Angela Amman

Hard to Die – A review

A review of Hard to Die by Andra Watkins Like so much of the nation, the Hamilton: An American Musical soundtrack dominates my playlists. Working from home means music often fills the space left quiet from the lack of co-workers, and I’ve listened to the Hamilton soundtrack more times than I could count.

I should be embarrassed to say I’ve learned a lot about history from the musical retelling of Alexander Hamilton’s life, but I’m too grateful to feel truly embarrassed. At least I’m learning now. Certain lyrics resonate on different days, but I often return to the simplicity of “Who Tells Your Story”:

Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?

History books take shape through the hands of those still living, and it’s often those who are lost who aren’t fully fleshed out, though their narratives may be just as powerful as the ones who live.

Hard to Die, a novel by Andra Watkins, tells of Theodosia Burr (yes, the daughter to whom Aaron Burr sings on Hamilton). Theodosia dies young, and Watkins gives us glimpses of her life as she imagines an afterlife in which Theodosia still lives, an afterlife in which Theodosia must complete a mission to move out of the in-between state in which she remains.

Alive but not, Theodosia has control over how she’s remembered only if she’s able to complete her mission — helping a living soul navigate a crucial crossroads in their lives. If she fails, she’ll simply fade from history’s pages, as though she’d never lived at all.

Theodosia’s mission involves Richard the handsome spy-turned-soldier who just wants to escape into normalcy. Unfortunately, leaving the spy network in which he was entrenched might not be as easy as Richard expected, even from the hallowed walls of West Point. Richard encounters someone from his past, someone with a deadly connection to Theodosia.

As each of the players circles the others, unsure of who to trust, Theodosia and Richard find themselves drawn to each other. The specter of suspicion lingers, and neither can decide how much of themselves they can reveal without endangering both of their lives.

Readers of Watkins’ other books will be pleased to see a cameo from a beloved character, and by the end of the novel, threads weave together to highlight Watkins impeccable plotting skills.

Truthfully, I’m unsure how much of Theodosia’s story comes from history’s annals and how much comes from Watkins’ fertile imagination. The story races along without demanding a history degree, and I believe Watkins’ take on the afterlife will enthrall many readers.

Read more about Hard to Die on Watkins’ author page.

Breaking up with sugar and other thoughts

Thoughts on Whole 30 On Day 4 of my Whole 30 plan, we threw a sleepover for Abbey’s ninth birthday. Much like hostesses throughout time, I didn’t mind foregoing the pizza, but I had a harder time not nibbling on the “candy bar” offerings they used for their movie-watching snack. My entire experience with the Whole 30 mirrors those moments in so many ways.

Being intentional about what I’m eating seems to be much more difficult for me than figuring out how to eat within the (super strict, why am I doing this again?) parameters of the plan.

Sugar lurks in everything (seriously, cane sugar seems to be an ingredient in almost anything I pick up in the store), but eating lots of home-prepped meat, fruits, and veggies takes care of the majority of hidden ingredients. I find myself struggling against the mindless nibbling, though: grabbing a couple of those jelly beans, sliding my finger along the knife spreading peanut butter (no legumes!), snatching a corner of a quesadilla while dissecting it with a pizza slicer. I’m proud of myself for not succumbing to those moments, but it’s been harder than I expected.

I’m trying this eating experiment for a few reasons: an increased awareness of how my body reacts negatively to different foods, an even less pleasant awareness of how my body doesn’t react as well to my tried-and-true weight loss efforts, the desire to add healthier foods to the plates of everyone in my house.

Pondering intentional actions wasn’t a part of my goal when I started the Whole 30, but it’s becoming the thing I think about the most at the end of the day when I evaluate how the day went and what changes I might want to make for the next.

Did I grab a date roll because I was actually hungry or did it just sound tasty as I passed the container on the counter? Would pausing to make an actual lunch take more time than grabbing three small snacks between breakfast and dinner?

Those reflections extend to other parts of my day, whether I want them to or not. I notice my wasted time a little more.

Did I need to check Facebook messages before diving into scheduling posts for the week? Does answering emails need to involve clicking through to look at J. Crew sales I know I’m not actually going to shop?

After my 30 days are finished, I’m planning to keep some of the parameters of the eating plan in place and relaxing others. I need to keep the intentional thinking, though, for both eating and other aspects of my life. Just like my dietary habits affect my energy and mood, so does the way I spend my time. Hopefully, I can continue to figure out ways to use it more productively.

Have you tried the Whole 30? What did you learn from it if you did? 

Halftime

birthday letter to my daughter Dear Abbey,

We started the day with birthday waffles, piling sweet bits of chocolate and sprinkles and whipped cream onto waffles that soon resemble morning cake more than breakfast. My photos blur again and again. I need a new camera, true, but you’re animated and silly and utterly you when you’re home with us.

Later, we talked to you about the concept of “halftime,” this point in your life when you’re halfway to eighteen. You talked about it in the sense that you could basically make all of your own decisions, and my stomach hurt when I thought about the possibility that you’ll be making those decisions somewhere away from home.

The thing about this halftime birthday hides somewhere between the wispy outline of your future and the concrete reality of now, where we watch you grow and change a little each day. It’s impossible to explain to you that eighteen isn’t a magical age where decision making happens easily and cleanly; we need to do our best to let you make decisions all the time, balancing that with our desperate wishes to keep you smiling and safe and untouched by the messiness of missteps.

Nine feels magical, though, just like each of your birthdays exuded their own kind of magic. You love dancing, on stages and in the living room, in costumes, in character, and in a pair of shorts and old t-shirt from Vacation Bible School. I appreciate your moments on stage, of course, seeing the results of your concentration and practicing, but lately there’s something extraordinary about getting a glimpse of you dancing in the playroom on your own. You love music and movement so much, even without an audience to cheer you on.

I try to let you navigate your class projects on your own, even when I have to sit on my hands and bite my tongue. Still, as you worked on a character report this month, I loved chatting with you about A Wrinkle in Time. Your perspective made the story new again, and not in the abstract way children make everything seem fresh and new. We were able to really talk about the book and about bravery and fear, and I hope you and I will always find a way to connect about tough topics.

You’re kindest to your adoring brother when no one’s watching, and I’m in awe of your relationship with him. I hope you always love purple and glitter, singing loudly and laughing with your eyes squeezed shut. I hope you make silly faces and pick up slugs and worms even when you’re wearing something fancy.

One day I might figure out how to be the best mom I can be. I’m learning as we go, my love, and I know I make mistakes — and I know you’re getting old enough to see them. One thing I hope you always know is how immeasurably loved you are. You, Abbey Rose, are more than I could have ever hoped for or imagined in a daughter. May the second “half” of this amazing game be filled with love, laughter, and celebratory chocolate.

Love always,

Mommy

Holiday Detour – The conclusion

holiday fiction

Continued from Part Eleven — or start at the very beginning with Part One. Thank you for your patience this year!

Margot spread her hands on the table in front of her, eyes resting on her wedding with a goofy grin that wouldn’t leave her face. Vance followed her eyes and traced the band with his finger.

“I guess I should be glad you didn’t toss this in the Mississippi, huh?”

“Don’t be melodramatic,” Margot said, still smiling, “I would have sold it and traveled the world.”

“Speaking of,” Vance started, his brow furrowed as he clicked around the phone nestled in his palm, “I don’t think we’re going to be flying out of here tonight.”

Margot didn’t bother to confirm his words. Emotional whiplash should have rendered her exhausted, but Vance’s news held the promise of a future she hadn’t been sure she believed in any longer. Adrenaline and contentment battled in her brain, but though she couldn’t stifle her yawn, she couldn’t imagine falling asleep either.

“Christmas in Chicago?” she asked. They’d been to the city in another lifetime, back before they flew across the country more frequently than they spent time at home.

“Maybe,” Vance said.

Margot recognized the noncommittal tone. “Or?”

“Well, I know we’re expected home at some point,” Vance said.

“Some point like tomorrow,” Margot said. “Christmas Eve and then Christmas, remember?”

“I know,” Vance said.

“But?”

“Well, you asked what we were going to do, and I’ve actually been thinking about it a lot,” he said.

She wasn’t sure if she wanted to hear what he had planned.

“Do you remember Josh?” Vance asked.

“CPA Josh or cage fighter Josh?” Margot asked.

“CPA Josh,” Vance said. “Though I’m pretty sure cage fighter Josh gave that up about three years ago and went to the police academy in Atlanta.”

“So, why do I need to remember CPA Josh? Didn’t he disappear into some little town upstate?”

“Not exactly. Little town, yes. But it’s not too far from our place, actually. Drivable, for sure. On the water.”

The ease with which he spoke of their little apartment settled comfortably in her chest. “And Josh has something to do with what you want to do next?”

“He wants to open a finance firm. Small. Maybe firm isn’t even the right word. But he wants to help local businesses manage their money, and he needs help. He’s good with numbers, better than anyone I know, actually. But he’s helpless with all the rest of it, the tech, the promotion, the daily running of a business.”

“And we can do that,” Margot said. “We’re kind of fantastic at that.”

“We are, indeed, fantastic at that.”

“We’d have to leave Buffalo?”

“It’s an hour away, I think, we can map it out. Maybe we could commute for a while,” Vance said.

Margot thought about their apartment. She could barely picture what they’d put on the walls. The only thing she could conjure was the smell carried on Vance’s hair.

“Or maybe we could try something new,” she said, reaching to bury her face in his neck.

Vance’s eyes brightened. “I don’t want to make a decision without weighing all our options. But I had this idea that maybe we should ditch the return flight and just rent a car and drive over to this little town and see how they do Christmas.”

Surprising herself, Margot smiled and laced her fingers through Vance’s. “Let’s do it.”

“Really?” He asked, and for the first time in countless long months, she felt her stomach flip with excitement about the future.

“I think,” she said, slowly, “if we’re together, anywhere might feel like home.”

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