No experience is as universal as the loss of a loved one, which makes the memoir of grief an unusual, and often unappealing, literary genre. We know, of course, why the bereaved author has put pen to paper; he needs to cope. What we don't know is why we need to read his outpourings. Unless the sob story is both resonant and new, we might as well make do with our own ineluctable misery, thank you very much.
Joan Didion's "The Year of Magical Thinking" gracefully straddled this impossible line, and while Matt McAllester is no Joan Didion, he is, like her, a serious, painstaking reporter. It makes all the difference. A war correspondent by trade—past assignments include Iraq, Afghanistan and Jerusalem—McAllester has produced in "Bittersweet" a scrupulously honest dispatch that's every bit as gripping as a report from Abu Ghraib, and every bit as vital.
Ignore the dust jacket—its sappy subtitle ("Lessons From My Mother's Kitchen") and faded mother-son photo evoke the worst kind of "inspirational" drivel. Yes, the book is about Ann McAllester, who succumbed to madness and alcoholism when Matt was 10 and had only just found a bit of stability when she died suddenly at 62. And yes, it's about food, which McAllester prepares according to her recipes in an effort to reconnect with the mother she'd been before she lost her mind. But above all, "Bittersweet" is a mosaic of the disorienting facts of life after death—the prayers we con ourselves with, the old sorrows we uncover—assembled with an utterly unsentimental eye. "My mother's careful rectangles of tape kept the [cookbook] hanging together," McAllester writes. "Drops of something brown—early versions of sauce for spareribs?—spattered pages 336 and 337, the latter of which featured the recipe we used to love. I had forgotten about spareribs." This is the memoir of grief as journalism, no sugar added.