Tuesday, May 3, 2011

"My Korean Deli" by Ben Ryder Howe

Summary: A memoir of Howe and his wife's decision to buy and open a New York City deli with the wife's mother-in-law.

Musings: I reserved this book on its novel topic (a pure-bred Bostonian WASP opening a "Korean" deli) and supposed comedy.  I didn't find it a particularly funny book, though it was amusing at times, but it was an interesting look into one man's search for identity and purpose.

On the first point, there's certainly a bit of awe and shock in Howe and his wife Gab's decision to open a deli.  Who really does that and thinks it'll be a good idea?  I was amazed they saw it as a way to give back to Gab's parents (though her obsessive filial devotion was also rather nuts and could provide its own story) and make enough money to move out of Gab's parents' basement (which they lived in for EIGHT YEARS! EIGHT!).  Howe explains how much of their decision to open and run the store went against his Puritan upbringing, both in terms of the family intimacy and living for the moment (rather than worrying about the future) it required.  I could see much of my own ideology in him, though that only reinforced my belief that although Howe and Gab are undeniably smart (he was an editor at a somewhat pretentious literary magazine; she had just resigned being a corporate attorney), they are also morons.

Not surprisingly, many things go wrong, though fortunately it's not a complete disaster.  In the midst of the trials and tribulations of running a small business there are some great stories, from working with a pushy coffee vendor to opening the store during a blackout to navigating underground merchandisers.  One of their workers, Dwayne, also is fodder for interesting commentary.

Of course, memoirs are typically not just a collection of anecdotes but must provide some personal journey.  And though I appreciated Howe's introspection into how operating the store forced some changes in his worldview, at times the philosophizing did drag the book down.

My Korean Deli is a unique "fish out of water story" and covers a range of topics: the difficulties of being a small business owner, the bureaucracy of cities, cross-cultural misunderstandings, and the search for contentedness in life.  It's light enough for those seeking a casual read, but it also provides food for thought for those who want a little more.

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