My Korean Deli (Ben Ryder Howe)

My Korean DeliMy Korean Deli by Ben Ryder Howe

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

From Goodreads: "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 gift—and the family—while sorting out issues of values, work, and identity."


2.5 stars. On the one hand, Ben Ryder Howe writes competently. His prose isn't purple, and doesn't get in the way of the story -- but overall, it's not memorable. Which is to say, it's amusing, but ultimately bland.

Howe's memoir is about taking the plunge into small business ownership with his Korean-American wife, who wants to purchase a deli to give to her mother. The plan is to get it up and running before turning it over to Howe's mother-in-law, who is stereotypically concerned with hard work, family loyalty, and money.

Oh, this book had potential. It's a crazy situation, and I was looking forward to the "Korean" part of My Korean Deli. Unfortunately, it didn't deliver what I was looking for. I was expecting hilarious. What I got was vaguely amusing, with a side of attempted deep and meaningful.

Howe's writing is not of the laugh-out-loud variety you'd expect with a cover like that. There are a few amusing lines, but overall the prose reads as though he's trying very hard to be funny, rather than actually pulling it off. There are also a number of extremely difficult situations throughout the book, including a few of the near-death (and death) variety, where there is a clear attempt at bringing a deeper meaning into the story. Yes, Howe brings some ruminations on life. They're a little more broad than deep. Owning this deli is meant to be a transformative experience, but in the end, most of what I got was "It transformed me," and I was left wondering how.

I also would have liked to see fuller characterization of Howe's wife, and the relationship between the two. After all, she is the one who brought on the idea of purchasing a deli in the first place. You have to be a pretty committed husband to go along with that, throwing most of your life savings into a project with very high rates of failure and moving in with your in-laws out of necessity. But this crucial relationship (and the changes that inevitably occur) falls into the background, making way for the flashier story of arguing about gourmet vs. traditional delis, and more expensive coffee.

Sometimes amusing, but not the book to read if you're looking for the meaning of life.

Final word: meh. It's not a necessary read.

Source: I received an ARC of this title through the publisher.

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