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Bookmarks Issue: 
52-May-June-2011
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Risking It All for a Convenience Store

A-My Korean DeliBen Ryder Howe, then an editor at The Paris Review, made an unusual career choice in 2002 when he and his wife purchased a Brooklyn convenience store. My Korean Deli relates his disastrous--but nonetheless hilarious--experience.

The Topic: After Howe decided to purchase a New York City deli, he and his wife Gab--the daughter of Korean immigrants and an attorney who quits her job so she can run the store--invest all of their savings in the new business. They gift the enterprise to Gab's mother in the hopes of repaying her for her sacrifices as well as providing a down payment for their own house. When the deli opens, Howe continues his work at the literary magazine by day and works at the deli by night. Both jobs, of course, engender nothing but disaster, but in Howe's lighthearted retelling, his time selling cold cuts and lottery tickets and managing a pistol-wielding employee becomes, instead, a life-changing experience.
Henry Holt. 304 pages. $25. ISBN: 9780805093438

NY Times Book Review 4.5 of 5 Stars
"It's hard not to fall in love with My Korean Deli. First, it's the (very) rare memoir that places careful, loving attention squarely on other people rather than the author. Second, it tells a rollicking, made-for-the-movies story in a wonderfully funny deadpan style." Corby Kummer

Barnes and Noble Review 4 of 5 Stars
"It's hard to find the deep meaning of an experience when your comfort zone is out of reach. That makes My Korean Deli something of a marvel, because what Ben Ryder Howe has done is to take his own unique experience--one on par with any fish-out-of-water tale--and present it in a way that preserves that uniqueness without straining credulity." Matthew Tiffany

New York Observer 4 of 5 Stars
"In a hook that may draw more readers than deli trivia will, My Korean Deli offers a peek at the last days of George Plimpton. ... Mr. Howe is plenty self-aware, and his account of the friction between his two lives--while lacking in surprises--is appropriately self-deprecating." Molly Fischer

Christian Science Monitor 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Rather than recycling the tired idea that retail work is soul-sucking, [Howe] finds beauty in the endeavor, and even ‘a transcendent moment or two,' as he puts it. His retail narrative is surprisingly philosophical--in a good way." Ilana Kowarski

Critical Summary

Howe certainly left his comfort zone when he and his wife decided to open a deli in Brooklyn. Not only did they leave solid, white-collar jobs for an uncertain venture; they embraced socioeconomic differences with open eyes. "Very seldom," noted the New York Times Book Review, "does [Howe] let his ‘snob siren' go off or point out the disparity between the regulars who ‘lend the store an atmosphere similar to that of an off-track betting parlor' and the people at The Paris Review." But rather than a heavy-handed treatment of cultural difference, My Korean Deli is self-effacing without being too lighthearted. Only the Christian Science Monitor commented on a lack of reflection on a key event; otherwise, critics agreed that in this illuminating memoir, there are "life lessons aplenty here, to be certain, and Howe makes a point of putting the ‘life' before the ‘lesson'" (Barnes and Noble).