The Bookworm: Animal love and a radical life

Terri Schlichenmeyer

“The Animals Among Us”

By John Bradshaw

c. 2017, Basic Books

$28, $36.50 Canada; 367 pages

The sofa is covered with fur. It’s a constant battle to keep it clean, and you always lose that fight. Same with toys on the floor, kibble found everywhere but the bowl, and you don’t care. You love a dog or cat, which is better than a furless sofa any day and in “The Animals Among Us” by John Bradshaw, you’ll learn why.

Twelve thousand years ago, a man died. So did his dog, and the two were buried together. Scientists know that because they found the unfortunate pair in a long-buried grave, but the point is that humans have given significance to animals for at least 12,000 years. Still, “a mere” two hundred years ago, pets were only a thing for the very rich. Even 50 years ago, an animal was oftentimes just an animal. So how did we go from that, to the deep love we have for Fluffy and Fido now?

“The Animals Among Us” by John Bradshaw.

In order to know, we go back to that 12,000-year-old grave: keeping pets has its roots in ancient societies. Yes, animals had jobs then (as now), but having them as companions, says Bradshaw, is “one way of expressing what it means to be human.”  

And yet, just because you love your pet doesn’t mean she loves you back, and we can’t “assume that a dog found buried intact was a pet.”

We have to remember that “Science has struggled” with the idea that pet ownership leads to better health. It’s iffy that having pets staves off loneliness for humans, in general; for sure, pets are expensive and risky. And “more than a third of cat and dog owners” say they dislike “at least one… of their pet’s behavior” problems.

So why keep them, then? We love their cuteness, Bradshaw says. They “make us happy,” they make us laugh, they’re calming and soft. They make us feel wanted and loved and they show others that we can be trusted. And, he says, they’ve altered our brains …

The first thing you may be thinking is “So what?” and that’s a valid question. “The Animals Among Us” isn’t going to change anyone’s mind.

While author John Bradshaw offers a good amount of fascinating information in his quest to explain how “Pets Make Us Human,” he doesn’t seem to tell pet owners a lot that hasn’t already been said. Instead, though he says he takes “joy” in having pets, his mien feels more negative than not as he lays out contrary study after conflicting research to show that pets don’t make us healthier, that they’re not at all like people, and that we anthropomorphize too much.

That’s enough to ruffle a lot of feathers. And fur.

This book contains a few pet-bright moments tucked here and there, things that seem pet-positive and sunnier, but they’re overwhelmed by gloom and disapproval. If you’re one of the “lots of people,” therefore, who “feel no attachment” to animals, you’ll find validation inside “The Animals Among Us.” 

If you love your pet, though, this book could in-fur-iate you.

“American Radical”

By Tamer Elnoury with Kevin Maurer

c. 2017, Dutton

$28, $37 Canada; 349 pages

Let’s pretend. Let’s be cowboys, in search of our lost herd. Or you be a dinosaur and I’ll be an alligator. Let’s pretend we’re cooking dinner, crawling through the desert, exploring stars. It’s fun to be something you’re not for awhile – unless, as in “American Radical” by Tamer Elnoury (with Kevin Maurer), it’s a matter of international security.

Born in Egypt and raised in New Jersey by devout Muslim parents, Tamer Elnoury saw an armed man praying at a local mosque one afternoon and it made him realize that he wanted to be a cop. He’d set his sights on federal law enforcement and, shortly after graduation from the police academy, the FBI to come courting but Elnoury turned them down. Post-9/11, he wondered if he’d made a mistake.

“American Radical” by Tamer Elnoury (with Kevin Maurer).

He reached back out to the Bureau. Seven years later, they returned his call. As a newly-minted FBI agent who spoke fluent Arabic and English, Elnoury’s first task was coming up with a “legend” for his undercover work. He needed a story that was memorable and believable: a pseudonym; a fake family, and a reason for breaking the law. He had to make a target like him without questioning his identity, or he needed to “bump” the guy to “take his temperature.”

But being someone you’re not is exhausting work: Elnoury remained in his role nearly every minute he wasn’t with other agents or a “handler.” Apartments he occupied weren’t his, nor were the cars he drove. His attire had to fit the story. A case might mean several cross-country flights in a single week. Perhaps most difficult: he had to hide his own “disgust” while he continued gathering information. That ability came in handy in his biggest case.

Elnoury was a busy agent with a packed schedule on the day he got an urgent call: the FBI and Canadian officials were investigating a “very bad guy” they believed had ties to al Qaeda – or worse. Or maybe not. Learning more would require finesse, and Elnoury’s part was supposed to be a quick “bump.”

And it chilled him to his core …

The first thing you’ll want to do before you read “American Radical” is this: throw out everything you think you know about Islam if you’re not Muslim.

Authors Tamer Elnoury (a pseudonym) and Kevin Maurer stress, often and specifically, what’s in the Quran and what Islamic terrorists claim is in the Quran. Those are two different things, the explanation of which makes readers understand clearly the danger Elnoury faced with a guy who might’ve been a friend, were it not for the man’s radical beliefs. Quiet mindfulness mixes with straining awareness, frustration, and “evil” then, adding to the tension of a tale and an aftermath that, even though parts of this book needed to be omitted for security reasons and conversations were partially re-created, reads like a palm-sweaty, heart-pounding thriller.

And isn’t that what you want for a long winter’s read?  Eh, of course it is, so go find “American Radical.”  You’re gonna love it, for real.

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The Bookworm is Terri Schlichenmeyer. She has been reading since she was 3 years old and never goes anywhere without a book. Terri lives on a hill in Wisconsin with two dogs and 11,000 books. The column appears each week; read previous columns at