The Mathematician's Shiva: A Novel

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9780143126317: The Mathematician's Shiva: A Novel

WINNER OF THE 2014 NATIONAL JEWISH BOOK AWARD FOR OUTSTANDING DEBUT FICTION

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.

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About the Author:

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.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

***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.

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