Waiting, and finding a voice

Palo Alto resident mines science, comedy and his own heritage in new novel

"The Mathematician's Shiva" by Stuart Rojstaczer; Penguin Random House, New York, 2015; 384 pages; $16 paperback

Stuart Rojstaczer had always enjoyed writing fiction, but it didn't always come easily. He unabashedly described his first two novels, written at the age of 20 and later in his 40s, as "terrible" -- so much so that they made him feel justified in pursuing work in the geological sciences.

After graduate school at Stanford University, years of working at the U.S. Geological Survey and a 15-year professorship at Duke University, Rojstaczer decided in 2005 that it was time to move on from the world of academia.

"And for whatever reason, in my 50s, I wrote better than I have ever written before," Rojstaczer said during a recent interview.

A few of his polished short stories caught the attention of an acquaintance in publishing, which convinced him to take the leap and embark on his third novel. The book, which became "The Mathematician's Shiva," mixes together his Polish-Russian-Jewish roots, his exposure to advanced mathematics and a generous dollop of humor.

In spite of some of the reading population's "mathphobia" and his difficult-to-pronounce last name, Rojstaczer said, the novel has done well since its release in September 2014, selling tens of thousands of copies, being reviewed by national press and garnering awards from the Jewish Book Council and Friends of American Writers Chicago.

"The Mathematician's Shiva" is a family drama about grief, relationships and human imperfections. In the book's first few pages, the narrator Alexander Karnokovitch, also known as Sasha, gets a call from his ill mother Rachela, who tells him perfunctorily that she's going to die today. The family -- which includes Sasha's father, long separated from Rachela; his emotional uncle Shlomo; his cousin Bruce of the Los Angeles entertainment industry; and Anna, a former Russian ballerina taken in by Rachela -- begins to gather in Madison, Wisconsin, to hold a funeral and prepare for the seven-day shiva, called for by Rachela's Jewish faith.

But mourning Rachela turns out not to be that simple. The dying matriarch was in her day a respected academic who was rumored to have solved one of mathematics' most enigmatic problems. And so, upon Madison descends a swarm of mathematicians: young and old, men and women, colleagues and rivals, students and admirers of Rachela. Some are there to honor her; others are there to search her office, notes and home for clues to the solution. And to Sasha's great chagrin, a few of the ragtag bunch insist on being allowed to join the family members for the shiva.

The inspiration for the story originated when a Hungarian mathematician chastised Rojstaczer for not teaching algebra to his young daughter when the visitor sensed she had an aptitude for math. The novel weaves in scenes reminiscent of this anecdote. Some chapters are written as excerpts of Rachela's memoir, which recount her early explorations of mathematics as an intelligent young girl living under harsh conditions with her father in the Soviet Union.

Rojstaczer first intended to write about a Hungarian community, but he soon realized that he wanted to focus on the expatriate Polish-Russian community he was immersed in as a child. His parents were immigrants from Poland and Ukraine, and they and other World War II survivors spoke in a vernacular that drew from English, Polish, Russian, Hebrew and Yiddish (which was Rojstaczer's first language). Many of these languages appear in words, phrases and sentences throughout "The Mathematician's Shiva."

"Part of the reason for writing this book was to try to recreate that world, which is really lost," said Rojstaczer.

Some aspects of the novel draw upon his family's history. The mass grave that Shlomo digs himself out of as a boy in Vladimir-Volynski, Poland, was a real site where many of Rojstaczer's ancestors on his father's side, including his grandparents, were buried after they were murdered.

Early in the book, Sasha describes how Rachela would take him as a child to performances by Russian groups and would try to convince the artists to defect (this is how the ballerina Anna becomes part of the family); Rojstaczer said his mother did the same thing for years. In fact, much of Rachela's strong female presence finds its roots in the distinct personality of the author's mother.

"My mother was a very intimidating woman," he said. "She ran construction crews in Milwaukee, swore like a sailor and scared people -- and then at the end of the day would put on her lipstick and dress and be a lady."

However, Rojstaczer asserted that the book isn't autobiographical, instead combining bits and pieces of his own life with stories he has heard and read.

He was initially concerned about how the mathematical community would receive the book, knowing that there were gaps in his presentation of the mathematics involved. However, since those holes were created deliberately to keep the material comprehensible, Rojstaczer sensed that those studied readers would be forgiving. Since the book's publication, he said, he has received a number of warm responses from mathematicians and the children of mathematicians.

In addition, Polish and Russian communities in the U.S. have resonated with the book. A Russian mathematician from San Francisco State University, Alexander Dukhovny, has even translated the first chapter into Russian, and the translation has been picked up by a Russian group in Palo Alto to be sent out in its newsletter.

"I've been over the moon about the fact that ... the Slavic community views these characters and their situations as authentic," Rojstaczer said.

Such responses have confirmed for Rojstaczer that taking a more personal approach to writing has produced superior results. In his previous novelistic attempts, he remarked, he had been "trying to write like an American," which resulted in too much "prettiness" and the shunning of emotions that make him who he is.

This time, he intentionally kept linguistic flourishes to a minimum, opting for a plainspoken voice that leaned more on comedy to create a compelling world. That humorous streak was ingrained in him by his parents and family members, who often coped with the terrors of their past by making jokes.

"The Mathematician's Shiva" itself is peppered with comical moments: A priest is asked to remove a cross from above a hospital bed, a mathematician skies in his underpants, and Sasha has his depressed uncle pose as a graduate student so he can help take measurements of a hurricane by helicopter.

"I'm always looking for the joke," Rojstaczer said. "It's a reflex with me."

Not one to rest in his accomplishments, the College Terrace resident is already working on his next novel, provisionally titled, "Among the Righteous." The new book centers on a community of Polish Catholics in Israel who helped save Jews during the Holocaust. Working out of a bare-bones office, Rojstaczer said he tries to eke out "800 decent words" a day. When he's lucky, he gets into "the flow," a euphoric feeling that can be very difficult to describe, he said.

"You're just in this other world, and you're tapping something that's special," he said. "Usually that doesn't happen, but when it does, it's fun."

Editorial Assistant Sam Sciolla can be emailed at ssciolla@paweekly.com.

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