This warm and funny tale of an earnest preppy editor finding himself trapped behind the counter of a Brooklyn convenience store is about family, culture, and identity in an age of discombobulation.
It starts with a gift, when Ben Ryder Howe's wife, the daughter of Korean immigrants, decides to repay her parents' self-sacrifice by buying them a store. Howe, an editor at the rarefied Paris Review, agrees to go along. Things soon become a lot more complicated. After the business struggles, Howe finds himself living in the basement of his in-laws' Staten Island home, commuting to the Paris Review offices in George Plimpton's Upper East Side townhouse by day, and heading to Brooklyn at night to slice cold cuts and peddle lottery tickets. My Korean Deli follows the store's tumultuous life span, and along the way paints the portrait of an extremely unlikely partnership between characters with shoots across society, from the Brooklyn streets to Seoul to Puritan New England. Owning the deli becomes a transformative experience for everyone involved as they struggle to salvage the original giftand the familywhile sorting out issues of values, work, and identity.
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About the Author
Ben Ryder Howe has written for The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, and Outside, and his work has been selected for Best American Travel Writing. He is a former senior editor of The Paris Review. He, his wife, and their two children live on Staten Island. My Korean Deli is his first book.
Read an Excerpt
My Korean Deli
Risking It All for a Convenience Store
By Ben Ryder Howe
Henry Holt and CompanyCopyright © 2010 Ben Ryder Howe
All rights reserved.
Last summer my wife's family and I decided to buy a deli. By fall, with loans from three different relatives, two new credit cards, and a sad kiss good-bye to thirty thousand dollars my wife and I had saved while living in my mother-in-law's Staten Island basement, we had rounded up the money. Now it is November, and we are searching New York City for a place to buy.
We have different ideas about what our store should look like. My mother-in-law, Kay, the Mike Tyson of Korean grandmothers, wants a deli with a steam table, one of those stainless steel, cafeteria-style salad bars that heat the food to just below the temperature that kills bacteria — the zone in which bacteria thrive. She wants to serve food that is either sticky and sweet, or too salty, or somehow all of the above, and that roasts in the dusty air of New York City all day, while roiling crowds examine it at close distance — pushing it around, sampling it, breathing on it. Kay's reason for wanting a deli of this kind is that steam tables bring in a lot of money, up to a few thousand dollars per hour at lunchtime. She also wants a store that is open twenty-four hours and stays open on Christmas and Labor Day. She'd like it to be in the thick of Manhattan, on a street jammed with tourists and office workers.
I don't know what I want, but an all-night deli in midtown with a steam table isn't it. I'm the sort of person who loses my appetite if I walk past an establishment with a steam table. I get palpitations and the sweats just being around sparerib tips. Of course, I don't have to eat the food if we buy a deli with a steam table. I just have to sell it. That's what Kay says she plans to do. But Kay has an unfair advantage: years ago, after she came to America, she lost her sense of smell, and now she can't detect the difference between a bouquet of freesias and a bathroom at the bus station. My nose, on the other hand, is fully functional.
Luckily, I'm in charge of the real estate search, and so far I have successfully steered us from any delis serving hot food. As a result, Kay's frustration is starting to become lethal.
"What's the matter?" she asked me the other day. "You not like money? Why you make us poor?"
These are not unfair questions. I would say that one of my biggest faults as a human being is that I do not love money, which makes me lazy and spoiled. Like finding us a store, for example. Call me a snob, but somehow a deli grocery — a traditional fruit and vegetable market — seems more dignified than a deli dishing out slop by the pound in Styrofoam trays. Is that practical? We are, after all, talking about the acquisition of a deli, not a summer home or a car. If dignity is so important, why not buy a bookstore or a bakery? Why not spend it on a business where I have to dress up for work?
Don't get me wrong: I'm not insecure about becoming a deli owner. I even sort of like the idea. Aside from a few "gentleman farmers," no one can remember the last person in my family who worked with their hands. After blowing off law school and graduate school, after barely getting through college and even more narrowly escaping high school, why would I suddenly get snobbish?
But the truth is, I'm still young (thirty-one is young, right?) and can afford to be blasé. It's like the job I had as a seventeen-year-old pumping gas outside Boston, a gig I remember as brainless heaven. I enjoyed coming home smelly. I enjoyed looking inside people's cars while scraping the crud off their windows. I enjoyed flirting with women drivers twice my age.
Who knows how I would have felt if seventeen were just the beginning, and I could look forward to fifty more years of taking orders from strangers.
* * *
TODAY WE ARE looking at a deli with a steam table. This morning I was informed of the news by a fire-breathing giant, a creature escaped from a horror movie about mutants spawned by an industrial accident, who hovered at my bedside until I awoke with a start, upon which the creature said: For two weeks you be in charge of finding our store, and you not come up with anything. So starting today we do it my way. Then the creature exited, accompanied, it seemed to my half-asleep ears, by the sound of dragging chains.
For the rest of the morning I lie there under the sheets as a form of protest, not intending to get out, until my wife, Gab, sits down on the bed next to me with a cup of coffee.
"I want you and my mother to go together," Gab says. "I can't come because I have things to do at home."
The store is near Times Square and has a name like Luxury Farm or Delicious Mountain. Its Korean owners claim to be making eight thousand dollars a day, a preposterous sum that nevertheless has Kay all excited.
"Don't be afraid of steam table," she says as we drive to the store. "If smelling something stranger, close nose and think of biiig money."
I exhale deeply and try to follow her advice, but instead of fistfuls of cash all I can think of are slabs of desiccated meat loaf slathered in congealed gravy and the smell of boiled ham. So I focus on the drive into midtown — the glowering skyscrapers, the silhouettes of bankers and lawyers behind tinted windows a few stories above the traffic, the gigantic television screens featuring high-cheekboned models talking on cell phones, and at street level my future comrades among the peonage: the restaurant deliverymen, the tarot readers, the no-gun security guards and the DVD bootleggers.
The owner of the deli is a distressingly perky woman named Mrs. Yu. She's frizzy-haired and victimized by an excess of teeth, and she's wearing the Korean deli owner's official uniform: a puffy vest and a Yankees cap settled snugly over her Asianfro. Her age — approximately mid-fifties — is the same as Kay's, which makes her part of the generation of Koreans who came to America in the 1980s and became the most successful immigrant group ever — ever: the people who took over the deli industry from the Greeks and the Italians, the people who drove the Chinese out of the dry-cleaning trade, the people who took away nail polishing from African-Americans, and the people whose children made it impossible for underachievers like me to get into the same colleges our parents had attended.
"My name Gloria Yu," she says when we walk in. "My store make you rich." She winks at me. "Cost only half million dollar."
It seems hard to imagine how any convenience store, even one that can get away with charging twelve dollars for a six-pack of Bud Ice, could be worth half a million dollars, but Gloria Yu's store probably deserves it if any of them do. Like a ship squeezed inside a bottle, a full-sized supermarket has somehow been folded into the space meant for a restaurant or a flower shop. Thousands of items line the shelves, seemingly one of everything. In my general state of paranoia, it occurs to me that if I were to be trapped in this place by some sort of prolonged emergency, such as a flood or a toxic cloud, I could survive for months, maybe even a year, and find something new to eat each day.
"So," Gloria Yu says to me, her voice quivering with excitement, "this your first store?"
"Yes, it is," I confess guiltily.
"I knew it!" she says, practically jumping up and down with excitement. "I knew it! I knew it! You not look like normal deli owner." A few customers glance nervously our way.
"So where you from?" Gloria Yu asks me.
"Boston? Like the Boston, Massachusetts? No, no, no. No, no, no."
"What do you mean, 'no, no, no'?" I ask impatiently. "That's where I grew up."
"Not where you grow up, where your family from?" Gloria Yu says.
"Oh, you mean originally? Like where are my ancestors from? Here, I suppose. Here as much as anywhere else."
"Hmm ..." says Gloria Yu, massaging her chin thoughtfully. "Very interesting. Okay, time to show deli!"
Now Gloria Yu thinks I am some sort of freak. Hopefully it will prevent her from selling us her store.
"You two go ahead," I say. "I'm going to wander around alone."
Am I a freak? Why does the steam table scare me so much?
On an even deeper level, though, I wonder, Is fear of the steam table a fear of commitment? A fear of going all the way? Maybe I just need to get it over with and eat a plateful of American chop suey.
"Hey you!" a voice says.
I look around, but there's no one. Kay and Gloria have moved several paces ahead. I'm standing in the drink section, an area filled with glass-doored refrigerators and a rainbow assortment of fluids.
"Hey mister!" the voice commands.
"Over here," the voice says. "Look inside." And now I see. Next to me, apparently imprisoned within a soda refrigerator, is a balding Korean man in a puffy vest.
"I'm you," the man says, banging meekly on the glass.
"I'm sorry?" I say, yanking the door open. The prisoner stands behind a rack of soft drinks, only his right hand poking through.
"I'm Yu," he says. "Mr. Yu. Store owner. You come to buy store, right?"
"Oh," I say. "Nice to meet ... you." I speak these words, as far as anyone watching is concerned, to nothing but a rack of soda. (The refrigerator is one of those models that open up from behind, so you can stock the shelves from back to front. Except for his hand, Mr. Yu remains hidden.)
"This store very good," Mr. Yu says cheerily, his hand gesturing dramatically and at one point seeming to lunge straight for my crotch. "Eight thousand a day no problem. You like something to drink?" The hand starts pointing at different flavors. "Which one your favorite? Have any one. Try many different color."
"Thank you," I say to the hand, while taking out a bottle of Code Red. "It's a nice store." Mr. Yu wants to continue the conversation, but before he can, I gently close the door. Then, in an unplanned gesture, I bow solemnly to the walk-in refrigerator.
"Okay, Mr. Original American," says Gloria Yu, coming up behind me with Kay. "You ready to buy my deli?" She winks at me again and says something to Kay in Korean — something evidently quite hilarious, as they both erupt in hysterical laughter.
"What's so funny?" I ask.
"Don't be worrying," says Gloria Yu, adding mysteriously, "You'll be making successful again soon."
"What? Excuse me?"
"Don't be worrying, I said. Success coming! But first, I want to show you something." A devious smile lights up her lips. "I want you and your mother-in-law to come with me so I can show you where this" — she gestures expansively at the steam-table spread, like a game show model unveiling a new car — "is made."
We follow Gloria Yu to the store's basement, where things get dingy pretty fast. The space is cramped, the light dim, and as the temperature starts to climb, the smell of American chop suey becomes as overpowering as a trash can full of baby diapers. In the basement we find a gang of six Mexicans dressed in thick fire-retardant gloves and steel-toed boots — work gear more appropriate to a steelworks than a kitchen. Evidently you don't cook the food that gets served at a steam table. You attack it with extreme bursts of heat from an oven that looks like a smelter. And you don't prepare it, either. You buy it premade from an offsite mass producer of cafeteria and hospital fare somewhere in Connecticut.
The whole experience is rather shocking, and I think Kay feels bad for me. On our way home, I expect the usual barrage of scorn, like sitting too close to a nuclear reactor, but instead she's quiet. And then as we drive over the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, the gateway to Staten Island and the traditional summing-up point for any of our family's journeys, she tells me she's changed her mind.
"We need small place, for family only. That one too big. Besides, I'm not really trusting that woman anyway. If store be making eight thousand dollars every day, how come she and her husband still working there?" A few minutes later we pull into the driveway of our home and find Gab outside. Instead of having just snubbed out a cigarette, which is what she was really doing, she pretends to have been waiting for us. She does have news, after all.
She bends over and sticks her head through the passenger window, maintaining just enough distance so that we won't smell the smoke on her breath.
"I found the perfect store," she says.
* * *
IT WASN'T MY idea to buy a deli. The idea came to my wife at the time of her thirtieth birthday. Thirty can be an uncomfortable turning point for those inclined to measure their own accomplishments against those of their parents. Gab took it especially hard.
"What have I done with my life?" she asked me.
I reminded her that she had graduated from one of the best colleges in the world (the University of Chicago, where we met almost ten years ago) and obtained both a master's degree and a law degree. She'd even had a burgeoning career as a corporate attorney at a Manhattan law firm, until she'd decided to chuck it all so she could open this deli for her mother.
"And?" she retorted angrily. "Do you know what my mother had accomplished by the time she was thirty? She had three kids who she had raised with no help from my father. She had her own business, which she ran by herself. And she was about to immigrate to America, a country she knew nothing about. All by thirty!" I thought of reminding Gab that her mom never finished college — Gab was beating her three to none in the degree category — but it didn't seem like what she wanted to hear.
Over the course of the next few months, Gab's thirtieth-birthday paranoia transformed into an obsession with repaying her mother's sacrifice. Mistakenly, I had thought that she had already done that by being successful herself. But as the year went on, it became clear that Gab would not be satisfied without a sacrifice of her own. So her goal became to give back some of what Kay had given up in coming to America.
She was going to give her back her business.
And sacrifice her husband.
Kay's old business had been a bakery serving typical Korean desserts. She spoke of it so lovingly one wondered how she had ever coped with its loss. However, unless Americans suddenly developed a taste for mung bean balls and glutinous rice cakes, doing the same kind of business was not going to be an option. Kay knew how to run a deli, having twenty years of experience clerking at 7-Elevens and Stop'n Gos across America. Yet she was no longer the same person she had been in her twenties. Though still frighteningly strong at the age of fifty-five (her one weakness being an inability to say no to relatives requesting favors), she was now prone to thunderous physical breakdowns that left her bedridden for days. And the breakdowns were getting longer and more thunderous. She still smoked, she ate terribly, and she invariably found ways to get out of the doctors' appointments her children tried making for her.
Moreover, physical health was not the only issue. America had wrought some mysterious changes, like the loss of her sense of smell. And there was the question of why she'd never returned to owning her own business. Was she scared? Intimidated? Had she lost her nerve? Or had she lost the desire and the drive? Was she possibly depressed? No one knew, because Kay would no more discuss her feelings than she would go to a doctor. (She had no trouble exhibiting them, but discussing them was out of the question.) Due to her complex psychology, it was possible, of course, that she was all of those things. However, the only obvious reason why she hadn't opened a store was money.
You need money to start a business, and Gab and I, around the time of her thirtieth birthday, were enjoying, for the first time in our married lives, having just a little money in our bank account. It was money we guarded with insane desperation, not even telling each other how much was in the account. The very act of saving was new to us, like a magic power we couldn't quite believe we had acquired. But even more important, it was that money and that money alone that would eventually buy our freedom from Kay's house on Staten Island.
We had moved into the basement nine months before, after the lease on our Brooklyn apartment expired. After living in Brooklyn for three years, we had tired of paying rent to our landlord, a former ad executive from Parsippany who had miswired our brownstone so that everything blew up in our faces. We wanted to own our own space and there were thoughts of starting a family, and when the lease ran out we decided it was time. Kay's house was to serve as a temporary refuge while we house-hunted.
Deep shame attended our moving into Gab's mother's household, but it was not as bad as moving to Staten Island, New York City's pariah borough, a place where once-hot trends like Hummers and spitting go to die, a place so forsaken that not even Starbucks would set up a store there, nor even the most enterprising Thai restaurant owner — only immigrants from the former Soviet bloc, people fleeing environmental disasters and the most involuted economies on earth. (Perhaps they found something homelike in the smoldering industrial landscape, a familiar scent in the air.) As Gab and I quickly discovered, friends were uneasy about visiting us in our new borough. "Can you smell the dump where you live?" they would ask. "How long does it take to develop a Staten Island accent?" We promised they wouldn't have to go back to Park Slope wearing velour sweat suits or smelling like garbage, but still they wouldn't visit us.
Excerpted from My Korean Deli by Ben Ryder Howe. Copyright © 2010 Ben Ryder Howe. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
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.
Table of Contents
Location Is Everything,
"Don't Let It Kill You",
"The Square Root of a Doughnut",
We Are Happy to Serve You,
Labor Wants to Be Free,
C Is for "Cookie",
Naked with Desire,
Alienation of Labor,
I Love you, Tomorrow,
A Rare Cat,
I Ain't Never Leaving Brooklyn,
About the Author,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This book was totally unexpected. I didn't really read the description of the book, but since I love to read off beat memoirs, I thought, sure, why not? Just from the title alone, I was only counting on a person and their dive into the deep end of self employment retail hell, but I got so much more. This is no simple story about marriage and retail partnership either since it delves into intercultural relationships as well. Howe marries into a Korean family and they are known for their industrious attitude towards work. His mother in law steals the show though with her Yoda like proclamations about life and how everything needs to be done NOW, preferably before NOW! Gab, Howe's wife feels that she hasn't accomplished anything compared to her mother and even though she has a law degree, she is driven to make it in the deli world. I never knew how difficult city bureaucracy and fines can make or break a small business. And if they don't get you, the vendors will. I really thought that the most eloquent parts of this book were Howe's interactions with his day job boss, George Plimpton at the Paris Review. Howe descriptions of Plimpton and his interactions are comedic jewels. Plimpton exclaims that he would love to work a shift as a "stocker" when the store is open is priceless. Overall, this is a sweet memoir about how a family can pull together and make things work. I received this book at no expense in exchange for my honest review.
On the surface My Korean Deli is about the experience Ben Howe has owning a deli in New York with his wife and her Korean parents, but its really about so much more! In his funny, self - effacing way he talks about the issues his in-laws faced as immigrants, what it was like for his wife to grow up with immigrant parents, and how that shaped what they wanted the store to become. While trying to make a go of the deli (no easy task) Ben works at the Paris Review for George Plimpton, so sprinkled throughout the story are tidbits about George and his eccentric, delightful beliefs and the extradordinary experience of working for him. By the end, Ben Howe has written a new kind of coming-of-age story in which the owning the deli has given him unusual insight about himself and changed who he is.First, this book is just really funny and endearing. Ben is so honest about his own faults and unrealistic dreams that you can't help but like him. Plus, a deli in New York has to be one of the best places to find every variety of crazy out there, so the stories are highly entertaining. Ben's commentary on the publishing industry and immigrant issues deepen the book, giving it a more satisfying heft. The beginning was a little slow to get going for me, but after that the book had me laughing and cheering for Ben and his Korean in-laws.I listened to My Korean Deli on audio, narrated by Bronson Pinchot. There was nothing striking or fancy about the reading which suited the book perfectly. By the end the voice matched the story so well I would have sworn that the book was read by Ben Howe himself.
I grabbed this off the library shelf because I had a vague memory of someone saying that it was a good book. It's OK.The author is an upper class New Englander, who works for George Plimpton at the Paris Review. His wife immigrated from Korea with her family as a child. When his in-laws decide to purchase and run a deli in New York, he gets roped in to help (not least because he is living in their basement).The book is split between Ben's day job, which is dilletantish and not particularly serious or profitable, and his night job, which is hard, physical labor, means the difference between the entire extended family being homeless or not, and not particularly profitable. Unfortunately, Ben isn't particularly good at either one, and doesn't really bring them to life. There are some interesting scenes with George Plimpton, but the interest depends on knowing (and caring) who he was.In the end, the family sells the deli, due to a series of disasters, and Ben is fired (or quits, it isn't clear) at the Paris Review. The last couple of pages indicate that life moved forward, but not how or why.I felt that htis could have been a lot more interesting. Ben talks a lot about the difference between his upbringing and his wife's, and the hard work of the immigrant experience, and the cultural differences going in both directions, but he doesn't quite bring it all together, or all to life.
I enjoyed this book a lot - didn't want to put it down at times. The book is a memoir centering on the author's purchase of a Brooklyn neighborhood market with his wife's family (immigrants from Korea, which is where the subtitle comes from). As a city dweller, I love a neighborhood market and have often wondered about the family commitment necessary to keep one running, and this book confirms that it's intense and stressful - but does so in an entertaining and thoughtful way. If you enjoy memoirs (or just love a deli, bodega, or local market), this book is for you.
The narrator is so genuine and the situation is so absurd, you have to keep reading. The characters stick with you long after you stop turning the pages. Lots to think about in terms of family obligation.
This is the story of a self proclaimed "tight bummed Puritain" from Boston who is married to a Korean woman. They live with her parents in Staten Island (in the basement). Their grand plan is to pay her parents back for their generosity by buying them a deli in Brooklyn and helping them run it. There are all sorts of problems. The wife's family immigrated to the US from Korea and they still have some "old country" values that clash with Ben's Puritain ways. He ends up slacking on his real job in order to take care of the deli. He meets some suspicious characters in his days of working in the deli. I liked this book. I liked it because the author doesn't lie about the fact that he has troubles with this. He and his wife have troubles with their relationship as well as the relationship with her parents. It is not easy. He doesn't try to hard to make it a funny book or a witty one. He just tells the story like it is. In fact, sometimes I almost wished he would be a little more reactive. He seems so blase about some of the things that happen. As if he is a journalist reporting the story, and not someone who it actually happened to. For example, in the store, which they take over from a previous owner, there are several "regulars" who come in every night and drink beer in the store and just hang out getting drunk. Ben does not express very much fear or worry. He just seems to go with the flow, whereas I would be a bit stressed. Maybe he is but just doesn't portray it in the book. It was also interesting to learn about some of the Korean traditions, which I had never heard of. Some of them are strange, but intruiging. I also love the description of the hard assed, hard working, take no nonsense, immigrant Mother-in-Law. She would be a great person to have on your side but a horrible one to have against you. I could totally see myself butting heads with her. The wife is also interesting. A child of immigrant parents, she is torn between the Korean and American ways and values. It would be hard, I assume, to have to deal with her American husband and her Korean mother. She is often put in the middle, but luckily she is a strong character and comes out of everything just fine. This book was a quick read and I enjoyed it very much. I had no problems turning the pages on this one. I give it a 4 out of 5.
MY KOREAN DELI never really engaged me. It had a kind of schizophrenic quality with its alternate sections dealing first with the purchase of the Brooklyn deli/convenience store and Howe's Korean immigrant in-laws, then with his editorial work at The Paris Review in George Plimpton's Manhattan townhouse, and then with the tension this double life caused within his own marriage while he and his wife lived in the basement of her parents' Staten Island home. The book is labeled a memoir, but there's not really much here about Howe's early life, other than the fact that his family are descendants of the Mayflower folks and largely have never left the immediate area of Plymouth Rock in the past 400 years or so. We also know that he had a rather genteel and privileged upbringing and attended a boarding school in Colorado after only six years of public school in Plymouth. So Howe's marriage to Gab, who he met at college in Chicago, is something of a culture shock, as her Korean family values and work ethic are so completely foreign to him. About his own family, he has this to say: "... you can share space with someone, but you have to contain yourself ... especially when someone else in engaged in the all but holy practice of reading."This statement I could easily relate to, not because I too have upper class origins, but because reading is for me an occasion of reverence and blessed quiet. The bulk of the book, however, is devoted to his Korean in-laws and the grinding work and odd personalities associated with running the deli, and these parts I had a hard time relating to; and I also had difficulty with Howe's supposed 'conversion' to that kind of work after he got acclimated to it, even though he explains -"The work was varied and challenging, and it took a certain expertise to get each facet of it right. The challenges evolved. There was never a moment in which I didn't feel mentally stimulated by the tasks at hand. The labor itself even had, dare I say, a transcendent moment or two."Okay, Ben, maybe for you, but speaking for myself there were precious few "transcendent moments" here. The parts that I did enjoy - about his eccentric boss at the Review, George Plimpton - were simply too widely scattered and incomplete. And I should probably admit here that the reason I wanted to read the book in the first place was because its advance publicity mentioned Plimpton, whose life and work have interested me ever since PAPER LION, decades ago. And what Howe does say about Plimpton here I found most fascinating, if not a little sad, with the description of the old man's strange behaviour, scattered attentions, and, finally, his sudden and unexpected demise, all alone.As a whole, however, the book just didn't grab me. I skimmed a few parts about the deli and the Pak family, looking for more on Plimpton and the magazine. It's not that the writing is not good. It is workmanlike and often charming, with flashes of real insight and humor, but too much of it just did not interest me. I suspect though that Brooklynites and New Yorkers might enjoy this book a lot more than I did.
Fun memoir. At times funny, generally entertaining and kept my interest. Also, it made me realize that I will never, ever want to own and run a convenience store. Haha!
Ben Ryder Howe is used to a double life and his style of writing reflects this. My Korean Deliis a "memoir" of Howe's attempt to be an editor by day and a Brooklyn, New York deli owner by night. It is sporadically insightful, occasionally humorous and more often than not, full of mixed emotions. Howe confronts serious dilemmas throughout the story: the magazine he works for is failing, his relationship with his Korean in-laws is strained because he and his Korean-American wife are living in their basement. He knows nothing about running a New York City deli. Throughout the reading of My Korean Deli I had many different thoughts and questions running through my head. One such question was exactly what was the ratio of truth to fiction in this story? What were the exaggerations and what were the cold hard facts? At times Howe's own astonishment at the state of his double life had me thinking of the Talking Heads lyric from 'Once in a lifetime', "...Well, how did I get here?" Every aspect of Howe's story; from his unraveling relationship with Paris Review editor, George Plimpton, to his crazed concept of how to run a Korean deli, seemed disconnected and without purpose.
While I enjoyed the quirky characters that patronized the deli and the eccentric employees that worked there, the other side of Ben's life - filled with angry editors and cocktail parties - feels like it belongs in a totally different book. The two halves of Ben's life were polar opposites and do not form a cohesive book. It doesn't seem like a dichotomy, just utter confusion.
The author who is a native Bostonian decides to go into business, buying a deli in Brooklyn, N. Y., with his Korean American wife and her Korean parents. The deli presents many challenges; work schedules, what items to stock, who to employ, maintaining a store that is not in good condition, difficult customers, cash flow problems, etc. The author was at the same time employed as an editor at the literary magazine, The Paris Review, so his time and energy was seriously challenged. This book is the chronology of what happened during this family's struggle with managing and maintaining a small business in Brooklyn. I really enjoyed it and especially enjoyed the culture clashes that occurred within this family.
I thought this was a great little story about trying to make your way in the world and learning that, despite the strides you make, you are just a player of the game afterall. The writing seemed honest and descriptive enough to really pull me into the characters and places. I really empathized with both George and Ben; both seemingly playing the roles that life had given them, despite not being entirely comfortable in either role. I also really enjoyed the sense of place; the familiarity of neighbors, and the simple pleasure of seeing those familiar faces and seeing how they fit into your life and you into theirs.
I adore memoirs. I adore memoirs that tackle some sort of personal journey or adventure that I can't imagine taking myself. I adore living vicariously through my reading habits. Ben Ryder Howe and his wife buy a deli (for those of us not in NYC, more of a convenience store) with the intention that eventually his mother-in-law will run it. Everyone can empathize with trying to accomplish something and continually hitting walls. I rooted for this family (a mix of Korean and WASP, by the way) the whole way. I wanted to see them succeed, and I am sure that they did, just probably not the way that they expected. Truly enjoyable.On a last note, I thought that it was VERY interesting that the people that are actually living the "American Dream" (pulling yourself up by your bootstraps) are immigrants. I don't know of too many born in America-Americans that would be willing to work hard enough to have the American Dream...
My Korean Grocery, Ben Ryder Howe.I need to say up front that I¿m one of those people who are distracted by the kind of editing ¿misses¿ that I expect from my local newspaper, but not from a major publisher. Granted, it¿s an advance copy, but I found myself hoping the mistakes would be corrected before the actual release.Having said that, I thought this was a pretty good first effort ¿ not great by any means, but pretty good. I¿ve often wondered how so many of our immigrants wind up running so many of our small businesses, and how they had the courage to work that hard to build a life in this strange country. Now I know. Mr. Howe does too, now.To me, this book was not about running a Korean deli, but about the evolution of his relationship with his wife, and his in-laws. He and his Korean wife, Gab, live with her parents while they try to save up enough money for a place of their own. Gab¿s mother, Kay, is a bear for work. To keep Kay busy, Gab decides to help her mother set up a business.A sometimes very funny book, Mr. Howe takes us through the heartaches and rewards of buying a business he knows nothing about, and working his fanny off to try to make it work. At the same time, he¿s an editor at Paris Review, under George Plimpton, trying to help it stay afloat (some of the best vignettes describe Plimpton¿s management style, or lack thereof).I¿d recommend this book to anyone who wonders how a small convenience store, in an iffy neighborhood, survives. Mr. Howe has a wry sense of humor, a sophisticated style, and tells a good story.
A so-so book. it was entertaining at times, but left me with the overall feeling that it was a handful of seperate short stories taken apart and thrown together in an attempt to make a book length manuscript. Not much cohesion.
I didn't find the book funny at all, and I didn't feel any sympathy toward any of the people involved. The whole experience seemed to be a waste of time and money. Well, not exactly. I guess Ben Howe will make some money off the sales of his book, although I borrowed it from the public library rather than buy my own copy. As another reviewer mentioned, the book could have been improved with the help of a good editor and more cohesion, but even then I think the whole thing would still rub me the wrong way.
As someone who married a man who owned two fast food restaurants, I really related to Ben Howe's story. He perfectly captures the craziness, the back-breaking work, insanely long hours, the horrible bureaucratic obstacles and yes, the occasional rewards of owning your own small business in America.Howe tries to balance his work as an editor at the Paris Review, and the contrast between that world of the Upper East Side in NYC and the Brooklyn neighborhood where the Korean deli is located perfectly mirrors the patchwork of life in New York. His vivid portrait of his boss, George Plimpton, is so intriguing. What I know of Plimpton has mostly come from his reports of his own adventures (Paper Lion, etc.), so this look at him from Howe's point of view is fascinating. Then there is Howe's Korean mother-in-law, Kay. Howe's wife Gab wanted to buy a deli for her mother to thank her for the sacrifices she made to educate Gab, sending her to college and law school. While WASPy Howe doesn't quite get this, he supports his wife, and they extend their living in his in-law's basement to buy the deli for Kay. Kay and Ben clash immediately while trying to find a deli to buy, and when they do buy one, Ben is way too slow to pick up the nuances of working the cash register. He is relegated to stocking shelves.The deli is a meeting place for various characters in the neighborhood, some who hang around all day and night. Howe usually worked the late shift, so his customers were the creatures of the night. He grew to tolerate, and respect, these people, even while they exasperated him. One employee, an African-American man named Dwayne, came with the store, and while he was a good employee, always showing up for work, he frequently offended customers of the store with his language. In a book filled with colorful, interesting people, Dwayne is perhaps the most interesting. He knows everyone and everything about the neighborhood, and is a single dad trying to raise his daughters.Immigrants are the backbone of this nation, and Howe tells Kay and her husband's story with honesty and respect. Where they came from, how hard they worked to get to America and make something of themselves, it is a tribute to the people who work long, hard hours, doing work that many people refuse to do, that explain how many cultures come here and make a success of themselves for their families. Howe nails the difficulties of owning your own small business- the strain it puts on a marriage, the constant money worries- it's a 24/7 responsibility, much like having a child, which Ben and Gab are also struggling to do. His tales of the deli, what it means to the neighborhood, to his family, and eventually to him, give the reader a real appreciation of small business owners. I loved his story of Gab trying to get from Queens to Brooklyn during a horrible snowstorm, and of keeping the store open during the big blackout.Howe is a gifted writer, and this book is one I would highly recommend. It's a great American story.
I really enjoyed this offbeat novel about a very unlikely convenience store owner. It has the qualities of a good memoir in that it tells a vivid story rather than just recounting dry facts. Howe balances introspection with scenes that could easily be made into a movie. To top it off, he manages to avoid coming off as self-absorbed or whiny ¿ a situation that is becoming all too often the norm in non-fiction "The Story of How I Spent a Year________________" books. Howe also shows a talent that is a trademark of any good writer drawing directly on life experiences for material ¿ the ability to turn the banal into something worth writing about. When going into descriptions of daily ¿ potential very boring ¿ routines, Howe manages to make almost any topic interesting, from learning to work a cash register to placing orders for over-priced merchandise. Another great quality of this book is the contrast of the environment at the Paris Review against his life at the deli. Throughout the book, the author¿s voice is honest and he never comes off as judgmental to the life of those who own convenience stores, despite the fact that it is probably the last path he would have picked for himself and he often feels like an outsider most of the time. Though Howe can go off on a tangent or two, for the most part, this book is also very quotable with really memorable characters that leap off the page. The one criticism I have of the book is that the ending was somewhat anti-climatic; I would have liked to see a greater, more obvious change in the main character at the end. .
I'll admit it, I have a soft spot for the quirky memoir, especially one focused on a specific project. (Julie and Julia, I'm looking at you.) So I was pleased to receive My Korean Deli through the Early Reviewer program. A fast-paced trip through a subculture I know nothing about? Sounds like a good time to me.Ben Ryder Howe didn't let me down -- this book is a lot of fun. Whether you relate to the nerdy Ivy Leaguer, the immigrant in-laws, or simply the secret life of a deli and its denizens, there's something to attract everyone. As someone who has never worked retail but knows my way around a New York deli, I was fascinated at how complicated running a small business can be. And also horrified at the amount of work put in for some piddly profits.Equally interesting to me, at least, was a glimpse into the other half of Ben's world, the quirky life of the Paris Review, and George Plimpton in particular. Anyone with literary aspirations should check out Howe's descriptions of that great man as well as the creative chaos behind a key literary magazine.Howe has a great tone, and his mundane, real-life adventures are enough to keep any reader riveted and amused.
Before coming to America, Ben Ryder Howe's mother-in-law owned a deli/convenience store in Korea. He and his wife are living with her family as many Korean extended families do. It is his wife's dream to give her mother her dream so they begin looking through the streets of Brooklyn for the shop that will fulfill that dream. Ben is an editor for George Plimpton's Paris Review during Plimpton's final years, but he has to take his turn running the store as well. This is a memoir of his experience running the store while working as an editor. I expected to like this book much more than I did. I like to think of a deli as a place where one purchases sandwich meats, sliced cheese, olives, pickles, a few salads, a little fresh produce, and some some breads, but this one was really more of a convenience store that catered to the beer, cigarette, and lottery crowd. The former would be a nice type of shop to own, but someone the latter just didn't resonate with me. Since Howe had once been an editor for a literary magazine, I expected his narrative to be more absorbing. Instead I encountered moments of greatness in the narrative that might have been refined into more absorbing articles with a little more work along with many more moments that just did nothing for me. I enjoy food writing; I enjoy immigrant narratives; I don't enjoy memoirs that don't resonate with me. Unfortunately this was one fell into the last category. I received this book through LibraryThing's Early Reviewer program with an expectation that a review would be written.
This book was very solidly written. It tells the tale of an academic elite married to a 1st generation immigrant with drive to spare. At the urging of the wife's family, the couple and inlaws invest in a New York deli. Despite the mixed marraige and intriguing cultural and socio-econmic clashes/contrats, the meat of the book is really about the plight of the small business owner in the urban areas of the United States. The book does an excellent job of portraying the sudden deprivations and the little victories that make many strike out on their own. The cultural nuances add extra flavor to the prose as well as adding bits of dark humor that keeps the often painful (for the author and family) tale moving forward at a brisk pace. A recommended read for those interseted in an honest look at small business.
I would be willing to bet that there is no another book like this one. Howe combines his roles in an extended Korean family, editor at Paris Review and newly minted deli clerk in an up and coming area of Brooklyn. He combines all of these disparate pieces of his life in a very entertaining peek at each facet of his existence. I loved each piece of it even though none of them apply to my own life. I found the lives of his in-law Korean family fascinating - completely alien to my life but relevant since an extended Korean family has taken over our local grocery in rural New England. I loved how he was at first paralysed when working the register at the deli and then how he came to thrive on all the interactions. The sections about the Paris Review and George Plimpton were also great fun, especially his journey to the Chicago book fair. This is a page turner.
It was an OK read, but not a book I would necessarily recommend. It could have used a good editor to tighten up the story a bit. The family members come across as very stereotypical, while the customers and deli employees were a bit more interesting. Our bookclub read it, but have not yet met to discuss it. It will be interesting to hear how others viewed it.
Ben Ryder Howe's life in 2003 is split between his daytime work as an editor at The Paris Review and his night shifts at the Brooklyn deli that he and his Korean- American wife, Gab, purchased for her parents. Ben's WASPy upbringing is further challenged by the fact that the couple also live in the in-laws' basement - a claustrophobic situation, but also a supportive one. Literary icon George Plimpton's influence and personality competes for Ben's attention along with Kay Pak, Ben's whirlwind of a mother-in-law and queen of the deli dayshift and Dwayne, long-time deli employee and urban sage . Ben spends equal time at literary conferences and at deli supply wholesale warehouses. This is an engaging read and pays attention to the corner deli as neighborhood anchor and to its employees as walking a fine line between keeping the regulars happy with familiar brands and services and responding to gentrification with imported delicacies. Just when things seem to be stabilizing and the deli becoming profitable, the unexpected city fines, back taxes and health emergencies threaten to keep Ben and Gab in the basement forever. A compelling family/mult-generational tale alongside the plight of the NYC small business person. This is also the story of a someone confronting his own prejudices and fears and finding value in hard work. Highly recommended to all non-fiction devotees.
Ben Howe, an editor for George Plimpton's Paris Review is married to a Korean-American woman who has quit her career as a corporate lawyer. When her family decides to buy a Brooklyn convenience store and run it as a family operation, he is swept up into the exhausting and frustrating life of a small business owner in one of the more unforgiving cities in America for that type of venture.Initially, the book captured my attention as Howe describes the multitudinous vicissitudes, small and large, that beset them. The people are colorful and so are some of the anecdotes. However, as the story progressed, I gradually began to lose some interest. As a college professor of mine would have said, "It's missing the 'So what?' chapter." I was looking for the impact upon his life. Howe's relationship with his wife becomes neither better nor worse. He gets no closer to, nor more distant from, his in-laws. He doesn't come to hate the transitional Brooklyn neighborhood nor become a part of it. The store is a financial and physical concern in his life but he doesn't manage to convey the sense that it actually becomes part of his life. In the end, the story just ends. There are two or three pages of attempting to wax philosophical at the very end but it's too little, too late.There's some interesting material here but this book would have worked better as a series of small, amusing articles without the connective filler.