A Whole Lotta Books, Recapped.

I’ve been back from Maine a sad many months now, so I suppose it’s well past time for me to discuss the books I read while sitting on the beach  for a week — I mean, I still have to tell you about the books I read in Spain, and Spain itself, and Thanksgiving… But first: I told you I’d get to these books, so here we go, in the order I read them.

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I’ve seen Blade Runner more times than I can count, and yet I’d never read the book it was adapted from, Philip K. Dick‘s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Now, if you like science fiction, be it in book or film form, I really think you should put this at the top of your library queue — assuming you’re like me and haven’t already read it.

As in Blade Runner, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is set in a dystopian near-future in which protagonist Rick Deckard is an android hunter.  As with most novel-to-film adaptations, a lot of the original thematic elements were jettisoned  and never appeared on the big screen; while I do love me some Blade Runner, these elements are what make the novel so interesting.  Deckard ponders religion, struggles with his humanity, questions what I can only classify as substance addiction and has an extramarital affair.  All of that is fascinating stuff, and when Mr. Dick includes commentary on status, materialism and Life Itself, it’s like whoa*.

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I really wanted to love The Gastronomy of a Marriage: A Memoir of Food and Love by Michelle Maisto.  I mean, it’s about food and love; it says so right in the title, and I happen to enjoy food and am in love…  Seems like a perfect fit, no?  So why did I feel like it was more about food and, well — the phrase that comes to mind is passive-aggressiveness

Here’s the premise: Ms. Maisto and her fiancé Rich are getting married.  She’s a pescatarian Italian who loves rich meals; he’s a meat-eating Chinese who favors more delicate flavors.  She’s casual about food.  He’s fastidious.   She likes her peanut butter chunky.  He likes his smooth.  They must compromise.

I’m lucky to live with someone who doesn’t care where I keep the ketchup (in the fridge, though Rich prefers the pantry), but that doesn’t mean compromise isn’t part of my daily life.  It is, of course.  But is it worthy of a memoir?  Yes, there is more to this book that just compromise, but only barely, and not enough to give any sort of readerly satisfaction at its conclusion.  Not to mention Ms. Maisto’s description of Rich isn’t the most flattering — he comes across as condescending and belittling, especially when it comes to preparing dinner — and while I doubt that was her intent, I wasn’t able to look past it.

I do like the cover, though.

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It’s been a while since I’ve read a debut novel as cinematic as Daryl Gregory‘s Pandemonium.  I’ll get to the storyline in a bit; I just want to take a moment to reiterate how visual the writing is, and how clearly Mr. Gregory paints the proverbial picture.

Del Pierce lives in a world where demons exist.  There’s the Artist, who uses whatever materials there are at hand to depict the same country scene.  There’s the Truth, hunting malfeasants with his .45s and fedora.  There’s also the Hellion, who likes to possess young boys, and who last surfaced about fifteen years ago in a young blond boy…

Did I mention Del is blond?

To say Mr. Gregory is an ambitious storyteller is the most incredible understatement.  To say that he’s a writer with a dark sense of humor is an oversimplification.  He’s all of these things, undeniably, but he is, most importantly, clever — which is why this novel stays entertaining to the very end.

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I don’t know how I ended up borrowing  Friday Night Knitting Club by Kate Jacobs from the library, I really don’t.  Certainly no one I know recommended it to me.  Perhaps it sounded a bit more interesting than it was?  I honestly can’t remember.  What I do remember, unfortunately, is the plot; since I wouldn’t suggest this book to anyone ever, I’m going to basically ruin the entire storyline for you here:

A single mother who is jaw-droppingly beautiful but doesn’t know it runs a yarn shop on the Upper West Side.  She has an unrealistically and irritatingly precocious preteen and a lot of friends.  They all knit.  Her babydaddy reappears, having had an epiphany and realizing that he can’t live without her or his bastard child.   They fall back in love.  Her life finally feels complete.  Then she suddenly contracts cancer and dies.  Everyone is sad.  The end.

I wish I could say I made that all up, but alas.  Do not read this book under any circumstances, including duress.  You will never get that time back.

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I so enjoyed Pandemonium, which was from Keith’s pile of books, that I picked up The Devil’s Alphabet as soon as he put it down.

In his second novel, Mr. Gregory’s protagonist is the seemingly-normal Pax, who lives and works in Chicago at a restaurant job he’s not too psyched on.  When he receives word that his childhood best friend has committed suicide, Pax returns to the hometown he fled at fifteen.  His is not the everyday small-town-boy-running-away-to-the-big-city story, of course; Mr. Gregory is far too creative for that.  No, turns out Pax left the backwoods of Tennessee because, one strange day, almost all of his town’s inhabitants were struck by a strange disease which caused them to change.  Some became impossibly-huge “Argos,” some hairless magenta-skinned “Betas,” some incredibly obese “Charlies.”  Pax, on the other hand, became a rare “skip,” one of the few townspeople who were unchanged and soon skipped town.

What could’ve simply been a unique spin on a you-can’t-go-home-again story changes (ha ha) into a mash-up of genres sci-fi, mystery and political thriller, to name a few.  Mr. Gregory doesn’t stop there, throwing in some commentary on religious zealots, drug use and the father-son relationship.  It all sounds crazy, I know, but what’s really crazy is that it all works.

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While Marcella’s been trying to get me to read Dan Chaon for what seems like years, I never remembered to check any of his books out of the library until recently.  Let me warn you of something, before you too go out and borrow Await Your Reply:  this is a bleak story.  Do not read it if you are in search of something uplifting, or happy, or have trouble being depressed.  If you are one of those people, this book is not for you.

If you’re not… go for it.

(Oh, I should add that if you have an aversion to violence, try another novel.  The first few pages of this one heavily features a severed hand, and the young man it belongs to.)

Await Your Reply is the story of three stories.  One follows a high school senior who leaves town with her enigmatic history teacher.  Another follows a loser of a guy in search of his mentally-ill twin brother (who may or may not have killed their mother and her husband).  The third, of course, follows the owner of the severed hand.

If these three plotlines seem incredibly disparate, it’s because they are.  You can try to sort out how they interconnect, but if you do, forget about things like continuity and time periods; Chaon jumps all over the place.  What’s kind of amazing, though, is that it all makes sense in the end, and that the three stories tie together in a way that’s almost ingenious.  Depressing, but ingenious.

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I actually got a little tired of being depressed — who’d’a thunk it? — so to lighten things up, I turned to some adolescent fiction with The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly.  It’s actually a really cute story, one which could’ve easily been a run of the mill girl-doesn’t-fit-in-with-her-family-and/or-town plotline.  Instead, Ms. Kelly threw in some historical and science-related twists into her novel; these details are what made Calpurnia and her story interesting.

Callie — who got stuck with the trickier name, Calpurnia in 1890s Texas, or me in 1980s/1990s New York suburbia? — has a hard time living with her prim-and-proper mother as the only other female in a house full of boys.  One of eight children, she’d rather spend her time with her naturalist grandfather than cooking, doing needlework and practicing other genteel arts.  When Callie and her grandfather make a discovery, she gets the feeling that her life is going to change…  but does it?

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I love crime.

I like cops, I like thieves, I like con artists, I like people who pull heists, and as weird as it sounds I like serial killers.  I hope to never have to interact with anyone from the criminal world, cops included — I’ve never even gotten a speeding ticket and I plan on keeping it that way — but give me an interesting, well-written story about them and I’m hooked.  Which leads me to John Heidenry’s Zero at the Bone: The Playboy, the Prostitute, and the Murder of Bobby Greenlease.  The book follows the 1953 kidnapping of six-year-old Bobby Greenlease, the son of an extremely wealthy Midwestern family and whose $600,000 ransom was the highest paid in American history up to that point.  Mr. Heidenry tells the story in a very straightforward, journalistic manner; it would have been so easy to pulp it up — grifters, mobsters, femme fetales… so noir — but Zero at the Bone is so dark and bleak that relying upon stylistic crutches would have cheapened it entirely.

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I’m a huge fan of the multi-character narrative, so I really appreciated that Liza Ketchum incorporated it into Where the Great Hawk Flies, a adult novel that takes place in 1780s Vermont.

In the book’s recent past, a British-fueled Indian** attack sent Hiram Coombs and his family running for safety and eventual resettlement in Connecticut, while Daniel Tucker and his family hid in a nearby cave; after the raid, they returned to rebuild their home.  After the Coombs decide to move back to Vermont, Hiram soon clashes with Daniel.  The root of the problem is heritage — Daniel, and his sister, are half Indian.  It doesn’t matter that the Tucker children are part-Pequot, considering that the ransacking tribespeople were Caughnawagas; Hiram and his mother openly fear and disdain the Tuckers regardless.

As someone who’s half-this and half-that, I like reading stories (fiction and non-fiction) about people dealing with  determining their cultural identities a bit more than most.  What I found incredibly interesting is that Where the Great Hawk Flies comes across a new story, and one that hasn’t been told, which is a pretty neat trick.

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This summer I took a pretty fantastic Grub Street class with the excellent Christopher Boginski called “Six Weeks, Six Essays.”  Not only did we write an essay a week, we also read a selection of essays whose themes we responded to in our work.  One of those essays was the truly amazing “Weekend” by Amy Hempel — if you can find a copy, you must read it — compelled me to pick up At the Gates of the Animal Kingdom, an anthology of her works.  Some of these pieces can be called stories, others essays, and others yet I’d classify as musings.  Regardless, what Ms. Hempel can do with words is unfathomable.  “In the Animal Shelter,” barely a page, will break your heart.

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In case it hasn’t been made ridiculously clear by my “What I’ve Read” lists over on the sidebar, I like adolescent fiction.  I also like fantasy, so it makes sense that I would like The Lost Conspiracy by Frances Hardinge.

Ms. Hardinge accomplishes something with this book that I truly admire: she creates not only an entirely new world, but one that has its own complex set of rules.  On that world is the island of Gullstruck, where a tribe of people are keeping a dangerous secret behind inscrutable smiles.  This tribe is the Lace, and what they’re hiding is a girl.  She’s said to be a Lost, an oracle, and her young sister Hathin is her fiercest protector.  The tricky thing is, and there must be a tricky thing, that this oracle is a fake prophet, one the tribe has invented as a form of protection.  When this sham is put to the test, Hathin has to fight to save herself, her sister and her tribe.

It’s pretty intense stuff.

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On the day before Lulu’s tenth birthday, her father shoots her mother, stabs her sister Merry and tries to kill himself.  Their father imprisoned, the girls are sent to live with one family member to the other until an aunt, tired of the sisters, deposits them in a group home for orphans.  The sisters eventually come to live in a foster home, but their lives don’t get any easier.  Lulu does all she can to separate herself from her murderer father, refusing to visit him or acknowledge the fact that he lived; as an adult, she doesn’t even tell her own daughters that he’s alive.  Merry, on the other hand, does all she can to make her father’s life easier, visiting whenever she can and trying to persuade Lulu to do the same.

Randy Susan Meyers‘s The Murderer’s Daughters sounds like a huge downer of a novel, but there are interesting and even uplifting parts.  The narrative switches between the sisters, something I personally enjoy but know irritates some readers (Keith), but it really works here.  The alternating narration gives insight as to how each young sister grew into the women they are, which I think is interesting regardless of whether such evolution is fictional or real.

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So there you have it, the twelve books I read in seven August days.  Of course, now it’s December, and I’ve read something like twenty-five additional books since then, some of which I’ll be telling you about soon.  So please check back in later.

Coming up… my trip to Spain, and what I did there.

* Yeah, I just quoted Black Rob.  So?
** I have no idea what the correct term is here.  Indian?  Native American?  Aboriginals?
It’s actually a really cute story, one which could’ve easily been a run of the mill girl-doesn’t-fit-in-with-her-family-and/or-town story.  Instead it was
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Ann Patchett on Writing.

My love of Ann Patchett has been well-documented on this blog, and I hate the thought of being one of those people who tell the same stories over and over so I’m not even going to get into it.  What I will get into, briefly, is how thrilled I was to find that Grub Street had recently posted a link to Ms. Patchett’s keynote speech from 2009’s Muse and the Marketplace writing conference.  I left last year feeling incredible, and a big part of the reason why was this speech.  So give it a listen.

“Writing is Not an Indulgence.”

Some truths about me:

  1. I write.
  2. I don’t write often enough.
  3. I like food, dogs and zombies.

That last one was a gimme.  It’s still true.

Every person on this earth carries baggage and has issues about something; I’ve got two huge trunks that I drag behind me, one for my weight and the other for writing.  I’ve recently started to lessen my “I’m fat” load, so it’s only fitting that I’ve got a new outlook on writing.  It may sound harsh, but, as Renée Michel says Muriel Barbery’s novel The Elegance of the Hedgehog, “I am rarely friendly — though always polite.”  So here it harshly is:

If you’re waiting for inspiration, stop.  This is an avoidance tactic, and even if it is successful all you are doing is crippling yourself.  It’s amateurish and, frankly, a boring reason to not be writing*.  Writers, serious ones anyway, don’t have the luxury of inspiration.  They just get the work done.  And yes, it is work.  You may find writing fun and rewarding and many other cheering words, but when you get down to it, writing is work.  It takes effort.

This is, of course, not to say that you can’t be inspired.  I spent most of yesterday at Grub Street‘s annual Muse and the Marketplace writers’ conference; I’ve been to the past two Muses, but this was the first year where I was a volunteer and only stayed for one day.  Still, I left feeling truly excited to go home and write.  It was pretty much a given that I would, since as a volunteer I was able to pop in and out of as many workshops as possible.  That’s how I got to

  • listen to Sinead O’Connor with Steve Almond (“I want to reach a place where defenses are converted into real feelings… the feelings that make us genuinely alive.”)
  • participate in a Choose Your Own Adventure-esque exercise on circumstance-driven fiction with Jessica Shattuck
  • laugh and learn at Lynne Barrett‘s discussion on plot (“You can’t have twenty-seven strippers.”)
  • frantically scribble notes while the immensely quotable Anita Shreve spoke about problem-solving in novel writing (“Sometimes when you think you’re stuck you’ve gone down the wrong tributary,”  for example. And the best: “We don’t strive for beautiful sentences.  We strive for arresting sentences.”)
  • disassemble the high-concept novel with Allison Scotch
  • find out exactly what makes agents and editors stop reading a manuscript
  • get Alisa Libby‘s perspective on writer’s block (“The writing process is happening in your head, even if you’re not sitting down and writing.”)
  • watch a panel discussion on MFA programs featuring Liza Ketchum, Maud Casey, Ron MacLean, Benjamin Percy and Bret Anthony Johnston (whose passionate words on writing seemed like a natural title to this post: “Writing is not an indulgence. The writer gives up indulgences to write.”)
  • meet an interesting group of young writers
  • come home with a stack of new books and a long list of more to read

Not a bad way at all to spend a sunny Saturday.

But to get back to my original point… if you need inspiration to feel motivated, I won’t try and take it away from you.  I’m just asking you to stop waiting for it.  It may not come, or it may not come as often as you like, and all that’s going to happen is that you’ll find another excuse to not write, which is never going to be as interesting as anything you do write.

Please don’t be boring.

* The boring part I’ve borrowed from my friend Monique, a writer herself.

A Weekend Writing Conference, or Ann Patchett is my Spirit Guide.

This past weekend in Boston was utterly gorgeous, and I spent about 94% of it indoors.  You know what, though — I loved every minute of it.  The sun is bad for you, after all, and writing is not.  So instead of lying in the park with my T-shirt rolled up, I was at Grub Street‘s Muse and the Marketplace writing conference.

The Muse is two packed days of workshops, readings, signings and lectures.  The whole event is pretty rigorously paced, with three workshops or lectures each day.  As a participant, I could have also signed up for lunch with published authors, meetings with agents and query letter evaluations (last year I met with an editor to discuss my work) but this year I specifically chose lectures that addressed topics I needed to tackle with my own writing.

Here’s what went down:

Saturday
Got to registration a little later than planned and therefore missed the free breakfast.  This didn’t bother me but I was sweating profusely from walking to the Park Plaza and desperately needed something to drink.  Bumped into Farrah from my writing group before heading to my first lecture, “Time Travel In Fiction: Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?”  I chose it because I’m working on something with a lot of flashbacks, and besides, who doesn’t like a Joyce Carol Oates reference?  The class — which was both incredibly fascinating and terribly helpful — was led by Alix Ohlin, who was clever and a great speaker and very smart, and as I took notes I realized my pen’s ink matched my shoes exactly, teal.  My only other pen was, um, light teal.  Grabbed a coffee before “Traits, Quirks, and Habits: Crafting Characters from the Inside Out” with Lynne Griffin.  Took more notes with teal pen.  Caught up with my friend Terry over lunch; we took a great Grub class last summer with Kate Flora, and now Terry has a fantastic and funny idea for a book I can’t wait to read.  Poked at a dry piece of chicken and stole extra rolls while Alan Cheuse and Dinty W. Moore read excerpts from their work, and Mr. Moore described the conference as “the grubbiest” he has ever attended, which got lots of laughs.  Met up with Farrah again at Rakesh Satyal‘s “Culture Clubbing: How to Write About Ethnicity Without Beating Your Readers Over the Head.”  Farrah and I are both of Lebanese descent, and apparently equally interested in including this is our respective work.  Afterward went to an hour-long lecture on “The Art of Column Writing” with Suzette Martinez Standring.  Braced myself for the heat, began perspiring as soon as I left the hotel.

Sunday
Got to the hotel with enough time to grab a cup of coffee and a marble bagel, which I promptly wrapped in napkins and stuffed in my bag, before bumping into Steve Almond; tried to have a chat before getting separated in the elevator, but learned his four-month-old is named Judah Elijah, which I think is a nice name, particularly with the reverse alliteration.  Attempted to balance my notebook on my knees during Merrill Feitell “Mechanical Physics for Fiction Writers,” which was so straight-up good that I filled pages with notes when I wasn’t too busy laughing at her jokes and stuffed bunny prop.  Immediately afterward, ran downstairs to the Porter Square Books table to buy a copy of her anthology, Here Beneath Low-Flying Planes, along with The Missing Person by Alix Ohlin, The Silent Boy by Lois Lowry and Naming the World by Bret Anthony Johnston.  Ran back upstairs for Steve’s lecture on “How to Achieve Sudden Impact,” and am pleased to report his sense of humor in front of an audience is the same as his humor in front of one person.  Farrah and I ate lunch together (soggy chicken) and listened to Ann Patchett‘s keynote speech.  In the middle of it, I sent a text to Marcella and Keith: “Ann Patchett should be my spirit guide.”  She spoke for something like forty minutes without notes, and bluntly about writing.  This is the best job you’ll ever have, this is hard work, there’s not such thing as doctor’s block so why writer’s block?*  Clapped until my hands felt sore then made my way back upstairs for “Diving Into the Novel” with Vyvyane Loh, who was so full of information that I could practically see the story I am working on come together right in front of me.

* This, of course, is paraphrased.  Ann Patchett is much more clever than that.  And she spoke about much, much more with an almost intimidating amount of intelligence and a lot of humor.  Ann Patchett is funny!

Am I Psychic?

No, seriously.

First I channel M.F.K. Fisher from the Great Beyond.  Now, the same day I mention my ardor for Ann Patchett, I learn that she will be the keynote speaker at this year’s Muse and the Marketplace (the annual writers’ conference hosted by Grub Street, the Boston-based writing organization that has been so helpful to me).  Honestly, I’m so excited.  I did a happy dance earlier.

Just in case I do in fact have some sort of otherworldly capabilities, I just want to let you all know that I foresee puppies in my future, and maybe some chocolate pudding.  Or a nice Riesling.

New Year, Old Thoughts.

I was walking down the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway not too long ago and found myself thinking again/as usual about Boston, and all the other places in the world where I could possibly be (Belize, Belarus, Belgium, Bahrain, Burundi, Bonaire).  Then I thought, The sun today is so pretty, shining just so, why can’t Boston be enough? So I decided, to keep me company as I warily made my way across the remaining patches of ice and snow, to make a list of things I love about this town (well, metro-area).   I came to Boston for a reason, after all, and have stayed for others, and when you’ve lived in one place for as many years as this it’s bound to leave its mark. I know that no matter where I go and where I end up, I’ll always have some sort of wanderlust hovering at the edge of my vision, almost the aura that zips along the corner of my eye just before I slip into a migraine — but without the pain.  Well, maybe not without the pain; it’s just different, when you long for something so much.  I just keep telling myself, Soon soon soon.  Hopefully it’s the truth.  Until then, this town is my home.

  • 90 Chestnut Street, my favorite building in all of Beacon Hill.  Next time I’m in the neighborhood (and when I have a working camera again) I’ll take a photo for you.
  • The back streets of Cambridge, and the literary history of the city.
  • Bloc 11, since it’s much easier to park in Union Square than it is when visiting its sister coffeehouse, Diesel Café, in Davis.
  • The Brattle Theatre, where I don’t watch movies often enough.
  • Commonwealth Avenue Mall, especially the portion between Exeter and Dartmouth Streets, where I shot my first student film with a 16mm Bolex.
  • The double-door brownstones in the South End, because they’re so stately.
  • Good, the gorgeous and pristine boutique on Charles Street selling such wares as John Derian découpage items and Satya jewelry.
  • Grub Street, where I’ve taken countless helpful and encouraging writing workshops.
  • Forest Hills Cemetery, which is both free to visit and incredibly beautiful.
  • Formaggio Kitchen, because — let’s face it — I just can’t live without cheese.
  • Janet Warner at Salon Marc Harris on Newbury Street, who has been cutting my hair and making me laugh since 2003, and doing a damn good job at both.
  • Porter Square Books, because sometimes it’s nice to actually buy a book in a store and not just at Amazon.
  • The view of the Charles from the roof of 132 Beacon Street, a sight I’ll probably never see from the same vantage point again since the building is currently being renovated into luxury condominiums.
  • Volle Nolle, the makers of the some of the best sandwiches in all of Boston.

Brunch at Cottonwood Café.

Brunch can be tricky, particularly at a restaurant that only offers breakfast foods only on the weekend.  The Cottonwood Café is open for lunch and dinner all seven days; brunch is served only on Saturdays and Sundays, offering eggs Benedict, huevos rancheros and migas underneath the dining room’s arched ceiling — which, incidentally, looks as though it is lined with crimped steel mesh.

cottonwoodThe migas ($8.25, plus $3.95 for a side of steak) appeared to be a safe bet — theoretically exotic enough to match up with Cottonwood’s Southwestern theme, but not so bold as to send the unadventurous running.  Unfortunately, what you end up eating, though, is a plate of glorified scrambled eggs beaten with scallion and tomato.  The oddly enough, the eggs were a surprise, in that they were sweet: they had the tinned sunniness of canned corn.  Even less luck was had with the accompanying spicy hash browns, a depressingly mushy spoonful with absolutely no hint of the kick usually associated with spice.

Regardless of the overwhelmingly disappointing food, Cottonwood is something of a Boston institution, having inhabited its corner of Boylston and Clarendon for over ten years.  its age certainly shows with its dated eighties nouveau modern décor — did I mention that the ceiling is crimped?  The aesthetic is either overly angular or overly curvaceous lines done in melony pink, dusky blue and glossy black.  Not only is an updated look needed, but also some general maintenance as well; countless dents, dings and scratches marked the tables in walls.  Maybe with a sleeker appearance would mask the cuisine.

Then again, maybe not.

Cottonwood Café
222 Berkeley Street
Boston, Massachusetts 02116
617.247.222
cottonwoodboston.com

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