Book Review: The Mathematician's Shiva

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Thank you to Penguin for sending along a copy of The Mathematician’s Shiva. Originally, I found this offered on Netgalley and requested it there, so it was a real pleasure to be sent the hard copy of it as well. If you know anything about me at all, you know that mathematics sits at the very bottom of my list of accomplishments. Well, let’s be real here, it shouldn’t even appear on that list. At all.  So why was it that I was requesting this story? It certainly wasn’t to revisit my terror-of-math-filled school years, but more in the hopes that it would be a charming story about a son remembering his mathematician mother and the circus that surrounded the days they gathered to sit Shiva.

Rojstaczer even pointedly notes in the text about the possibility for readers’ anxiety on reading a book about mathematics: “Yes, OK, reader, I know you are probably sweating almost instantly at the sight of such a thing.”

Even though he reassured that beyond that notation above, it would be smooth sailing, there are still sweat-inducing moments inside! ;-)

Math Math 2

The Mathematician’s Shiva is a humorous and charming read. Alexander “Sasha” Karnokovitch is reflecting many years following his mother’s death and funeral and relaying the story of how in the seven days of shiva he ended up overseeing a circus of mathematicians instead of being able to mourn the loss of his mother. Rachela is no ordinary woman however. She is a gifted mathematician and the great rumour is that she has solved one of the most complex problems in all of mathematics and spitefully taken it to her grave.

When word spreads that the great Rachela has passed away, numerous mathematicians from the world over descend upon the Karnokovitch home in anticipation of rifling through her personal papers and uncovering her solution to the Navier-Stokes equation. During the day they sit Shiva and into the night they sit and solve mathematical issues. Sasha is offended by this as they have not come to mourn this great woman, his mother, but instead sees it as them only violating a deeply personal time for their own gain.

During these seven days, Sasha takes us back in time and discusses the impact his mother has had upon his life – a great and significant, almost domineering one. However, he adores his mother and is deeply pained he is unable to quietly and privately mourn her loss. We meet the whole cast of characters that has made up his family and how much these people mean to Sasha. We also get a  glimpse into the private life of Rachela, as parts of her diary are included. And at the end of the story, we find out what really happens concerning the Navier-Stokes equation and if she has truly solved it and when.

The Mathematician’s Shiva, again, was a very charming read. Sasha’s love for his mother is ever present, and the whole cast of characters has you breaking out in many smiles, at many times.  There were many moments where Sasha’s love and devotion to his mother shone through. However, there were also more than necessary mentions of the differences (and how one was better) between Eastern European (the better one) and American cultures. There were also many times when Rachela’s memoir was presented entirely in Polish with no translation available. Overall, I did quite enjoy The Mathematician’s Shiva and am interested in seeing what else Mr. Rojstaczer has in store for us.

Below is a quote from the book that, as a person working in academia, is an attitude we come across all too often:

“She’s a professor of mathematics at Amherst.” “Yeah, And I have a master’s in forestry from Yale. Big deal. You still need to treat people with respect. I don’t really care who she is and where she is from, but the names she called me, I don’t care to repeat them here.”

Right then and there I hated them both. Their level of privilege and childishness was stratospheric.”

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