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Cuz: The Life and Times of Michael A. Hardcover – September 5, 2017
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“A literary miracle of form and content. The book pleads with us to find the moral imagination to break the American pattern of racial abuse. Allen’s ambitious, breathtaking book challenges the moral composition of the world it inhabits by telling all who listen: I loved my cousin and he loved me, and I know he’d be alive if you loved him, too.”
- Kiese Laymon, Washington Post
“A compassionate retelling of an abjectly tragic story...Among the most valuable contributions Allen makes is forcing us to ask: To what end are we locking up our children? Are we not foreclosing their options before their lives have even begun?...Allen’s analysis of gang culture―or “the parastate,” as she calls it, with its own bylaws and tragic form of appeal―may be where she’s at her ferocious best”
- Jennifer Senior, New York Times
“"[Cuz] address[es] issues worth pondering: how codes of masculinity constrain and cripple men, the lure of violence, the mysteries of human personality and the debts family members owe one another in dire circumstances…In writing about her cousin, Allen is also elegizing other black men victimized by poverty, drugs and unequal justice. Her blend of personal anguish and social consciousness evokes not just [John Edgar] Wideman, but Jesmyn Ward's 2013 memoir, Men We Reaped."”
- Julia M. Klein, Chicago Tribune
“Allen’s memoir, Cuz: The Life and Times of Michael A., is a doleful and stirring narrative of how Michael Allen Alexander’s magnetic smile slowly dimmed until he was found shot to death in the passenger seat of a car in Los Angeles…. Allen’s heartbreak gives way to a well-researched expedition.”
- Otis R. Taylor, Jr., San Francisco Chronicle
“She’s rightfully angry at what happened to her cousin, but it doesn’t hide her empathy for families who endure hardship to visit their imprisoned loved ones, and it doesn’t lessen her humanity toward the people whose imprisonment doesn’t make sense. That, mixed with an aching, soaring joy are what you’ll find in 'Cuz,' and it’s going to make you think―hard. Can you afford to miss that? No, make no mistake.”
- Terri Schlichenmeyer, Oakland Post
“The shattering story of her young cousin…'Cuz' is a powerful family memoir and study of the criminal justice system.”
- Tom Beer, Newsday
“Allen, whose writing is creative and accessible, uses her finely tuned talent to fold Michael’s fate into the gathering storms of the U.S. criminal-justice system and Los Angeles’ gang-related and racial turmoil. Both a searching, personal elegy and a sure-footed lamentation of the systems meant to protect us, this is a searing must-read.”
- Annie Bostrom, Booklist, Starred review
“[Allen] puts a face to the numbing statistics of incarcerated young black boys and men. . . . At its heart, Allen’s book is both an outcry and entreaty as she grapples with a painful reality.”
- Publishers Weekly
“A literary and political event like Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark, Danielle Allen’s Cuz is an elegiac memoir and social jeremiad born out of the tragedy of mass incarceration. A loving cousin paying tribute to her brilliant and beloved but troubled 'cuz,' Allen hits a grand slam.”
- Henry Louis Gates Jr., Director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University, and host of the PBS series Finding Your Roots
“What starts as a personal memoir, an effort to resurrect from oblivion a beloved cousin who died young, modulates in Allen’s hands into a cool, reasoned, but ultimately devastating indictment of the War on Drugs and the sentencing regime it has given birth to. In plain terms, stripped of the jargon of the social sciences, she shows us what can await if you are young, black, and unlucky in today’s United States.”
- J. M. Coetzee, Nobel Prize-winning author of The Life and Times of Michael K
About the Author
Danielle Allen is the James Bryant Conant University Professor at Harvard University and author of Cuz and Our Declaration, winner of the Parkman Prize. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
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Okay. And her descriptions of Michael's mother, her aunt, were sometimes unpleasant and unnecessary, making this reader wonder how that added value to the text. Laying aside the personal and focusing on how little things can conspire to thwart a life focused on redemption is where this book becomes readable and utilizable.
"From here, any number of possible endings are still imaginable. But however broad the horizon of the imagination may be, events themselves unfold along a single track. Life may be a choose-your-own-adventure game, but we can live but one life. As we go, we shed all the other lives that might have been. From fourteen, Michael’s path ran from a broad horizon up and through difficult and merciless terrain."
She examines the changes in California law, where Michael was living at the time and how those changes and the increase in violence in the cities impacted sentencing, "They were designing sentences not for people but for a thing: the aggregate level of crime. They wanted to reduce the totality of crime; they didn’t have any interest in justice for any individual person, whether victim or perpetrator." Danielle laments the missed signs and signals from Michael's early years that, in hindsight perhaps family intervention would have played a role in changing the trajectory of Michael's life. She tried upon his release and reentry to really make his second chance fruitful. She helped him obtain employment, housing and his drivers license, but she couldn't keep him from making poor relationship choices that ultimately led to his early death. Finally , an unfortunate and sad tale of a life wasted but as Danielle reminds readers Michael is but, "one of so many millions gone."
As Danielle asks, "what went wrong" perhaps readers can find something in her questioning and in Micheal's brief live that serve as educational and cautionary to save a life and spare another family from the millions gone. Thanks to Netgalley and W.W. Norton for an advanced ecopy. Book publishes Sept. 5, 2017
As a larger social commentary regarding why Michael was primarily a victim of circumstances, the material is unconvincing. The book is fascinating in its ineffectiveness here and I found myself rooting for the author to convince me through all 239 pages. I really wanted to be convinced.
The best portions of the book are the two chapters regarding prison visits. The second was spot on in its transition and tone relative to the first. I bought the book because I found the online previews intriguing and I wanted more depth, more context than they provided. The full text delivers more emotion but, relative to the increased word count, little more in the way of the narrative around Michael.
It details how a thoughtful intelligent young black man, apparently because of the privations his mother as a victim of domestic abuse was privy to, become involved in the pervasive gang culture, what Danielle Allen calls the ‘parastate,’ at the age of fifteen, and after being convicted of armed robbery at that age served a twelve year jail sentence, and a few years after his release was shot dead by his transgender lover, whom he had met in prison.
Danielle was his cousin, an academic, and was close to her ‘Cuz’ all his life, and so the book is also a personal testament.
The book is also a decent piece of sociology on the US prison system, and court system, showing how lack of money in the justice system because of the policy of locking up so many people corrupts and renders inefficient that same system, so that only a fraction of the homicides that were once solved now result in convictions.
You might want to connect up the story in this book with the recent TV series, ‘Snowfall,’ which details the drugs for arms deals promoted by President Reagan which laid the foundations of the present problems.
Michael was a criminal, attracted to violent situations and violent people. He could not survive outside the prison system. The author incongruously and sanctimoniously concludes that it is the fault of the drug war!
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The narrative is balanced between personal, heart-rending detail of a...Read more