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The Skinned Bird

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From award-winning essayist Chelsea Biondolillo, THE SKINNED BIRD is about all the ways we break our own hearts. In lyric, fragmented essays—full of geological, ornithological and photographic interventions, with landscapes, loss, and longing—Biondolillo travels the terrain of leaving and finding home while keeping her sights fixed firm on the natural world around her.

Includes "How to Skin a Bird," winner of the Carter Prize for the Essay, and the Best American Essays 2014 notable, "Phrenology."

175 pages, Paperback

Published May 1, 2019

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About the author

Chelsea Biondolillo

6 books29 followers
Chelsea Biondolillo is the author of The Skinned Bird (KERNPUNKT Press, 2019), and two prose chapbooks, Ologies and #Lovesong. Her work has been collected in Best American Science and Nature Writing 2016, Waveform: Twenty-first Century Essays by Women, and How We Speak To One Another: An Essay Daily Reader, among others.

She is a former Oregon Literary Arts fellow and Olive B. O'Connor fellow at Colgate University, and her work has been supported by Wyoming Arts Council and the Consortium for Science and Policy Outcomes/NSF.

She has a BFA in photography from Pacific NW College of Art and an MFA in creative writing/environmental studies from the University of Wyoming. She lives and works outside of Portland, Oregon.

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5 stars
62 (76%)
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13 (16%)
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5 (6%)
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1 (1%)
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Displaying 1 - 29 of 29 reviews
Profile Image for Liz Prato.
Author 5 books54 followers
August 3, 2019
Biondolillo's essays are powerful and brave in the way they braid stories about her personal life and information about the natural world. Her use of non-traditional structures (lists, photographs, footnotes and redactions) allows the reader to engage with the material on a deep level. They are not just words on a page, but pieces of a puzzle that you move into place. I keep thinking of the essay that is largely redacted, what a powerful statement it makes about how even a memoirist has private thoughts and experiences that she's allowed to preserve. It was a bold move for both the author and the publisher to include this, one that I find inspiring. It's the kind of book I know I'll go back and read again and again, and find new layers to each time,
Profile Image for Joanne Dugan.
Author 6 books5 followers
May 2, 2019
Chelsea Biondolillo’s “The Skinned Bird" seamlessly weaves science and intuition into text, image and diagram that allows us to travel wild-eyed and headfirst into this deliberate and hopeful repurposing of trauma and loss. We are transfixed by the baby bird who leaves a perilously broken nest to finally be able to see, then sing, and through the sharing of these songs, we manage to finally hear our own.
Profile Image for Christine.
812 reviews
April 15, 2020
Wow! This book is short in page count, but NOT in shared life experiences, family drama, birds ❤️, nature and insects, personal growth, and honesty. This is a hidden gem, and I can see myself reading passages from thus again in the future. Wonderful writing!
Profile Image for steph.
97 reviews40 followers
November 23, 2019
4.5 stars. a beautiful collection of essays.

chelsea biondolillo masterfully intertwines science and memoir to create some really lyrical and gorgeous essays. she parallels the stages of birdsong production with the stages of her own life and uses birds as a motif between seemingly distinct sections of the book. the integration of nature and ornithology is done with consideration and thoughtfulness, always serving a purpose in the greater story.

biondolillo employs several unique formats such as images, verse, passages from other authors, and short snapshots of memory, to explore themes just as varied: loss, trauma, love, family, mental health. while many of the formats worked well in tandem with the content, a few were almost too unique, too abstract, too ambitious, to the point where i couldn't really see the connections made. but i understand that in any form of memoir/personal essay writing, it is hard to critique choices such as formatting because they are made with a level of intimacy only the author will understand. i think any memoir/personal essay collection is not only written to be read by an audience but also written for the author-whether that be for closure, remembrance, catharsis, etc. so it doesn't really matter if i or any other person do not understand a connection or a format, because this collection is not only for us. it is for chelsea biondolillo too, and i am grateful she has chosen to share her story with the world.
Profile Image for Amy Doan.
Author 5 books717 followers
May 9, 2019
A beautiful collection of essays. Lyrical, stirring, completely original. Can't wait for her next book.
Profile Image for Jami Nakamura Lin.
201 reviews6 followers
June 20, 2019
I'm usually done with books relatively quickly-- either devouring them out of love, or discarding them out of hate. This essay collection I read very slowly-- and only in the bathtub!-- because I wanted to savor each paragraph, re-read each sentence, go back and catch the nuances that I missed on first pass.

Her strength lies in combining meticulous research with her own personal narrative in a way that is seamless and thoughtful, not jarring or contrived. When she shifts between discussing (in thorough, data-driven, charts-accompanied detail) birds' migration patterns and her own family history of upheaval and relocation, each narrative thread supports the other, deepening the readers' understanding.

When reading other writers' research-heavy lyric essays, I sometimes feel disconnected-- though the prose is lovely and the information well-presented, we get no sense of the narrator themselves. In those essays, I don't understand why *they* care about their subject, and I don't understand why *I* should care either. In this collection I have no such qualms. Throughout The Skinned Bird, we see clearly what the author's skin in the game is. We can empathize with her. We understand what draws her to the "ologies" she studies so carefully, and how they inform her own understanding of herself.

But none of her examinations or ruminations are simplistic, as in some memoirs. She complicates our reading in a way that does not shut us out, but rather invites us in-- to ask more, and why, and how.
Profile Image for Cheryl.
247 reviews2 followers
April 4, 2020
Weaving science with personal essays this collection is a wonderful read.
Profile Image for Beth Alvarado.
Author 8 books21 followers
May 26, 2019
In my opinion, "The Skinned Bird" was a memoir in essays, even though each essay was so different in form. Studying nature helps her understand her own nature and so she uses the process that birds go through to learn to sing as a way of explaining her own journey to find her voice. Ironically, by the end of the book, I don’t feel as if nature is a metaphor at all; instead, there is no separation between animal impulse and human.
Profile Image for Melissa Grunow.
Author 4 books38 followers
June 11, 2019
A beautiful, compelling, and thought-provoking book. I devoured it!
Profile Image for Dorothy Bendel.
11 reviews10 followers
May 11, 2019
This is an innovative collection of essays that experiments with form and photography to excavate the truth of the author's experiences. Biondolillo delves into relationships (with her father & her ex) and her own sense of self through close, unflinching examination. If you're interested in essay writing that pushes boundaries, this is an excellent read.
183 reviews1 follower
November 1, 2022
A thoughtful essay collection, weaving personal anecdotes, observations and facts about birds. I came away with a deep sense of the author, unlike in other essay collections I’ve read that use similar techniques.
Profile Image for Sarah Weaver.
71 reviews4 followers
May 12, 2019
Gorgeous and lyrical hybrid essays are the yarn Biondolillo uses to weave her life stories into this book. I devoured The Skinned Bird in two days, and that’s with several Wikipedia searches included (the book includes amazing tidbits of facts that fascinated me).
Profile Image for Marin.
Author 2 books35 followers
June 5, 2019
Beautifully composed and intriguing in its approach, which is elliptical more than narrative and which makes extensive use of an objective correlative (birds) to tell the writer's own story as she sees herself reflected in their lives and deaths.
229 reviews
June 23, 2019
Facts from the migration habits of geese to scientific taxidermy to tarantula pets sit alongside personal narratives of a distant father, painful break-up, and a grandmother's birdwatching journal.

In some juxtapositions, it creates a close parallel, as in "How to Skin A Bird." Instructional prose is intercut with early family-of-origin memories such that we feel that the young protagonist is being taken apart, preserved, and displayed. Another straightforward match appears in "Notes Toward A Partial Definition of Home," where we learn about transitional ecologies as well as the emotions associated with moving to a new city.

However, my favorite essays were the most visually multi-layered and non-narrative, pushing the page to include as many different areas of information that reminded me of the layouts in "House of Leaves." "PYROLOGY//an accounting" transmutes post-it-note-sized observations with record-setting heat dates with Twain's reporting on, presumably, a geyser he visited, and an obscure chronology. Rather than one (personal) narrative contextualizing the encyclopedia passages, which in turn set a certain tone for the narrative, these three distinct pages open up the meaning of narrative itself. Twain is documenting, for those who can't travel, his memorable experience. An instrument or a set of observers have recorded the high temperatures in the desert and the eruptions of volcanos. But how does one delimit or compare the elusive types of heat and flame, such as love affairs? In a scattered journal? Bad poetry? Therapist's log? Brief, poetic lines punctuated by footnotes seem to elude to these moments, like "Every spring fails by autumn. What I'm saying is that maybe the problem is with the word itself" (126). We're reminded that spring means to leap or a coil of metal that stores and releases energy, somewhat resonant with the geyser or a volcano. And that association between seasons and the earth's regulation of her molten interior is such an unexpected and oblique association. I'd love to see a hybrid work of these experimental cut-ups of the archive.

Other notable weirdnesses include the mash-up of an account of a woman awake during her own mastectomy and a black-out/erasure chapter appropriately titled, "The Story You Never Tell." Inspiring to others working between genre or who want to reorganize the page.

Profile Image for sarah gilbert.
62 reviews66 followers
June 27, 2019
I want to tell you first that my favorite essay was the one about the tattoo. “With this ring,” it’s called.

Throughout this book of essays I’m struck with how possible it is to tell everything without telling everything, to hide painful internal dialogue and “how I feel about this now,” or, “what this DID to me,” in scientific descriptions of skinning birds or the musculature of a great blue heron, in spaces between delicate and bold descriptions of the small, painful, devastating actions of lovers, family members and friends.

Chelsea, by instinct perhaps but also by great care, masterfully walks the line between revelation and obscurement, truths revealed and withheld. Her book of essays tells us what we can know about a person, even if we have not had the pleasure to meet her directly.

“With this ring” goes farther, perhaps, than the others. The construct of the piece — the nature of the tattoo, how it works within the skin and body of its wearer — is all about that indelible mark left behind on us by what has happened. Were I to have edited this book, I would have described this as the central essay: beautifully and carefully showing us how much is left on the cells of our body by our experiences. What stays with us, no matter what we might do to erase or hide it.

The truth is that nothing ever leaves us, “healing” is only a description of how we change ourselves when we have been changed by external forces (but of course the constant is only change), that we show most in what we hide, that science is a good way to examine ourselves and the world around us: but science, however wonderful, does not hold the answers.

This book is a beautiful and astonishingly complete interrogation of what, exactly, all these truths mean for its author — and as such it is a wonderful exploration of what that means for the readers.
1 review
May 22, 2019
Art and essay collides in Chelsea Biondolillo's The Skinned Bird. Shifting seamlessly between stories about the people around her, her innermost thoughts, and the natural world we all inhabit, Biondolillo captures the essence of beauty and sadness, humor and grief. The form is fluid and hard to wrap your hands around. Each chapter is a discovery, or three.
Profile Image for Amy.
Author 7 books14 followers
May 14, 2019
Chelsea Biondolillo wields words with scalpel precision. In her memoir/ collection of essays, she dissects locale, relationships, and desire, teasing them apart until what at first might be taken as clinical and foreign becomes intimately familiar. Good essayists offer something of themselves in the writing. Biondolillo knows what specifics to reveal, the shells of what to keep hidden, and the skins of what remains unknown to her as well. Underlying all is deep connective tissue for readers to delve into.
Profile Image for Kate Woodward.
9 reviews2 followers
January 14, 2020
I finished this book nearly two days ago. It caused me to think on my own life, my grown children also. How we adapt to life trauma especially. Nothing but five stars from me. The use of nature was exquisite.
Profile Image for Jason Arias.
Author 3 books26 followers
April 5, 2020
Biondolillo's essays are intelligent and potent. Her prose is simultaneously jarring and seductive. The way she weaves the sky with the earth, the ornithological with the emotional, is captivating. I found myself trying to prolong the ending, but not being able to help myself. Essential reading.
Profile Image for Tracy.
Author 2 books14 followers
July 31, 2019
This has instantly become one of my favorite books. I find some experimental forms distance me from the content, complicating things to the point of impenetrability, but the innovations and risks taken here perfectly suit the stories they hold as well as the intelligent, honest voice in which they are told. The results are truly thrilling.
Profile Image for Thea Swanson.
Author 3 books10 followers
September 20, 2020
Science and emotion are equally weighted within each elegant essay as Biondolillo unravels flights and habits of birds and self, of nature and nurture.
Profile Image for Lareign.
219 reviews22 followers
May 8, 2019
"If, for example, I'd sometimes like to imagine that my insecurities are the function of a sublime natural order, a restlessness that speaks to and through stars or tides or tectonic plates, it isn't because I need to feel more important than I am, but less singular.

And if I'd rather think about birds, any bird, really, than all the people I've known who had to choose between relative risks, between an empty or full bed, between an anger that could be predicted and one that could not, it's because I prefer the beauty of feathers and the orderliness of how they lie across a wing in such a way to permit flight."

There are moments in this book that quietly broke my heart. I read this right after moving to a new town. When people ask why I moved, I have my list of reasons. But I'm still not sure why the urge to migrate was so strong. And maybe that's why the last essay in particular stuck with me: I'd rather be a bird than a flightless mess with no clear compass.

Profile Image for Colin.
Author 3 books8 followers
October 23, 2019
A remarkable debut full-length from an author who combines the magnificently researched with the deeply personal. Biondolillo tracks her family and relationship history through the ways we study birds; not the animals themselves, but the preservation of those birds and the chronicling of them. She experiments fearlessly with the genre, crafting multi-layered texts that challenge the reader in a welcoming way.
Profile Image for Jasmin Aviva Sandelson.
31 reviews1 follower
December 21, 2020
Exquisite. A book I took my time with, and one I’ll read again. Braided essays beautifully parse questions about trauma, family, divorce, memory, and home. Gorgeously written, and playful with form. The motif of birds - bird song, flight, migration, taxidermy - unites these threads and narratives.
Profile Image for Jim.
Author 22 books277 followers
August 11, 2020
Loved this book of essays by @cdbiondolillo from @kernpunktpress. Takes risks with the form but the prose is always exquisitely balanced. A quietly devastating book I’ll come back to again.

Profile Image for Scott.
73 reviews6 followers
May 13, 2019
A lovely read. Some times agonizing and savage in describing desertion and the depth of separation, other times weaving poetry and science and wonder into narrative non-fiction. Just a fantastic collection of essays.

My favorite line: "I am looking for a way to get at the experience of a thing, the memory of it, to better understand the meaning of it. I am expecting the process to be messy."
Profile Image for JSter.
140 reviews
April 21, 2022
Nicely done! I loved this essay-memoir, and am so inspired after reading it. I want to do what she's doing (re: writing)! Chelsea is speaking so honestly about life, while weaving science and style into the mix. I picked up some cool sh*t here.
Profile Image for Alexa.
18 reviews
May 14, 2022
An interesting cross between a memoir and prose. Made up of essays written in unconventional structure. Describes the author’s family issues in addition to the failure of her marriage - interspersed are facts and scientific notes about various bird species. Overall this book missed the mark with me. Already reading something outside my comfort zone and then throw in the fact that this book was not meant for me at this point in my life. Two stars. I think those who enjoy poetry and this type of writing would like this book but overall it wasn’t for me.
Displaying 1 - 29 of 29 reviews

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