After her brother-husband Osiris, the Egyptian god of the dead, was sliced into a dozen pieces and scattered along the shores of the Nile, Isis set about recovering and rejoining the fragments. She was able to locate only 11.
Like Osiris, Carl Brenner was a man of many parts — trial lawyer, big-game hunter, gun collector, Christian convert, magnet for adoring women, apple baron, cancer victim. He was also the older brother of Marie Brenner, whose exposé of the tobacco industry, published in Vanity Fair, for which she is writer-at-large, provided the basis for Michael Mann’s 1999 film The Insider. Her byline has appeared frequently in The New Yorker, the New York Times Magazine, and Esquire as well as on the spines of some notable books. One of them, 1988’s House of Dreams: The Binghams of Louisville, recounts the disintegration of a prominent and powerful Southern clan.
In Apples and Oranges, a memoir of sibling discord within her own family, Brenner applies her skills as an investigative reporter to trying to fathom and repair her strained relationship with Carl. Yet she is no Isis; she reassembles her brother in bits and pieces that never quite cohere. Jumping about in space and time, her memoir challenges the reader to find design amid absences and missed connections.
Though scenes of the Brenners’ story are set in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Mexico, California, London, Beijing, and Austin, it is primarily a tale of two sites: San Antonio, where Marie and Carl grew up and to which each returned sporadically to live, and the Wenatchee Valley in central Washington, where Carl was the sole owner and proprietor of 200 fertile acres and 180,000 pomaceous fruit trees. In her early 20s, Marie left Texas to conquer New York, and after doing so took up residence on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. However, she comes back again and again to San Antonio, and her memoir makes mention of such familiar local landmarks as Central Market, La Fonda on Main, Fort Sam Houston, Club Giraud, Temple Beth-El, and the Madison Square Presbyterian Church (though she describes sharing sushi at a place called “Japan Inn,” she probably means Niki’s Tokyo Inn, on Hildebrand). Her family founded and owned Solo Serve, the discount emporium that provided for a privileged childhood on Contour Drive in Olmos Park. Brenner writes with pride of how her father, Milton, defied Jim Crow to make Solo Serve’s lunch counter the first integrated eatery in San Antonio.
As his laptop password, Carl Brenner used WOTAN, the name that Norse mythology gave to the king of the gods. The old sagas recount how the goddess Freia kept Wotan eternally young by supplying him with golden apples. Marie reports that her brother ate 12 apples a day, but, though a daily apple is said to be an effective repellent of physicians if not morticians, Carl died at 55. At 40, he abandoned a successful legal career to take up fruit farming. “My son, the Jewish Johnny Appleseed,” his incredulous mother called him, but he confounded the description and his family of Reform Jews by becoming a Christian. Carl spent a few years as lord of an orchard in South Africa before creating an empire of apples and pears in central Washington. He reestablished residence in San Antonio and called his distant agricultural enterprise the Alamo Orchard Company.
Brenner depicts her relationship with her only sibling Carl, three years her senior, as “a history of stupid arguments, minuscule fissures, black holes. Our relationship is like tangled fishing line. We are defined by each other and against each other, a red state and a blue state, yin and yang.” One of her earliest memories is of being pushed out of a first-floor window by her older brother. In high school, Carl, a contrarian who belonged to the ultra-right-wing John Birch Society, smashed his sister’s Joan Baez records. Later, he supported the war in Iraq and scorned the liberal Northeast milieu in which Marie’s career thrived. In occasional contacts with his sister, Carl was either merely prickly or downright obnoxious. “Could anyone have less in common with a brother?” asks Marie, but her answer is ambivalent. Throughout his poem “To the Reader,” Charles Baudelaire heaps scorn on his subject for a litany of failings and misdeeds, yet concludes by addressing the reader as “mon semblable, mon frère” — my double, my brother. For all their incompatibility, Marie recognizes that she and Carl are doppelgängers, which makes her quest to learn about the stranger she shared her childhood with also a search for self-knowledge. It is made more urgent when her brother is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer.
A professional reporter, Brenner characterizes herself as “a magpie of facts, an issuer of sound bites, a repeater of opinions, an arbiter of everyone else’s self-importance, ego blurts, and grandiosity, a sponge recycling reports from the front.” She deploys her journalist’s tool kit not only to make urgent contact with specialists who might save her brother’s life, but also to research that life and reinsert herself into it. Marie’s mission takes her to Austin, to the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, where the papers of their flamboyant Aunt Anita are housed. She reads about how young Anita ran away from San Antonio to Mexico and became an intimate and champion of Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, David Siqueiros, and other innovative artists. It is Aunt Anita’s backside that Edward Weston famously photographed as a pear-shaped nude. Marie also reads about her grandfather Isidor, the adventurous Russian immigrant who planted the family’s roots in south Texas. Sitting in the archives, she sobs over discovery of a genetic marker, the sibling enmity that blights each generation. It is not quite Rosebud, the key she thinks she finds to explaining what went wrong between Carl and Marie. Nor do her efforts to seek out academic specialists shed much new light on sibling strains in general. As Tolstoy observed, every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
The most fruitful pages of Apples and Oranges come when Marie, determined to understand Carl on his own terms, flies off to Washington. She learns as much as she can about apples — the history, botany, and husbandry of the crop. She learns to distinguish among Fuji, Braeburn, Gala, Honeycrisp, and many of the thousands of other varieties. She humbly submits herself to Carl’s tutelage and tyranny, toiling in his orchards and warehouses for meager wages. Yet, despite moments of shared emotion, Carl and Marie remain Mars and Venus, planets separated by a gap wide enough to accommodate the Earth.
The title Apples and Oranges draws on a familiar metaphor to express the ineradicable incongruity between a brother and a sister. And though Carl was the king of apples, oranges have no special meaning for his sister. No acid, ascorbic or other, stains this honeycrisp memoir, written in wistful regret about things left unsaid and all that might have been. In the book’s prologue and again at its conclusion, Brenner concedes: “Sometimes you do not get to understand everything.” Isaac Newton might have thought the same, until struck in the head by an apple. •
Luncheon with author Marie Brenner
with special guest writer Mimi Swartz
Presented by the San Antonio Public Library Foundation
Mon, Jun 2
11:30am: Meet the author, book sales, & signing
Noon: Lunch, reading, Q&A
$100, open seating
312 Pearl Parkway
(210) 225-4728 ext. 11