The best books about the immigrant experience

Stuart Rojstaczer Author Of The Mathematician's Shiva
By Stuart Rojstaczer

Who am I?

I’m the child of immigrants and my role in the family was to be my parents’ American expert and translator. I learned my expertise by living, of course, but my understanding of the interior life and thoughts of Americans often came from reading American novels. Immigration-themed novels are catnip to me because they remind me, often with warmth, of my own childhood and parents. 

I wrote...

The Mathematician's Shiva

By Stuart Rojstaczer,

Book cover of The Mathematician's Shiva

What is my book about?

Alexander "Sasha" Karnokovitch and his family would like to mourn the passing of his mother, Rachela, with modesty and dignity. But Rachela, a famous Polish émigré mathematician and professor at the University of Wisconsin, is rumored to have solved the million-dollar, Navier-Stokes Millennium Prize problem. Rumor also has it that she spitefully took the solution to her grave. To Sasha's chagrin, a ragtag group of socially challenged mathematicians arrives in Madison and crashes the shiva, vowing to do whatever it takes to find the solution--even if it means prying up the floorboards for Rachela's notes.

This hilarious and multi-layered novel brims with colorful characters and brilliantly captures humanity's drive not just to survive, but to solve the impossible.

The Books I Picked & Why

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A House for Mr. Biswas

By V.S. Naipaul,

Book cover of A House for Mr. Biswas

Why this book?

Immigrant books are frequently about striving to improve a family’s life while adapting to a new land with more than a bit of chauvinism about one’s origin culture. All of these elements are colorfully on display in this semi-autographical novel. Although this book is about an Indian family in the Caribbean, the story has many parallels to my own family’s immigrant experience as Polish Jews in America.

Comrades and Chicken Ranchers

By Kenneth L. Kann,

Book cover of Comrades and Chicken Ranchers

Why this book?

This book is a true labor of love, an oral history about a community of Eastern European Jewish chicken ranchers that lived in Petaluma, California for decades. The voices ring with the cadence and language of my own childhood although the era is older and the political leanings of those interviewed are different than those in my own neighborhood. What distinguishes this book from many is that the community has no wish to assimilate.

Klara and the Sun

By Kazuo Ishiguro,

Book cover of Klara and the Sun

Why this book?

Kazuo Ishiguro is my favorite novelist in the English language and his newest novel isn’t literally about the immigrant experience. But Ishiguro is always interested in the role of outsiders in societies and the outsider in this case is Klara, a futuristic android, “Artificial Friend” for a 14-year-old girl. Klara has to learn how to live and fit into the world of humans. If you come from an immigrant family, you’ll surprisingly but likely identify with many aspects of her observations and adjustments. 

The Namesake

By Jhumpa Lahiri,

Book cover of The Namesake

Why this book?

The Asian immigrant experience in America has been the topic of many great recent novels. Lahiri examines two generations of an academically gifted family who make both an intellectual and emotional journey to a new land. As a geophysics professor, I taught many students like those in Lahiri’s novel. As a geophysics graduate student, I went to school and became friends with foreign students who eventually settled in the United States. This novel offers me a window into the interior lives of both my former students and current friends.

White Teeth

By Zadie Smith,

Book cover of White Teeth

Why this book?

London is one of the great melting pots of the world and perhaps no novel describes its diversity with the verve of White Teeth. Here we see many families, Asian, Jewish, and inter-racial, try to make their way forward together and separately. The barriers they face are the result of both bigotry and all too human internal flaws. When I think of White Teeth, I am reminded that prose can leap off the page when done expertly and that for me, ironic comedy is the ultimate expression of the human condition. 

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