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Bookmarks Issue: 
36-Sept-Oct-2008
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A-Apples and OrangesApples and Oranges is Marie Brenner’s sixth book, but she’s best known for her award-winning investigative journalism. A writer for Vanity Fair and contributor to the New York Times, the New Yorker, and Vogue, Brenner wrote an exposé of the tobacco industry, "The Man Who Knew Too Much," which was made into the film The Insider, a 1999 Academy Award Best Picture nominee.

The Topic: Apples & Oranges details Brenner’s earnest and often heartbreaking attempt to get to know (and love) her older brother, Carl, after he is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. The two siblings, never close to begin with, drifted both geographically and ideologically farther and farther apart as adults. Liberal Marie moved to New York to pursue a career in journalism, while conservative, gun-toting, George W. Bush-loving Carl abruptly abandoned his career as a lawyer to raise apples in rural Washington State. But when Marie learns of Carl’s diagnosis, she makes a desperate journey to her brother’s farm, seeking to heal old wounds and create a rapprochement with the prickly sibling she barely knows.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 288 pages. $24. ISBN: 0374173524

NY Times Book Review 4.5 of 5 Stars
"In less capable hands, a memoir of such reconciliation might become a tired on-the-road travelogue or, worse, a bedside tear-jerker. But in Apples and Oranges, Marie Brenner has delivered a majestic little book. She deepens a tragicomic story into a meditation on family and fate." James Panero

Entertainment Weekly 4 of 5 Stars
"If you’ve ever loathed your sibling, even momentarily, you’ll be partial to Apples & Oranges … While our innate craving to pick fights with family may endure, Brenner reminds us that it’s more productive to eat apples than to throw them." Vanessa Juarez

New York Times 4 of 5 Stars
"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." Michiko Kakutani

Seattle Post-Intelligencer 4 of 5 Stars
"Brenner … has crafted a courageous and wrenching examination of sibling differences, as well as an important meditation on the limitations of journalism. There is much pain and poignancy here, but also hopeful truths." John Marshall

Newsweek 3.5 of 5 Stars
"The book isn’t really about fruit, nor is it really about Carl; as in the case of all memoirs, it is mostly about the writer, which is both its greatest strength and weakness. … ‘I am a reporter,’ [Brenner] announces at the outset of the book, but that doesn’t mean she’s a great listener, and much of her battle with Carl is really a fight with herself, to stop asking for facts and hear the truth being offered." Jennie Yabroff

Seattle Times 3 of 5 Stars
"There are generations of family squabbles to keep track of, abbreviated chapters and staccato language that obscure the story, and leaps through years and decades that require mental time travel to follow. But there is a story, a sad one, that provides food for thought for anyone who has ever struggled to get along with someone close to them—sibling, parent or friend." John B. Saul

Critical Summary

Critics generally adored Apples and Oranges. While they all noted how easily a memoir of this kind could have slipped into overly sentimental eulogizing, they gave Brenner credit for openly and honestly detailing both Carl’s difficult personality and her own messy, often misguided attempts to figure him out. The only complaints? One reviewer thought some parts (all of the information on apple farming, for example) digressive, and another cited an initially confusing—but ultimately rewarding—narrative. As the Seattle Post-Intelligencer nicely summarized, "Apples & Oranges is a hard-won testament to the power of love and forgiveness in families. Yet the greatest strength of Marie Brenner’s profound memoir is how it asks the toughest of questions but avoids the usual facile answers."