I was born because a man came to kill my father. That's the opening sentence in Pharmakon, Dirk Wittenborn's novel about a family buffeted by tragedy, psychology, and pharmacy. It's an engaging opening to a saga that never quite finds its way through the author's dense plotting and habit of "telling not showing." Nonetheless, that opening line propels the reader through the story of the Friedrich family from the 1950s to the 1990s. Everything spirals outward from the moment troubled student and psychology guinea pig Casper Gedsic shows up at the Friedrich household with murder in his eyes. Casper is upset because Dr. William Friedrich, a Yale professor, has put him on an experimental "happiness drug" he hopes will send patients into states of chemical bliss. Instead, Casper cracks and goes on a rampage. Fast-forwarding several years, Pharmakon picks up with Zach, the youngest son of the Friedrich brood, who details the busy and troubled life of a family ruled by a distracted patriarch and a mother suffering from severe depression in the wake of tragedy. Zach, along with his brother and sisters, is "overdosed with family," and so, too, might be readers as they find themselves tangled in a novel that bears similarities to early John Irving and his cavalcade of zany characters. Wittenborn is at his best in the scenes where Dr. Friedrich is convinced his "synthetic joy" will cure postwar America of its unhappiness, all the time unaware that the saddest family is his own.

July 24: On this day in 1725 John Newton, the slave trader-preacher who wrote the hymn "Amazing Grace," was born.

Crime fiction legends Dennis Lehane and Michael Connelly discuss the new book that unites their beloved sleuths Patrick Kenzie and Harry Bosch.

Books, CDs, DVDs to know about now
Paradise and Elsewhere

Canadian short story marvel Kathy Page emerges as the Alice Munro of the supernatural from these heartfelt tales of shapeshifting swimmers, mild-mannered cannibals, and personality-shifting viruses transmitted through kisses.


When a persuasive pastor arrives in a sleepy farm town, his sage influence has otherworldly results (talking sheep, a mayor who walks on water). But can he pull off the miracle of finding kindly local Liz Denny the love of her life?  Small wonder looms large in this charmer from Andre Alexis.

The Hundred-Year House

When a poetry scholar goes digging through the decrepit estate of his wife's family to uncover a bygone arts colony's strange mysteries, he awakens a tenacious monster: his mother-in-law. A wickedly funny take on aging aristocracies from author Rebecca Makkai (The Borrower).