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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
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