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The Snake Charmer: A Life and Death in Pursuit of Knowledge

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Overview

In the fall of 2001, deep in the jungle of Burma, a team of scientists searches for rare snakes.

They are led by Dr. Joe Slowinski, at 38 already one of the most brilliant biologists of our time. It is the most ambitious scientific expedition ever mounted into this remote region, brought to a dramatic halt by the bite of the many-banded krait, the deadliest serpent in Asia. Thus begins one of the most remarkable wilderness rescue attempts of modern times. In The Snake Charmer, ...

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The Snake Charmer: A Life and Death in Pursuit of Knowledge

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Overview

In the fall of 2001, deep in the jungle of Burma, a team of scientists searches for rare snakes.

They are led by Dr. Joe Slowinski, at 38 already one of the most brilliant biologists of our time. It is the most ambitious scientific expedition ever mounted into this remote region, brought to a dramatic halt by the bite of the many-banded krait, the deadliest serpent in Asia. Thus begins one of the most remarkable wilderness rescue attempts of modern times. In The Snake Charmer, renowned journalist and author Jamie James captures the life and death of the fascinating and charismatic Joe Slowinski—a man whose career was fast and exciting, and whose tragic final expedition became a pulse-pounding struggle between man and nature.

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Editorial Reviews

Booklist
"A dramatic and moving story, told by an author who clearly understands that his subject is not simply about a man's cruel and ironic death but also about his life, his spirit, and his dreams."
Linda Greenlaw
"Absolutely riveting. This sensitive, fascinating exploration of a scientist's quest for knowledge deepens with relentless suspense into a classic tale of a man's fight for survival in the wilderness."
Anne Fadiman
"This book will astonish and delight anyone who believes that the great age of biological collecting is over."
From the Publisher
"A dramatic and moving story, told by an author who clearly understands that his subject is not simply about a man's cruel and ironic death but also about his life, his spirit, and his dreams."—Booklist

"Absorbing, stylishly written account of the life and career of a celebrated young herpetologist...an exquisitely crafted book that will grab even those who have no interest in snakes."—Kirkus Reviews, starred review

"Absolutely riveting. This sensitive, fascinating exploration of a scientist's quest for knowledge deepens with relentless suspense into a classic tale of a man's fight for survival in the wilderness."—Linda Greenlaw, author of The Hungry Ocean

"This book will astonish and delight anyone who believes that the great age of biological collecting is over."—Anne Fadiman, author of The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down

Publishers Weekly

James (The Music of the Spheres) tells the gritty and sad story of Joe Slowinski, a flamboyant and well-known herpetologist who died in Burma in 2001, aged 38, from the poisonous bite of a krait snake. Different snakes—from the first black rat snake he encountered at age five to the cobras on which his professional success was built—anchor different phases in Slowinski's life, as James paints a portrait of a man filled with ambition, intelligence, passion and recklessness. The account of the expedition into an unexplored region of northern Burma is chilling—it "set a new standard of misery" for scientific expeditions. After Slowinski was bitten by the krait, he was kept alive for 30 hours, through his companions' heroic efforts, with mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. But the snake's potent neurotoxin did its work, and Slowinski died deep in the jungle. In the end, this book is both a tribute to Slowinski's spirit and scientific accomplishments, and a cautionary tale about the dangers of an overly passionate ambition. 8 pages of color and 8 pages of b&w photos. (June)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal

Journalist James chronicles the life of Joseph Slowinski, one of the preeminent herpetologists in the world at the time of his death in 2001. James begins his story with the last, fatal encounter Slowinski had with a many-banded krait snake, the deadliest snake in Asia, while on an expedition in Burma, then takes us back to Slowinski's childhood to reveal how this brilliant scientist ended up dying in a hut in one of the most remote areas in the world. Herpetologists seem to have a natural recklessness and flamboyance about them (think of the late Steve Irwin), and Slowinski exhibited these traits in abundance throughout his life. However, instead of using his skill and daring for personal fame, Slowinski used it in pursuit of knowledge. Both a biography of a flawed but dedicated scientist seeking to understand the natural world and a dramatic adventure/travel tale, this account gives the reader a fascinating look at the incredible hardships and dangers of field expeditions to impossibly remote places (using mouth-to-mouth respiration, Slowinski's colleagues kept him alive for 30 hours for a rescue that never came). For popular natural history collections. Photos and index not seen.
—Ann Forister

Kirkus Reviews
Absorbing, stylishly written account of the life and career of a celebrated young herpetologist whose reckless fascination with venomous snakes ended with his slow death in the sub-Himalayan wilderness of northern Burma. Born in New York City in 1962, Joe Slowinski was a bright charmer who grew up yearning to be a scientist. Being bitten by a pet boa constrictor didn't extinguish his youthful passion for venomous snakes; before entering his teens, he had already watched a Hopi snake dance in New Mexico. Slowinski got a doctorate in biology at the University of Miami and began his career as a college teacher and field researcher, studying the snakes of Asia and dreaming of an expedition in search of new species in Burma. (He would later visit the region 11 times in four years.) Fearless in his barehanded handling of dangerous reptiles, he soon had a reputation as a knowledgeable-and macho-snake freak. James (Andrew & Joey: A Tale of Bali, 2002, etc.) focuses in on Slowinski's last Burma outing, made in 2001 under a $2.4 million grant from the National Science Foundation. Then a curator at San Francisco's renowned California Academy of Sciences, about to become chair of the museum's herpetology department, the 38-year-old scientist was enjoying a heady local celebrity after his work was featured in National Geographic Channel documentaries. Nonetheless, he embarked with 15 naturalists on a grueling trek through remote Burmese jungle in search of the many-banded krait, one of the world's most venomous snakes. Drawing on interviews, the author recreates that final expedition and the 29 hours it took Slowinski to die (on 9/11) after reaching into a bag of snakes and being bitten by a krait.Without impeding his narrative, James frequently veers into wonderful stories of snake lore, academic rivalries, rattlesnake roundups and other pertinent herpetological matters. An exquisitely crafted book that will grab even those who have no interest in snakes. Agent: Katinka Matson/Brockman
The Barnes & Noble Review
When renowned herpetologist Joe Slowinski was bitten by a many-banded krait, a profoundly venomous snake found throughout southeast Asia, he knew better than anyone the daunting odds he faced. He gathered together his colleagues, fellow biologists engaged in a survey of remote northern Burma, and described for them the symptoms he would experience: first the potent neurotoxin would numb his extremities; next his eyelids and head would droop; soon thereafter the paralysis would reach his diaphram, and he would stop breathing. Drawn to all that creeps, slithers, and crawls, Slowinski mingled the macho charge he got out of handling deadly serpents with a zealous curiosity about the natural world. Author Jamie James charts the origins of Slowinski's passion for nature: artist parents who fostered curiosity and exploration, access to the rough woodlands and fossil-laden riverbanks of the Midwest, and above all an immunity to fear that lead Slowinski to great discoveries and, ultimately, to his death. As his symptoms progressed, Slowinski's colleagues fought to keep him alive, administering mouth-to-mouth breathing in the rank tropical heat for hours, awaiting a rescue that never comes. But it's wonder, not suspense, that's at the heart of this book. The Snake Charmer is more than a tale of derring-do, discovery, and death in the jungle; it's also a story of the grandeur of the biosphere and the lengths some people will go to understand and protect it. --Matthew Battles
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781401309954
  • Publisher: Hyperion
  • Publication date: 6/23/2009
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 288
  • Sales rank: 808,146
  • Product dimensions: 5.70 (w) x 8.80 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Jamie James is the author of eight books, including Music of the Spheres, Other Origins, and Eccentrics: A Study in Sanity and Strangeness. He has lived in Indonesia since 1999, where he continues to write for top American newspapers and magazines, including the New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, Conde Nast Traveler, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Wall Street Journal.

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Table of Contents

Many-Banded Krait 1

The Snake Charmer 9

The Expedition 157

Epilogue 229

Sources and Methods 241

A Note on Place Names 243

Acknowledgments 245

Index 251

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 3 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 3 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted April 10, 2014

    Pleasantly surprised

    This is awonderful memoir of sorts plus afactual account of snakes all in one. Loved the concise writing and learned alot.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted April 25, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    Man vs. Nature

    First off I'm not sure what made me pick up this book, I'm NOT a fan of snakes. But it always facinates me how far someone will go in pursuit of something that is their passion. Also the age old man vs nature scenerio is always interesting. Joe Slowinski was a snake and science lover from a very early age and he devoted his unfortunate short life to that subject. Even in his darkest hour he was relaying information to the team about what was happening not for glory but for the sake of discovery and knowledge so that if he didn't survive at least science would gain something from it. A sad but interesting story. Very informative and well written. A good read.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 27, 2009

    No text was provided for this review.

Sort by: Showing all of 3 Customer Reviews

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