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Originally published Sunday, May 31, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Book review

"Blessing of the Animals": a writer, her dogs and her selves

Brenda Miller's essay collection, "Blessing of the Animals," includes the Bellingham writer's Pushcart-Prize-winning essay that taps the author's dogs as primary sources for the narrative of her life.

Special to The Seattle Times

"Blessing of the Animals"

by Brenda Miller

Eastern Washington University Press, 157 pp., $17.95

A writer of creative nonfiction who draws heavily from her own fears, weaknesses and the missteps of her past for subject matter walks a high wire between those polarized "selfs" — deprecation and absorption. Too much of either is off-putting, even if we share the same foibles. Bellingham writer Brenda Miller is a sure-footed essayist who can balance in the middle, a skill that's tough to master and even more difficult to maintain over time, as she has.

One of the clearest demonstrations of this ability, and one of Miller's best works, is "Blessing of the Animals," winner of the 2009 Pushcart Prize and the title essay of her new collection. She writes about Abbe, a 15-pound Havanese puppy, described by her vet as a "golden retriever in a dachshund suit."

This isn't a warm-fuzzy "Marley & Me" story; it's autobiography that uses dogs as primary sources the way a historian might use a packet of old letters to understand a subject's life. Sheba, the protective Great Dane of Miller's childhood and Abbe are more edifying than any artifact:

"And every morning, Sheba lifted her ponderous head, turned her caramel gaze on me as I woke. For those few moments — before the world rushed in to let me know its demands, to let me know I might not be up to snuff — I existed as nothing more than an object of adoration, a body to be loved." Decades later, Abbe's love is just as unwavering: "I keep my hand very still then, her nose glued to my wrist as she snuffles and sighs. The whole house goes quiet, all of us just breathing: the couch and the cat, the vase and the tulips, the mirror and the broom. All of us just here, just now, in the trance of a dog who knows nothing, yet, but grace."

When Miller takes Abbe to an unfamiliar Unitarian church for a service called "The Blessing of the Animals," she realizes a different sort of comfort from her dog. "Usually when I arrive at new places, I divert my gaze until I know what I'm supposed to do and when, who is safe to talk to and who is not." But holding Abbe, writes Miller, means she need not worry. "Most people look at her first anyway." This essay is a tough act to follow.

The other 18 are good pieces of writing, but only one worked its way into my bloodstream as thoroughly as the title piece. "Table of Figures" traces the arc of girlhood to womanhood to middle age with language so well chosen that it would be nearly impossible to cut a syllable without causing the remaining words to crumble into dust. Regret, pride, risk, caution — all the trace elements of a woman's life are gathered up, and carried carefully, bravely along that high wire.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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