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Sometimes Cruel: Short Stories
Does war excuse domestic violence? Does it encourage it?  If people are cruel to each other in a war society, are they more prone to abuse their children? Some stories occur in World War II Greece and involve family and non-family violence in an environment where the author witnessed Jews hauled like cattle. The author presents vivid accounts of his childhood and ponders the role of war and culture in our lives. He offers insightful ways to cope with our feelings toward one's parents that may help settle long-standing psychological trauma. The stories display a life's rich cultural voyage unfolding in Greece, Belarus, Russia, Canada, Chile, and the United States.
Koubourlis (author of A Concordance to the Poems of Osip Mandelstam) offers a thought-provoking collection of auto-fiction stories drawn from a childhood that found him bearing witness to violence both intimate and epochal. The opening pages contemplate a father whipping his son—it’s the narrator’s father wielding the belt, and the narrator’s brother on the receiving end—and also the “60,000 Greek Jews” who “were herded cattle-like for shipment to forced labor or extermination camps.” At times it can be difficult to tell if these accounts are memory-based essays or works of fiction fortified by memory. But it’s their urgency and spirit of restless moral inquiry that matters, as Koubourlis contemplates complex questions of culture, parentage, violence and more.

Growing up in World War II and the Greek Civil War, and crediting his “life's first horrific memory to Mussolini,” Koubourlis was raised by strict parents who did their best to keep him and his brother out of the kind of mischief that might end up in a book of short stories. Often the boys felt the sting of their father’s belt as a result of their horseplay or innocent ineptitude. Readers will feel the terror of a young boy as his first memory is the Italian bombing of his hometown in Greece, but humor is never far away. (Readers sensitive to material should take note.)

In the book’s second half, the stories build in intensity, exploring individuals’ connectedness to the world and our closest environs, with a pained yet tender story of the adult narrator, in Chile with his wife, tending to a wayward kitten, Grits. Sometimes Cruel concludes with an essay on a song heard in a dream and Koubourlis’s searching thoughts about its meaning. A YouTube link offers readers a chance to hear the melody that Koubourlis describes as “powerful but calm, as if to emphasize that everything is alright, as it should be.” This is an enigmatic book that, for readers of a contemplative bent, will linger in the mind.

Takeaway: Searching, enigmatic memory stories of growing up and living in a violent world.

Comparable Titles: Caitlin Forst’s NDA: An Autofiction Anthology, the Tome Stone’s Summer of My Greek Taverna.

Production grades
Cover: B-
Design and typography: A
Illustrations: A-
Editing: A
Marketing copy: A-