Review of ‘The Vanishing Half’ by Brit Bennett

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett
ISBN 978-0-593-28610-4
Published 2020

This is a well-written book. I enjoy reading fiction that feels professional and polished. Well thought out, planned and executed. The hard work is nice to see and I admire good writing.
It covers some tough social issues; Family and siblings, Abandonment, Domestic violence, Racism and trauma, Gender and sexuality, poverty, mental illness. Which is good, and not so good. I felt the book was a vehicle to transport these subjects, rather than a novel exploring characters. But it was not preachy. I am still on the fence as to how well it works. This review is my way to work that out.
It covers a long sweep of history, from 1954 to 1986. And the narrative is not in chronological order, so a reader has to be on his toes. Even chapters had some jumps back and forth in time. And there are a number of characters to track as well, which required some effort. A few of times I wasn’t sure who’s POV I was in.
I think my only real knock on the book was ‘Who’s story is this?’ I started assuming Stella and Desiree, but we don’t get as close to either as I would like. Regular readers of my reviews know I love close third person. I want to experience with the characters, I want to know their thoughts and feelings and motivations. But they kept the reader a little distant from them, which is a flaw. And then they drop back and the stories of Jude and Kennedy come forward, bringing in Reese. But there continues to be a distance. I never felt like I really knew any of these characters. The author doesn’t let us get close enough.
There are a couple of coincidences to make the story work, but they didn’t totally jar me out. If anything, I saw the retirement cocktail party coming. But that was trivial.
A few things stretched my belief. Stella becoming a mathematics prof so late in life. How long Jude kept her knowledge from her mother didn’t seem realistic, and they did not explore any motivations for keeping it a secret. Again, this might have been a chance to get closer. A missed opportunity.
This was a good book, and I will probably seek out her earlier novel ‘The Mothers’.

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The Myth of the Solitary Hero

Superman. A solitary hero who saves the day. Spider man. Clint Eastwood in most movies. I would say Batman, but he had Alfred. Which veers towards the truth. Most genuine heroes work with teams.
The ability to recruit, organize and motivate. This is leadership. Coaches of elite teams, leaders of industry or politics, generals of armies, directors of movies and plays, scientists exploring vaccines or the cosmos. Mother Teresa feeding the poor.
Here is the West, and especially in North America, the myth of that solitary hero handicaps us and sets up unrealistic hopes and dreams. And often teaching the leadership skills to organize teams is an afterthought until well after they achieve a university education.
I have had the pleasure of working for some outstanding leaders, and the misfortune to work for some others.
In my career, I started as a sole performer, a techie doing my job. And I slowly advanced to managing other techies. And I learned to manage people in an ad hoc fashion. I like people and found I was good at it. They gave me more people to manage, bigger projects to manage, and I joked I was on the career path of getting bigger and harder projects until I would fail and be fired. Such was the career path of a project manager.
But joking aside, I didn’t really get much training in how to manage teams. I learned tools, scheduling, logistics, contracting, finance. Some sales and marketing. But how does a leader get the most out of his or her team? This ‘Royal Jelly’ is not really applied to most managers. It is through trial and error that we learn how to get the most out of people.
And trial and error minimizes the costs of those errors. I pushed some former teams to the breaking point, and beyond. A peer once told me I was too hard, that I was burning people out, and I honestly said I didn’t care as long as my project came in on time and on budget. In the IT industry, we call it a death march and many development leaders still do it.
If I could talk to that younger me, I would set him straight. As I suppose my peer was trying to do.
But I have learned, through reading, independent study, and some continuing trial and error, that outstanding performance can be conjured out of teams with a better approach than bullying.
People want to do a good job. They want to be a part of building something, achieving some goal, creating something new and good. And if it is hard to achieve that goal, if it takes thought and effort and new ways of thinking or doing, that energizes most people. Good people like a challenge. They rise to that challenge.
I am not a deeply religious man, but I admire the picture of Christ at the Last Supper. He knew he couldn’t do it alone, so he built a team of twelve.
In our communities, our businesses, our churches, families, societies, we need to recognize that nobody achieves much of importance without collaboration and teamwork. There are no heroes coming to save the day. That myth of rugged individualism handicaps us. We, collectively, together as teams, can be those heroes.