Monday, June 02, 2008

Apples and Oranges: My Brother and Me, Lost and Found

Either there are more memoirs being published today or my eye has become better attuned to picking them from the stacks and stacks of new books I am exposed to every month. But, while there may be more memoir choices than ever before, finding an honestly written one is still the challenge. And why anyone would want to waste time on memoirs that are less than honest is beyond me.

Marie Brenner’s Apples and Oranges: My Brother and Me, Lost and Found is definitely one of the honest ones. In fact, in its frank discussion of family relationships it reminds me of Mary Gordon’s Circling My Mother: A Memoir, perhaps the bluntest, most honest, memoir I have ever read. Neither of these books could have been easy for their authors to write.

The title of Brenner’s book is an apt description of the relationship she had with her only sibling, Carl, for so many years. Marie and her older brother simply could not have been more different from one another. Carl, a loner who seems to have been a conservative almost from birth, joined the John Birch Society at age thirteen in their hometown of San Antonio, Texas. Marie, on the other hand, was outgoing and her politics were the polar opposite of Carl’s. As Marie describes it, their childhood relationship was a tension-filled one that continued into adulthood even though they were eventually divided by a geographic distance as wide as the one between their political and social views.

Carl gave up the legal profession at age 40 and became a Washington apple grower. Marie became an investigative journalist and “writer at large” for Vanity Fair in New York City. Carl saw her lifestyle and her political views as stand-ins for everything he hated most in the world and he was never reluctant to remind her of that. The two were never really close, and it seemed impossible that they ever would be.

Then came news from Carl that, at age 55, he was suffering a type of glandular cancer with a survival rate of only 11% and that he needed her help. Marie, sensing that she might be running out of time to reconcile her differences with her brother, quickly joined Carl at his Washington orchard where she diligently employed her investigative skills in a quest to find a cure for his illness. At the same time, she tried to connect with Carl in a way, and to a degree, that would lead to the kind of brother-sister relationship she so badly wanted for them.

Apples and Oranges is about family relationships, especially those between siblings, and it explores the strengths and weaknesses that a family can pass from generation to generation. Brenner speaks of the frustrations, hurt feelings and anger that define her lifelong relationship with her brother but, just as importantly, she exhibits the type of love, compassion and understanding that would survive the worst that her brother could throw her way. It is a remarkable book for its honesty and the insights it offers into the nature of sibling relationships and why some work so well while others are doomed to fail.

Rated at: 4.0

14 comments:

  1. I think there really are more memoirs being published these days, the more horrific and outrageous your story the more likely the book is to be published. This sounds like a good one though especially since you compare it to Mary Gordon.

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  2. It's not a happy story, Stephanie, but it's one that, sad as it really is, seems to have just about been unavoidable. I hope the author has reconciled her feelings about her brother as a result of writing the book.

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  3. The Glass Castle was a heartwrenching although strangely uplifting memoir.

    I'm not sure you can tell an honest one from a fake one by the story. Depends on the skill of the writer. I did think James Frey's was shaky, but that's due to a sordid past.

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  4. I agree that it's not always easy to tell "honest" from "expolitation," but I go by gut instinct as much as anything else when it comes to judging the difference.

    I figure, too, that anyone sharing negative details about themselves and intimate family members are most likely being as honest as anyone out there ever will be.

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  5. Speaking of memoirs about siblings, ever read Mikal Gilmore's "Shot in the Heart"? Quite a story.

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  6. I just read another review about this book. It does sound unhappy, but compelling nonetheless. I think I'm going to try it.

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  7. Loved "The Glass Castle." Mary Gordon -- like some of hers, but not everything. This book isn't a memoir, but it certainly is about family relationships and fleeing unhappy ones. It's also about the adventure, so to speak, of the life of wildland firefighters. Sometimes your family isn't the one you're born to, but the one you create.

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  8. John, I don't know that one but I'll be sure to check it out. Thanks for the heads up.

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  9. Jeane, it's definitely not a happy story...some things in the real world just don't change, the personalities of middle aged men, being one.

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  10. Liz, I was unable to get the link to work for me but I'm going to try a cut and paste job later this afternoon to see it it will work that way.

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  11. Sorry about that. I'll try again. One Foot in the Black is the book I was talking about. Enjoy!It has some new resonance now, too, what with the current fires in California.

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  12. Thanks for relinking, Liz. I was too lazy to do the cut and paste job I mentioned but the new link works perfectly.

    I'll be sure to take a look at the book now that you've made it so easy. :-)

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  13. Honest? Did you read Brenner's disclaimer in the author's note, where she writes that she not only changed names and disguised aspects of some of the people in the book but also, "conversations, events and dialogue have been reconstructed as well." ?
    I don't consider reconstructing events to be honest writing. Also, there are many factual errors in the book, so I don't trust Brenner as a reliable narrator.
    Toby

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  14. Yeah, Toby, I do consider it to be an honest memoir in the sense that it exposes the family dynamics to the world, especially the brother-sister relationship in which the author was involved.

    I don't need real names, addresses and phone numbers of everyone involved to qualify a book as an honest approach.

    As for the factual errors...what are they? Are you a family member or friend? Can you shed some light on the errors? If so, I'd love to hear them and will thank you in advance for sharing the info.

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