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

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"To be sure, some brothers and sisters have relationships that are easy. But oh, some relationships can be fraught. Confusing, too: how can two people share the same parents and turn out to be entirely different?" "Marie Brenner's brother Carl - yin to her yang, red state to her blue state - lived in Texas and in the apple country of Washington State, cultivating his orchards, polishing his guns, and (no doubt causing their grandfather Isidor to turn in his grave) attending church, while Marie, a world-class journalist and bestselling author, led ...
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"To be sure, some brothers and sisters have relationships that are easy. But oh, some relationships can be fraught. Confusing, too: how can two people share the same parents and turn out to be entirely different?" "Marie Brenner's brother Carl - yin to her yang, red state to her blue state - lived in Texas and in the apple country of Washington State, cultivating his orchards, polishing his guns, and (no doubt causing their grandfather Isidor to turn in his grave) attending church, while Marie, a world-class journalist and bestselling author, led a sophisticated life among the "New York libs" her brother loathed." "From their earliest days there was a gulf between them, well documented in testy letters and telling photos: "I am a textbook younger for my role as bete noir to my brother Carl," Brenner writes. "He's barely six years old and has already developed the Carl Look. It's the expression that the rabbit gets in Watership Down when it goes tharn, freezes in the light."" "After many years apart, a medical crisis pushed them back into each other's lives. Marie temporarily abandoned her job at Vanity Fair magazine, her friends, and her husband to try to help her brother. Except that Carl fought her every step of the way. "Stay away from my apple farms," he barked. And, "Don't tell anyone you're from New York City. They'll get the wrong idea."" "As usual, Marie - a reporter who has exposed Big Tobacco scandals and Enron - irritated her brother and ignored his orders. She trained her formidable investigative skills on finding treatments to help her brother medically. And she dug into the past of the brilliant and contentious Brenner family, seeking in thatcomplicated story a cure, too, for what ailed her relationship with Carl. If only they could find common ground, she reasoned, all would be well." Brothers and sisters, Apples and Oranges. Marie Brenner has written a memoir - one that is heartbreakingly honest, funny, and true. It's a book that even her brother could love.
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Editorial Reviews

Michiko Kakutani
Thanks to his sister's new book, Apples & Oranges, Carl Brenner did not succeed in vanishing without a trace. Rather, his life, with all its startling twists and turns, and his singular, sometimes maddening personality are magically conjured for us in these pages, as Ms. Brenner uses the prism of her love and grief for her brother—and her bewilderment too—to create a haunting portrait of him and their family. She has written a book that captures the nervous, emotionally strangled relationship she shared with him for the better part of their lives, a book that explores the difficult algebra of familial love and the possibility of its renewal in the face of impending loss…a beautifully observed and deeply affecting memoir, a book written with the unsparing eye of a journalist and the aching heart of a sister
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly

"Perplexing" was the family euphemism for Brenner's older brother Carl; the less tactful thought him "unknowable," "charm-free" or plain "weird." At 13, in San Antonio, Tex., where his father owned a discount store, Carl joined the John Birch Society. At 40, he left his career as a trial lawyer to become an apple farmer in Washington's Cascade Mountains. Brenner (House of Dreams) and he were on barely civil terms, but when he was 55, he was diagnosed with adenocarcinoma, glandular cancer, and asked Marie for help. She responded, leaving her family in New York to be with Carl, who rejected conventional treatment, and to follow him as far away as China for "scorpion patches," herbs and red meat for "yang deficit." The cancer spread quickly; meanwhile, Marie sought to investigate her family's present and past among her father's feuding siblings, including writer Anita Brenner (who became part of Mexico City's art scene that included Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo). And with this research, Brenner courageously and affectingly plumbs the depths of often complex family and sibling relationships. (May 20)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Kirkus Reviews
Vanity Fair writer at large Brenner (Great Dames: What I Learned from Older Women, 2000, etc.) pens an absorbing account of her fractious relationship with her brother. The granddaughter of a Texas discount-store magnate, the author flinched from the ultra-conventional assumptions of her affluent family. (As a college student in the 1960s, she was chagrined to receive an unrequested package of panty girdles from her mother.) Inspired by the example of her aunt Anita, who ran away to Mexico at age 19, befriended Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera and became a freelance writer, Brenner thwarted expectations and forged a successful career in journalism that included a pioneering stint as a baseball columnist in Boston. In the autumn of 2001, she traveled from New York to Washington state, determined to explore long-standing tensions with her ailing older brother Carl, a fiery-tempered trial lawyer who'd left his career to cultivate apples. In deft, nuanced prose, Brenner crafts a saga that is part family memoir, part psychological thriller and riveting overview of the U.S. apple-growing industry. The nonlinear narrative never falters as it moves adeptly back and forth in time. Readers will be captivated by the author's unvarnished yet balanced portrait of her difficulties with a combative sibling who routinely ridiculed her leftist politics and peppered his conversations with tirades about bruised apples and pears. Brenner, who accompanied the ill Carl on a medical research trip to China, details the hurt, hostilities and betrayals she endured with deep compassion and an understanding heart. She also offers vivid examples of the tactics she used to counter her brother's outlandish behavior andbelligerence. Foreshadowed in a stylish prose riff, the book's carefully executed denouement still packs a powerful punch. A rich and masterful memoir with great value for aspiring practitioners of the genre, as well as discerning readers.
From the Publisher
"Grabs the problem of sibling rivalry by the throat . . . exposing the sweetness at the core of an embattled love."—O, The Oprah Magazine

"Deftly traces three generations of a combustible, fascinating family."—The Miami Herald

"In this elegiac memoir, the author, a reporter, applies the same investigative skills that led to her exposé of the tobacco industry and Enron to a more intimate subject: her contentious relationship with her late brother. . . . At once comic and tinged with regret."—The New Yorker

"If Marie Brenner and her brother, Carl, can learn to love each other, there might be hope for our divided America after all. . . . Brenner reminds us that it's more productive to eat apples than to throw them."—Entertainment Weekly

"An acid-laced tale of family love."—USA Today

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780374173524
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Publication date: 5/13/2008
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Pages: 288
  • Product dimensions: 5.74 (w) x 8.46 (h) x 1.07 (d)

Meet the Author

MARIE BRENNER's Vanity Fair exposé of the tobacco industry was the basis for the Academy Award-nominated film The Insider. She also wrote Great Dames: What I Learned from Older Women.

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Read an Excerpt

Apples and Oranges My Brother and Me, Lost and Found
By Brenner, Marie
Farrar, Straus and Giroux Copyright © 2008 Brenner, Marie
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780374173524

Chapter 1

We fight at the dinner table.

Stay away from my apple farms, my brother Carl says.

And stay away from the Cascades.

You don’t know anything about apples.

It is a tone that I know well. The mixture of hate and love, rage and need, all scrambled together.

It is not easy for him to breathe. His girlfriend, Frika, is by his side, acting as if everything is as it always has been, as if nothing in the world is the matter. She is oh-so-British, drops her voice at the end of questions, takes on like the queen. She pulls me aside in the kitchen and says, “He is the love of my life and always has been. We have never been happier.” Her cheeks flush like a debutante’s.

Her black lace nightgown hangs on a hook in his bathroom. At night, they stay up late and listen to Parsifal, Wagner’s dark score of the holy fool. Her eyes gleam with pools of longing. She looks at him as if he is Devonshire cream. At the dinner table, she hums a few stanzas from Das Rheingold. “Fricka’s theme!” she says. Her expression says it: Top that.

He eats two helpings of filet, then asks for a second dessert.

Tarte tatin.

Made by the other girlfriend, who was at his house for lunch.

“Heather sure knows how to cook,” he says.

A shadow passes over Frika’s face.
At lunch, Heather demonstrated her pastry-cutting technique. “I always put a crimped leaf on the top for Carl,” she said.

“He is the love of my life,” she said.
There are always apples around him. Women, too. Apple pie. Big, chic antique bowls of wooden apples in all colors: red and gold and striped. Apple ceramics, apple pencils, apple photos. Produce labels framed on the library wall: Gulf Brand Texas Vegetables from the Rio Grande Valley, Empire Builder, Wenatchee District Red Seal Brand. I am an American first, then a Texan, he would say, not understanding he sounded like Augie March. The clues are there, in the grad school classic Augie March, I later realize. “A man’s character is his fate,” Saul Bellow wrote, quoting Heraclitus.

You always have to show off and tell us what you know, Carl said.

“I’ll be in Washington next week,” I say. “I have an interview. I have to close a piece.”

“You promised me,” he says. “You said you would stay away from Washington State. You sat right here and said that you would not go to the Cascades.”

He yells as loudly as I have ever heard him.

“Washington, D.C.,” I shout back.

I have the trait as well.

He glares. I glare. In that glare is the jolt of our connection, the fierceness of our attachment. We stare at each other hard.

“I don’t know what you are so angry about,” he says.

The next morning, he is at his desk when I say good-bye. It’s a bright Texas morning. March 29, 2003. The San Antonio Express-News had a headline the day before: “Deployment. Fort Hood’s 4th Infantry Division Moves Out.” The country is now at war and we are in San Antonio, a city of military bases. Starbucks on Broadway is filled with young army officers from Fort Sam Houston. They wear camouflage clothes and are on their way to Baghdad. “Macchiato skim,” one says.

Fort Sam Houston, the country club of the army, borders the lush suburb of Alamo Heights. It’s an oasis of privilege with a Texas zip code that is used conversationally—“09,” for 78209, the demographic of debutantes and ranch kings, fiesta princesses, new-money Latinos and WASP bankers with Roman numerals after their names, some of which date back to the Battle of the Alamo.

“What do you think of the war?” I ask a woman I went to high school with. “I don’t watch anything depressing,” she says. “I know y’all are concerned about 9/11, but we feel so safe down here.”

Starbucks had a swarm of kids leaving for Iraq, I say when I walk up the stairs of Carl’s house. He has a shredder next to him, and at the moment I arrive, he is filling it with orchard reports, glossy brochures for Procure Fertilizers, invitations for dinners at the McNay Art Museum. I think nothing of this. He is a neat freak who shreds everything that crosses his desk. He has always lined up his pencils and sharpened them just so.

On the wall where he works is a large map of South Africa in the Boer years, framed in antique gold, and several pictures of our grandfather, Isidor, a man of committees and awards, donating his specimen camellia bushes to a worthy cause. It is a mystery to me why Carl has kept a shrine to a relative he did not know. He looks out of large windows with window seats to neat stone houses of 78209 and bright lawns with a sea of bluebonnets in the grass. You know it’s March in Texas when you take to the hill country and see an unending blue mist covering the fields.

Carl’s bloodwork is coming through the fax. He stares at the numbers. He is now a student of the CRP test, which measures inflammation and must read 3 or less; the CEA;  the glutathione test, which is a barometer of the liver; a new one, the CA 19-9, with its Geiger counter to monitor the pancreas; the prothrombin, which tells you about clotting; the remnant lipo test, IDL plus VLDL3.

My CEA is going nuts, he says.

It is just a number, I reply too quickly. These numbers go up and down. You know that.

He’s working with an assistant, a woman I have met through someone at the gym. I pretend, just like Frika, that everything is as it always has been. That I can escape. That my brother is normal. That this time in his life is just a challenge, a euphemism I use all the time. That his condition is “chronic.” Something to be handled. Another euphemism. I am going back to my home in New York City. Just six hours away, I tell myself. We have blown past whatever went on the night before. We always do. Anger is our Prozac. I am trying to train myself to say: I love it when you’re angry! You sound like you did when you were fourteen! Or: Here you go again! That wonderful juicy aliveness! Rage! Instead, I yell back and get stuck in a whirl of fury—what the Buddhists call samsara—the endless repetition of a treadmill, the prison I am in.

You have the best doctors in the country.

I know, he says.

This is manageable, I say.

I love you more than anyone, I say. You are my brother. We are Brenners. Team Carl.

There is no epiphany. There are no final words.

“Don’t leave me,” he says. Tears run down his cheeks. “I am sorry for everything.”

“I will be back in four days,” I say. “Nothing bad is going to happen. There is nothing to worry about.”

“No one ever tells you the truth,” Carl says.

He fills jumbo lawn-and-leaf Hefty bags with files. “House-cleaning,” he says. A copy of the New Testament is on his desk. I see a box marked “Orchard.”

“Father Jesus,” he now says before every meal, “we pray for our troops in Iraq.”

I have a list in the car. Last-minute sources to double-check: Queries from Mary Flynn, the chief of research for the magazine at which I work. Phone calls I must make to Paris in the next twenty-four hours. Phrases to double-check and translate for the text: My notes on a legal pad—“On piege les mecs: Is this the idiom for ‘one sets a trap’?” A review of a Leonardo da Vinci show of drawings at the Met, from The New York Review of Books. I have circled the word “sfumato.” Later, I search it on Wikipedia.


“Sfumato is the Italian term for a painting technique which overlays translucent layers of colour to create perceptions of depth, volume and form. In particular, it refers to the blending of colours or tones so subtly that there is no perceptible transition.”

In Italian, sfumato means “vanished,” with connotations of “smoky,” and is derived from the Italian word fumo, meaning “smoke.” Leonardo described “sfumato” as “without lines or borders, in the manner of smoke or beyond the focus plane.”

I always tell everything I know.

Why are you always interrupting? Carl always says.

I regret everything.

If Carl could speak, what would he say?

Excerpted from Apples and Oranges by Marie Brenner. Copyright © 2008 by Marie Brenner. Published in May 2008 by Sarah Crichton Books, a division of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.


Excerpted from Apples and Oranges by Brenner, Marie Copyright © 2008 by Brenner, Marie. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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Reading Group Guide

Questions for Discussion
1. Marie Brenner's memories encompass a variety of settings, particularly central Texas, New York, and her brother's Washington orchards. What identities and cultures are captured in each of these settings? Where does she feel most at home? Which locale would you prefer? To what degree does birthplace shape our sense of self? 2. What is the effect of the memoir's timeline, weaving the near present with the distant past? In what way does this structure mirror the way memories enter our lives? 3. What accounts for the tremendous personality differences between Marie and Carl, despite their having had the same upbringing? What may have contributed to Carl's conservatism in the face of a family history that often embraced progressive ideas? In terms of temperament, did Marie and Carl share any similarities? 4. How did the past repeat itself in Brenner family history? How is Marie affected by her research into family lore, particularly her findings about Anita? Who are the most colorful figures in your family's past? How are we shaped by the knowledge of these legacies? 5. In what ways does religion as a cultural institution figure into the Brenner identity? As Marie captures the experience of Jewish immigrants who arrived in the United States through Galveston, what costs and benefits are ascribed to assimilation, or life as a secular Jew? How does Ilene's approach to Christianity compare to Carl's? 6. Marie describes her sorrowful encounter with her ancestors' correspondence at the Harry Ransom Center, as well as her childhood home, filled with typewriters on which many carbon-copied letters were produced. What does it mean for her to come from a verbal family that left miles of documentation in its wake? Is the truth captured in such documents? Is the quest for answers a defense mechanism, as Marie proposes? 7. Discuss the experience of reading about Carl's beloved orchards and the landscape of rural Washington. What does his enthusiasm for agriculture -- and his rejection of the family's apparel trade -- say about him? In what ways does the perfectionistic process of nurturing, harvesting, and exporting world-class produce serve as a metaphor for his understanding of life? 8. Speaking before a crowded church, Ilene recalls that "we were going to weave a new family, and no longer be part of the tapestry of brainy squabblers that had ended their time together in silence and separation." What degrees of reconciliation are achieved in Carl's lifetime? What are the greatest hurdles to reconciliation? 9. How did Thelma and Milton, at the helm of the Brenner household, shape their children's lives? What did Marie learn from Thelma about being a woman, and what did Carl learn from Milton about becoming a man? 10. What does having a big brother signify to Marie? How does Carl seem to view the role of his little sister? What binds them together, despite their extreme differences? How does her perception of her brother differ from the way others see him? 11. How does Marie compare to the other women in Carl's life? What qualities does he appear to be drawn to? How do women respond to him? 12. With a reporter's precision, Marie describes the tumultuous emotions with which her brother confronted his illness as he tried both Chinese and western medicine, culminating in a loss of confidence in the possibility for healing. What controls our reaction to fate? What personality traits are reflected in the very different responses Carl and Marie showed to his prognosis? 13. The closing scenes capture a memory of peace and laughter between Carl and Marie as well as the beauty of the acreage he once tended. How will Casey's generation remember Carl's and Marie's? What will this sibling legacy be? 14. Marie's preface begins with an advertising line from a movie trailer: "Every life has moments that change us forever and make us who we are." She observes that, despite the hyperbole, it's a true statement. What were the most pivotal moments she encountered in her life? Which experiences have made you who you are? 15. How did you respond to the psychoanalytic theories described in the book regarding siblings? How would you describe your relationship with your siblings? Do these relationships affect (or reflect) the other interactions in your life -- in love, at work, or within friendships?
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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 26, 2008

    A reviewer

    I had high hopes for this book - it skipped around a lot and I never did figure out who Jamie was until the acknowledgements at the end. Based on the descriptions of behavior and traits I think Carl may have had aspegers. One sentence will stay with me forever for it's truth 'You don't get to understand everything'

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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