that uses the esoterica of mathematics to tell a story, a very rare structure for a work of fiction. An attempt that is very much appreciated by this reader.
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LibraryThing member emanate28
I'm not Jewish nor an academic, but found this novel heartwarming and entertaining. It's about family, after all. And being a non-American who lived many years there, all the jabs at American culture, especially about how one has to hide one's intelligence in this country, made me laugh and
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certainly struck a chord.

I didn't find it as deeply moving or gritty as I expected, but it was a warm, uncomplicated, sweet read.
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LibraryThing member laytonwoman3rd
I found this book at a library sale. I had never heard of it, and the description intrigued me. Some of those serendiptious finds turn out to be true gems. This one...not a diamond, but not a stone, either. A great mathematician, Rachela Czerneski Karnokovitch, is dying. A Russian defector who left
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her husband and young son behind believing (correctly) that one day they would find a way out and the family would be reunited, she is facing the end as she lived her life...stubbornly on her own terms. If she has, in fact, solved one of mathematics' most troublesome problems, as many of her colleagues believe, she has kept it to herself and shows no signs of giving it up, even on her deathbed. When she finally gives up the spirit, her son Sascha, now a middle-aged academic himself, although not following in his mother's esteemed footsteps, is faced with wrangling not only his quirky family, but the swarm of world-class mathematicians who insist on sitting shiva for Rachela. When Sascha lays down the law and says the colleagues must consult among themselves and settle on a small subset to represent the whole, they agree...on the condition that those few be allowed to search through Rachela's house and papers for that rumored solution. The result is alternately outrageous, hilarious, and heart-wrenching, in the way so many milestone events attended by people from different chapters of one's life often turn out to be. The Mathematician's Shiva suffers some first novel issues; a few too many characters to keep track of, some story elements that weren't well-developed and could have been left out, an ending that needed more attention...but it was enjoyable. One chapter, in particular, an excerpt from Rachela's "memoir" found by Sascha after her death, was quite brilliant, and could stand alone with very little polishing.
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LibraryThing member Rdra1962
Really a 3 1/2 for me. I liked this book, the writing is good, there were some brilliant passages and the subject matter is certainly unique. For me there were just to many times when it dragged and I found myself skimming. I also found the romance that developed late in the novel to be
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unbelievable, and indicative of some of the other relationships in the book - abrupt, undeveloped, and hard to believe.
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LibraryThing member mamzel
Alexander Karnokovitch's mother was a brilliant mathematician. After her death scores of mathematicians show up at her house, ostensibly to sit shiva, but actually to search her house for the results of her years of work on the Navier-Stokes problem, one of the last unsolved mysteries of
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I loved this book with Rachel's flashbacks of her life in a Siberian work camp and how she was trained to be the genius she was, and the scenes of old, less-talented men trying to decipher her papers. Sasha (Alexander) learns of family he never met and new friends.

I highly recommend this book as a low-key but keep story of love, family, and friendship. The math in this book is mostly alluded to except for a brief explanation of the Pythagoras theorem.
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