When Ben Ryder Howe’s Korean-American wife suggests purchasing a deli as an investment — and means of employment — for her hardworking immigrant parents, he’s not as horrified at the idea of plopping his savings into the Brooklyn establishment as you might think.
An editor at The Paris Review by day and exhausted store clerk by night, Howe sets about making his wife and in-laws happy — which translates to long hours with oddball characters at their family business. The store flounders from the very beginning, creating tension as Gab and Ben move into her parents’ basement, but they must come together to find a way through.
My Korean Deli: Risking It All for a Convenience Store was just the sort of random story I love discovering at the library. What I found was this memoir that was, by turns, hilarious and heartbreaking and maybe a little condescending — sometimes many things at once. But what it definitely was? Fun. And insightful.
Depending on the type of reader you are (and the humor you enjoy), I could see how Ben’s attitude and general demeanor could come across as holier-than-thou and annoying. As a well-to-do white man who marries a first-generation Korean-American, there are stark differences between his culture and that of his extended family. Much of the humor stems from misunderstandings between Ben and his mother-in-law, a woman who barely sits still, and just the idea of a condescending editor slicing deli meat after work is pretty hilarious.
In fact, most of the humor came from picturing uptight, sophisticated Ben doing the tasks associated with running a convenience store: getting yelled at by drunk customers; unloading heavy shipments of merchandise; trying to figure out the fearful lottery machine. He just comes across as such a well-meaning snob — but a snob all the same — that you can’t help but laugh at his antics . . . and that’s what I liked about My Korean Deli: I don’t think Ben takes himself that seriously.
I mean, he likes his job at the Review – most of the time. And he prides himself on his literary bent and knowledge. But does he think he’s “too good” to work at the store? Too important to mop floors or befriend his coworkers, especially the always-hilarious Dwayne? Absolutely not. And that’s what made this such a fun read.
Nothing major happens in My Korean Deli . . . the Pak family buys the store, they pour themselves into its upkeep, they ultimately face great struggles. But it’s as entertaining as a tale of running a family business as it is a glimpse into the life of a literary magazine, too: Paris Review editor George Plimpton plays a major role in the narrative as Ben’s boss and friend, and those behind-the-scenes looks were interesting to a book nerd like me.
Overall, it was just a story I really enjoyed . . . for no reason other than it was enjoyable. You know what I mean? It didn’t change my life, but it was memorable and rather touching, actually. If you’re a fan of memoirs, non-fiction or tales of the American Dream, My Korean Deli is a good time.
3.5 out of 5!