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new england literary news | nina maclaughlin

Savory mysteries set in historical Rome; an immigrant mathematician’s life

Mathematician Shing-Tung Yau at his desk at Harvard in 1981.

A delicious story

Crystal King’s first novel “Feast of Sorrow: A Novel of Ancient Rome’’ (Atria), reimagined the life of Marcus Gavius Apicius, author of the oldest known cookbook.

King, who’s taught at Boston University, UMass Boston, and Grub Street, returns to food and ancient Rome in her new novel, “The Chef’s Secret’’ (Atria), which looks to the forefather of the Julia Childs, Anthony Bourdains, and Nigella Lawsons of the world, telling a fictionalized story of the real-life celebrity chef Bartolomeo Scappi, who served delicacies to popes in the 16th century.

King’s characters are drawn as lovingly, as sensually as the food and the Vatican world she describes, and the plot itself — part secret-code mystery, part love story — moves like a well-paced meal. There are sculptures of Hercules made of butter, pastries with live finches inside, course after course of foods humble and elevated. King will read and discuss the book on March 13 at 7 pm at Newtonville Books.

His story adds up

Shing-Tung Yau grew up poor in mainland China and Hong Kong, studied at Berkeley, and took the prestigious Fields Medal for proof of the Calabi conjecture. In his new autobiography, “The Shape of a Life: One Mathematician’s Search for the Universe’s Hidden Geometry’’ (Yale), written with Steve Nadis, the Harvard mathematics professor recounts his journeys into string theory and relativity and his breakthroughs in geometry, offering up discussion of math’s highest abstractions without getting bogged down in the impenetrable. Discussion of the pursuit of proofs and theories is balanced by chattier bits. Take, for instance, this observation during a visit to Yosemite National Park: “Breathtaking views from lofty peaks have a way of magically taking you outside of your own head, offering a new and broader perspective of the world.” The book is an unexpectedly intimate look into a highly accomplished man, his colleagues and friends, the development of a new field of geometric analysis, and a glimpse into a truly uncommon mind.


Turning things upside-down, gently

In the opening section of Plymouth-born and Prague-based poet Stephan Delbos’s new collection of poetry, “Light Reading’’ (BlazeVOX), the titles of the minimalist poems appear at the bottom of the page; it means a slowed-down knowing and an after-the-fact awareness of what you’ve read, a playful inversion. In the poem “Sauna,” the words “heat licks foot prints from wood” appear on the page like the little dipper, drifting down the page, suggesting an evaporation. Delbos, also a playwright, essayist, and translator (his translation of Czech poet Vítëzslav Nezval’s “The Absolute Gravedigger’ was awarded a PEN/Heim translation grant), and founding editor of the online literary magazine B O D Y, draws inspiration from Chopin, Philip Glass, Václav Havel, and pulls from disparate influences and reference points, from the Sex Pistols to Homer to Micro Machines. The result is an active, acrobatic collection.


Coming out

“Lot’’ by Bryan Washington (Riverhead)

“Great American Desert’’ by Terese Svoboda (Mad Creek)

“Ridiculous Light’’ by Valencia Robin (Persea)

Pick of the week

Autumn Siders at the Country Bookseller in Wolfeboro, N.H., recommends “Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War’’ (Norton) by Mary Roach: “The military is known as being a hard shell to crack, but Roach’s inquisitive nature and good cheer must have worked overtime as she delved into the science that keeps soldiers safe, betters the conditions of war, and tries to put our soldiers back together when they finally make it home. Informative, humorous, and hopeful, this book shows the talent and brains behind the scenes and opens a door to the least seen perspective of war.”


Nina MacLaughlin is the author of “Hammer Head: The Making of a Carpenter.” She can be reached at