2016 TBR Pile Challenge: The Mathematician’s Shiva

So I tried and failed to read John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. In order to not completely derail my TBR Pile Challenge, I needed a quick win.

I’m not sure what made me pick The Mathematician’s Shiva by Stuart Rojstaczer over a known entity like Erik Larson’s Thunderstruck (because Larson has yet to disappoint) but I guess I was feeling reckless.

Anyway, my daring paid off. The Mathematician’s Shiva was a delight.


When Sasha’s mother, the greatest female mathematician, dies he wants to be able to mourn her in peace. But since there are rumours that she secretly solved one of the greatest math problems of all time, her colleagues from all over the US come to try and find evidence of the solution. Soon Sasha finds himself sitting shiva, a week-long period of mourning in Judaism, with his dad, uncle, cousin, sort of foster sister and a select group of the hundreds of mathematicians who have come to Wisconsin to pay tribute.

This book was clever and unusual and charming and funny and touching. In a sense, it tells two stories: the story of the shiva and all the antics that Sasha must endure from his family and the mathematicians and his story of having come to America from Russia. His mother, Rachela, was shipped to a work camp in Siberia when she was a young girl and this is where she first discovered her gift of mathematics. Russia ends up fostering her intelligence and eventually she is able to defect to America during the Cold War. As the tale is told, we start to discover where each other characters fits into the story of Rachela’s life.

I really appreciated the focus on intelligence in this novel. All of the characters are smart – they are not necessarily so gifted at interacting with other humans and they dress funny and have a hard time taking care of themselves but they are all geniuses. And even though Rachela is dead, she continues to have massive influence over the rest of the characters. They are all there because she was the best of them, the most gifted, the cleverest and they want to celebrate that.

It wasn’t something that was just casually mentioned either. Sasha waxes poetic about the virtues of intelligence and how it isn’t celebrated enough.

And the fact that the best of them all was a woman – I loved that too.

Oh yes, this was a sweet, clever, lovely little book and I’m glad to finally have read it for myself. Fans of The Humans by Matt Haig,  Jonathan Tropper’s This Is Where I Leave You and Jonas Jonasson’s The 100 Year Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared are sure to enjoy this one too.

17 thoughts on “2016 TBR Pile Challenge: The Mathematician’s Shiva

  1. Pingback: The Unofficial 2016 TBR Pile Challenge | The Paperback Princess

  2. There isn’t enough good fiction out there with math in it, in my opinion! So I’m happy you found this one and told me about it. My Dad is a math guy, and my mom and I are always on the lookout for books like this. So fun!

    • You’re totally right about that. It’s only the second time I’ve ever come across it that I can recall. Has your dad read The Humans? Because that totally has math in it too – and aliens and stuff.
      It was good – I think you might get a kick out of it too.

      PS did you see Canada Reads yet today?! I’m shocked.

      • Yes, I saw it! I don’t know if you are referring to the very beginning of the show, or the book that was voted off (because that was a tough one for me to see go).
        I will have to tell him about The Humans. It’s been on my own list for a while, but I didn’t know there was math in it!

      • I kind of felt bad for Bruce (because I don’t think he meant to be hurtful, and because I’m a big softie), and wondered why no one had called Adam on his comments from the day before.

  3. I’m glad you chose to read and review this book! I’d forgotten about it, and it’s one that I really want to read. Even more so now that I’ve read your review. So thanks! 🙂

  4. I’m so glad you liked it. I’ve been wanting to read it, but my library doesn’t have it. The description just rang so many bells for me.

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