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

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

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by Jamie James
     
 

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Although it was still too dark to see well, Joe absentmindedly thrust his right hand into the sack to extract the specimen and have a look. Immediately, he winced with pain and yanked out his hand. A tiny black-and-white banded snake, less than ten inches long, was dangling limply from his middle finger, its fangs still sunk into his flesh.

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Overview

Although it was still too dark to see well, Joe absentmindedly thrust his right hand into the sack to extract the specimen and have a look. Immediately, he winced with pain and yanked out his hand. A tiny black-and-white banded snake, less than ten inches long, was dangling limply from his middle finger, its fangs still sunk into his flesh.

In the fall of 2001, deep in the jungle of Burma, a team of scientists is searching for rare snakes. They are led by Dr. Joe Slowinski, at forty already one of the most brilliant biologists of our time. It is the most ambitious scientific expedition ever mounted into this remote region, venturing into the foothills of the Himalayas. The bold undertaking is brought to a dramatic halt by the bite of the many-banded krait, the deadliest serpent in Asia. In the moment he pulled his hand from the specimen bag and saw the krait, Joe knew that his life was in grave and imminent peril. Thus began one of the most remarkable wilderness rescue attempts of modern times, as Joe's teammates kept him alive for thirty hours by mouth-to-mouth respiration, waiting for a rescue that never came.

A daredevil obsessed with venomous snakes since his youth, Slowinski was a modern-day adventurer who rose quickly to the top of his field, discovering many previously unidentified snake species in his brief yet exhilarating career. The Snake Charmer is at once brilliant biography and exotic travel literature, blended with an accessible introduction to the bizarre, fascinating-and sometimes controversial-world of snake science. The narrative transports the reader into primeval wilderness, from the Everglades to Peru to Burma, in search of rattlesnakes and boa constrictors, kraits and cobras. Joe Slowinski's career was fast and exciting, his tragic final expedition a pulse-pounding struggle between man and nature.

In The Snake Charmer, renowned journalist and author Jamie James captures the life and death of this charismatic, endlessly fascinating man. Exhaustively researched in interviews with Slowinski's colleagues and family, and the author's own trek into the wilds of Burma, this is narrative nonfiction in the tradition of Into the Wild and The Perfect Storm.

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Editorial Reviews

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
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

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781401395711
Publisher:
Hachette Books
Publication date:
06/03/2008
Sold by:
Hachette Digital, Inc.
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
272
Sales rank:
258,783
File size:
1 MB
Age Range:
18 Years

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