In the print version, my book is below a picture of a woman with tomatoes on her head. Fortunately, there are no rotten tomatoes in the review!
THE MATHEMATICIAN’S SHIVA
By Stuart Rojstaczer
Penguin, paper, $16.
Rojstaczer’s first novel and its narrator — the atmospheric scientist Alexander Karnokovitch, known as Sasha — are also haunted by the newly dead: Sasha’s mother, Rachela, who dies of cancer at the novel’s opening. Rachela was a world-famous mathematician, and so her shiva is attended not only by family and friends but also by her fellow mathematicians, who descend upon Madison, Wis., partly to discover if Rachela has left behind the lucrative solution to the (real-life) Navier-Stokes Millennium Prize problem. This is a full — sometimes overfull — novel, but you can never really complain about a book being too alive, too curious, too alert, too true to itself. Sasha is the key: Not only does he have a fine, self-deprecating sense of humor, he’s also allowed his humanizing flaws. The first time he meets his long-lost daughter and granddaughter, for instance, his response is unsentimental and decidedly non-paternal: “My daughter’s name was Andrea. My granddaughter was Amy. Pleasant names both. Easy to pronounce.” The novel works for the same reason the humor does: It is smart, and brutally honest. Late in the narrative, as the shiva winds down and the visiting mathematicians make one last brainy sprint to discover the solution to the famous math problem, Sasha rants about how Americans treat any show of intelligence as a display of bad taste. If he’s right — and he is — then “The Mathematician’s Shiva” is in very bad taste, and all the better for it.