new england literary news

Examining new pharma

Moe Angelos stars as Susan Sontag in “Sontag: Reborn,” a multimedia one-woman show coming to Boston in May.
Moe Angelos stars as Susan Sontag in “Sontag: Reborn,” a multimedia one-woman show coming to Boston in May.

Examining new pharma

Barry Werth’s new book does for the world of biotech drug development what “The Soul of a New Machine” did for the dawn of the computer age. It presents an exciting narrative about the business of bringing new products to market.

Yet the stakes in Werth’s “The Antidote: Inside the World of New Pharma” (Simon & Schuster) are a matter, not just of market share, but of life or death. The $325 billion-a-year pharmaceutical industry takes aim at chronic and fatal diseases with the goal of eliminating them or at least prolonging and improving the lives of patients.

While Tracy Kidder’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Soul” chronicled the unlikely team at Data General in Westborough that designed a breakthrough minicomputer, “The Antidote” tells the story of scientists at Boston-based Vertex Pharmaceuticals who developed a treatment for hepatitis C that doubled the cure rate.


Failure is a dominant theme. The odds of getting a drug over the hurdles to arrive at even the human testing stage are 30-to-1. “Antidote” is also a tale of the little guys battling the behemoths. It was in 1989 that Vertex founder Joshua Boger left his job at the pharmaceutical giant Merck in part out of a concern that it wasn’t nimble enough. The question now is whether Vertex can stay alive and thrive.

Visiting ‘Harvard Square’

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Café Algiers is as integral to “Harvard Square” (Norton) as the odd couple at the heart of the novel. In André Aciman’s book, out this month in paperback, a young graduate student from Egypt meets Kalaj, a volatile Tunisian taxi driver, at the Harvard Square coffeehouse in the 1970s. Though they are on different tracks in life, they bond over being outsiders.

Kalaj is deeply critical of the United States, eager to reject his adopted country before it rejects and deports him. Much of the novel takes place at the cafe in long, loud conversations. Algiers is Kalaj’s home away from home, a stage on which he articulates his discontents.

The unnamed narrator — the Harvard grad student — is studying for his comprehensive exams, having failed in his first attempt. He thinks he wants to build a life in the States but wonders whether he’ll ever fit in.

More than one reviewer has remarked on the similarities between the life story of the narrator in “Harvard Square” and the details of Aciman’s own life. He is an immigrant and a Harvard graduate who no doubt received some of his education at Café Algiers.

One-woman show about Susan Sontag


Susan Sontag’s development from self-absorbed teen to cultural critic is traced in “Sontag: Reborn,” a multimedia one-woman show coming to the Emerson/Paramount Center in Boston May 6-18. Moe Angelos, who plays the title role, adapted the play from Sontag’s journals. In a review of her performance in New York last year, Charles Isherwood of The New York Times called the production by the Builders Association a “spellbinding X-ray of a writer’s psyche.”

Coming out

 “The Meat Racket: The Secret Takeover of America’s Food Business” by Christopher Leonard (Simon & Schuster)

 “Concealed in Death”by J.D. Robb (Putnam)

 “Runner” by Patrick Lee (Minotaur)

Pick of the week

Alan Spiegel of Book Ends in Winchester recommends “King and Maxwell” by David Baldacci (Grand Central): “In his latest thriller, Baldacci brings back Sean King and Michelle Maxwell, former Secret Service agents turned private investigators. After Tyler Wingo is told that his soldier father was killed in Afghanistan, the teen receives a communication from him so he hires Sean and Michelle to investigate. They uncover secrets at the highest levels of power.”

Jan Gardner can be reached at