Friday, May 23, 2014

May Book Club: My Korean Deli

One of the joys of tending bar is meeting the people who come in. Once a month, a group of really smart, funny women would come in for their dinner before heading to our local bookstore for a book club meeting. It seemed like such a great time that I asked if I could join. They agreed and I tagged along for the first time this month.

The chosen book was My Korean Deli: Risking It All For a Convenience Store by Ben Ryder Howe. Back in 2002, Ben and his wife Gab decided to buy a deli for her parents who are Korean immigrants. The book recounts, often hilariously, the stories of the people who worked in the deli, the customers who frequented it, and the events that transpired in it. Mostly, however, it is a story of the world of first generation immigrants as it smacks up against the world of a family who has been in this country since the Mayflower.

In addition to working at the deli, Howe was a senior editor at The Paris Review. I preferred the sections of the book where he talks about working at the magazine and working for George Plimpton. Probably because working at such a literary magazine is my idea of heaven, I was fascinated by the behind-the-scenes stories of what it is really like. In my mind, I would spend my day reading, discovering the next literary giant from the slush pile. While there is an element of that, there is also a fair amount of grind.

There was also having to deal with Plimpton. I must admit to being a huge fan of George Plimpton. The life he created for himself, the interviews he got, the way he could write are all things I admire enormously. Ironically, the PBS series American Masters repeated their episode on Plimpton the week after I finished this book. Between the people interviewed for that show and Howe's stories, I get the impression that Plimpton was all about Plimpton. No matter. I still think he was one of the most interesting men of his generation.

The members of my book club were divided on their reactions to the book. Some, like me, enjoyed it; others couldn't get past the first twenty pages. It did, however, generate some fun discussions.

We talked about the immigrant experience. One woman in the club is second generation -- her parents came over from Italy just before she was born. She had some wonderful insights into the mindset of those who have left everything they know to work for the American Dream.

Ben and Gad lived in her parents' basement for years. We talked about the fact that, in America, generations seldom live together any more. One woman asked us all if we could live with either our parents or our kids. There was a general consensus that neither would be much fun. I was the voice of dissent here. When I lived in Italy, three generations lived under one roof. I have never again experienced such a sense of family and of being part of something that was timeless.

As so often happens in book clubs, the wine began to kick in and the conversation veered off from the book and into gossip about the town and the upcoming summer season. I sat and listened, grinning.

Next month's book: The World We Found by Thrity Amrigar.

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