The Mathematician’s Shiva by Stuart Rojstaczer (5 out of 5)
This was a fun little book to read. I wish I had gotten to it sooner, but it’s been a tough past few weeks, so my reading has suffered somewhat. I am playing mad catch-up. This one only took a couple of hours to read. You really think when you start that it’s going to be a bummer because it starts off with the death of Rachela Karnokovitch, world renowned mathematician, and mother of Sasha, our narrator and sympathetic hero of the book. Rachela is a tough bird who goes out the way she came into this world- fighting, tough as nails, and insisting that a priest at the hospital needs to quit screwing around and take down that damnable cross above her bed before she’ll leave this world (hilarious scene, although the truly devout may have a hard time finding it funny). But the death of Rachela opens up the world into this novel, because the math world that loved, admired from afar, and yes, fought bitterly with Rachela, are coming to pay their respects. All of them. Imagine a small house that’s now empty of much of its light, overflowing with eccentric mathematicians who are there to sit shiva and pay memorial to Rachela. Now imagine Sasha, a quiet man, having to deal with the dual swords of grieving the loss of his mother and all of these oddball math geeks staying there..and boom! You know things are going to happen.
Thankfully, this book doesn’t suck. You think that with a death taking center over much of the story that there’s a chance that it will stink up the plot. The exact opposite occurs. There’s also controversy- because Rachela had promised the math world that before her death she would solve the infamously stubborn Navier- Stokes equation. Then…nothing. These mathematicians who are convening to pay their respects to Rachela are not without ulterior motives- namely, to find out if anything exists that proves she did (or didn’t) solve this equation. This, my friends, is where you find out that those who wrap their lives in numerical equations, are not without cold-blooded determination in uncovering proof of equations being solved. This is, in essence, the mother lode of all math, this equation. And yes, if you like math in any way, shape, or form, you will enjoy this book. It gave me and Dan an excuse to discuss math equations at work during the last two busy days at work. It also gave us some pause, because some of the equations discussed were unfamiliar. So yes, grasshopper, prepare to learn about some pesky equations. Prepare to laugh when you read and see the havoc wrought by those mathematicians trying to get to the bottom of the last mystery Rachela left behind. Not to mention the dialogue and interaction between the mathematicians and Sasha. And prepare to laugh.
I should say that Sasha is a great male character. You wonder how this is going to work, because it’s shown through flashbacks, not to mention the scenes leading up to Rachela’s passing, that she and Sasha have a close relationship, but are total opposites. Rachela, after her rough childhood and having to make her way and earn respect in the largely male-dominated math world, is a hurricane force to be reckoned with. Sasha, not so much. He goes along and lives his life and tries not to let it take him away into rough seas. You see, though, the more you get into the book, that he has some quiet strength, as well as his fair share of heartache, and you want so badly to see how he fares without the light of his mother no longer around. Heartbreak, yes, it’s here, but it’s greatly muted by the larger-than-life characters that inhabit this novel. And let me tell you, I couldn’t put my finger on what this book reminded me of. At 5am, it came to me. Rojstaczer’s way of writing, character interactions, and wit really reminds me a lot of one of my favorite authors, Jonathan Tropper. This book reminds me a lot of This Is Where I Leave You. And when I say that, it’s with great affection. So do yourself a favor- go out, pick up this book, read it, laugh, and pass it onto someone who will enjoy it as much. I intend to!