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September 26, 2014

Book Notes - Stuart Rojstaczer "The Mathematician's Shiva"

The Mathematician's Shiva

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Stuart Rojstaczer's novel The Mathematician's Shiva is a smart, funny, and charming debut.

Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:

"High math, Eastern European history, and American culture converge in this hugely entertaining debut from geophysicist Rojstaczer….[A] multilayered story of family, genius, and loss."

Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.


In his own words, here is Stuart Rojstaczer's Book Notes music playlist for his novel The Mathematician's Shiva:


Lobachevsky, Tom Lehrer
I heard this for the first time when I was twelve on a 10" LP from the 1950s. I thought at the time that it was ancient, an archaeological relic. I listened to those clever lyrics sung in Lehrer's nasal, cantoral drone, and was mesmerized. The idea behind Tom Lehrer's songs is to be both smart and funny and to never hide your intellect. He's an inspiration to me and this tune about a fictional Russian mathematician was certainly influential in writing my novel in more ways than I can count.

Katyusha, Theodore Bikel
My favorite song when I was about three years old. It's a lover's tale. Katyusha, a girl's name, was also the nickname of rocket launchers used by the Soviet Union during WWII (the kind that Sasha's grandfather, Aaron Czerneski, helped to manufacture in the novel after Stalin "liberated" all Poles in the Soviet Union). I think I still have the scratched LP from my childhood. It's a joyous tune. I like being joyous. I was so happy listening to this song once that I jumped onto the marble coffee table in our living room and started to dance. The coffee table promptly snapped in two. I was mortified. My mom, though, didn't seem to mind. "It's just a table," she said.

Stracić Kogoś (Losing Someone), Czerwone Gitary
A hit song in the 1960s by a band that was the equivalent to The Beatles in Poland. It's about the loss of a mother and is featured in my novel (Governor Dombrowski loves this song). To an American, it might sound like a dirge with a depressing lyric, but to me (and more than likely to Poles) it's hopeful.

Octopus's Garden, The Beatles
And speaking of The Beatles, John Lennon one said, for theatrical effect more than likely, "Before Elvis, there was nothing." For me nowadays the opposite is mostly true. That said, I still like the Beatles. (How can anyone not like The Beatles?) The person whom Sasha is partly based on, more engrained in European culture than I was while growing up, loved this song. It's hopeful and whimsical. My novel is hopeful and a bit whimsical. It's a nice way to be, I think.

The Grass is Blue, Dolly Parton
Dolly Parton gets a cameo in my book and her song about needing to turn everything upside down in order to carry on is quite appropriate for my novel. It's a song that Sasha's aunt, Texas-born Cynthia Czerneski, would like as well.

Chopin Mazurka Op.50 No.3, Arthur Rubinstein
Chopin is a source of calm and spirit whenever I feel overwhelmed. I go back to his music and believe I can understand the value and glory of artistic achievement in a less than perfect world. Not coincidentally, he's the favorite composer of the best mathematician in this story, Rachela Karnokovitch. Arthur Rubinstein makes a cameo appearance in a draft of my next novel and I think the kid will stay in the picture.

Shostakovich: Symphony No. 5, Bernstein,New York Philharmonic Orchestra
Shostakovich was a magician for being able to avoid being sent to a gulag or worse by Stalin. Making just about any art is a compromise between the artist's inner vision and the wish to find an audience. It's a marriage and it can be a wonderful marriage. Shostakovich's most important "audience," Stalin, caused the composer to make extreme and awful compromises. I need him for perspective when I'm writing.

I Am Captain of the Pinafore, Madison Savoyards
I know people groan at the plot lines, but I've always found Gilbert and Sullivan's operettas amusing and wonderfully entertaining. There's more than a little Gilbert and Sullivan in my novel. This is my favorite song (which I once sang on stage, but not with the Madison Savoyards) from this operetta. If you need to introduce a major character in a story, you shouldn't be shy or sly about it.

Schadenfreude, Stuart Rosh & The Geniuses
The potential for schadenfreude, even from the grave, drives much of the action in my novel. By the way, in the 2000s I had a band called Stuart Rosh & The Geniuses, and our music still pops up now and then in Kentucky Fried Chickens and Tesco department stores in England.

Asante, McCoy Tyner
This album is talked about as a source of inspiration for Sasha Karnokovitch, but its title isn't given explicitly. Sasha remembers this album as he is walking down State Street in Madison, Wisconsin and, boom, he knows exactly what mistake he's been making in his dissertation research. The ability for cross-fertilization between art and science is a major theme in this novel.

Lara's Theme, Dr. Zhivago
This song gets mentioned in a jokey way in the book. Throughout the novel, the temperature never gets above -10 degrees C and some of the characters are as out of place in the weather as Omar Sharif was in Siberia. This version is ridiculously ongepotchket and wonderful at the same time.

Vu Ahin Zol Ikh Geyn (Where Can I Go), Menashe Oppenheim
I first heard this tune, which is about Jews being unable to cross borders during WWII, when my mother sang it to me about two years before she died. I sobbed as I listened to her. Border crossings are an important part of the novel. Lots of people have sung this song – I think even Nat King Cole did it – and this version is as authentic as I can find.

Your State's Name Here, Lou and Peter Berryman
Patriotism is another theme in my novel and since much of the action takes place in Madison, Wisconsin, what better song can there be to riff on the strange patriotism associated with statehood than this one by Madison's favorite folk duo?

I Can't Get Started, Bunny Berigan
Sasha walks into a bar on State Street in Madison in the early 1970s. That bar, Nick's, is still around. It had a great jukebox in the 1970s and this Ira Gershwin/Vernon Duke song is one of the tunes that my wife-to-be and I would listen to while we drank back then (when the drinking age in Wisconsin was eighteen). It's, in fact, our theme song. We've been married for thirty-five years. Back then we were in college, I was working on a novel and we both thought that I had what it took to become a professional novelist. I thought I'd publish my first novel by the time I was twenty-two. I was off by a mere thirty-six years. That delay has come with some significant advantages.


Stuart Rojstaczer and The Mathematician's Shiva links:

the author's website
the author's Wikipedia entry

Kirkus review
Publishers Weekly review
San Jose Mercury News review

Frederick News-Post interview with the author
Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel interview with the author


also at Largehearted Boy:

Book Notes (2012 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Short Cuts (writers pair a song with their short story or essay)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
weekly music release lists


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