daily beastThe Buzz Board

Always on the lookout for an adventure story, I recently picked up a great one, The Snake Charmer, a fascinating tale of snake obsession, "snake science" (who knew?), and the short life of Dr. Joe Slowinski. He follows his bliss to "ground zero" for snake danger, the jungles of northern Burma. There are wild adventures and then, like any snake doctor worth his salt, he gets bitten and dies. You'll learn a lot about snake venom, helpful, perhaps in these times of dread on Wall Street.
—Tom Freston, October 13, 2008

This book will astonish and delight anyone who believes that the great age of biological collecting—the one that nurtured Charles Darwin, Henry Walter Bates, and Alfred Russel Wallace—is over. Joe Slowinski was a scientist-adventurer of the first order, and Jamie James does a splendid job of capturing the combination of intellectual curiosity and adrenaline that fueled, and eventually ended, his remarkable life.
      —Anne Fadiman, author of The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down

PEOPLE MAGAZINE, 3½ stars (out of 4), July 7, 2008

USA TODAY, August 7, 2008

This is a true story, which was bad news for Joe Slowinski, the main character. One of the world's leading biologists, Slowinski led a scientific expedition to the jungles of Burma in 2001 in search of exotic and deadly snakes. He found one: a many-banded krait, the deadliest snake in Asia. It bit him. He died. Journalist Jamie James tells, in incredible detail, the story of the ill-fated Slowinski expedition, right down to fascinating asides about the feuds among field biologists. An interesting tale all around and a good page-turner, even if you already know the outcome.

      —Craig Wilson

BOOKLIST, July 1, 2008

Like the more famous wildlife adventurer Steve Irwin, biologist Joe Slowinski, an expert in snakes, died as a result of his professional passion. On a 2001 expedition into the Burmese jungle to locate rare snakes, Slowinski was bitten by a many-banded krait, a reptile with a paralyzing neurotoxin venom that spells near-certain death for the victim. This book, which falls firmly into the same true-life tragedy genre as Into the Wild or Into Thin Air (also about people who died doing the thing they loved), tells us about Slowinski’s life and career and the frantic efforts, after he was bitten, to keep him breathing until he could be rescued. At the end, we feel as though we knew Slowinski, that we understand what made him tick. It’s 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.

      —David Pitt


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).

KIRKUS REVIEWS, June 1, 2008


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.

* A star is assigned to books of unusual merit, determined by the editors of Kirkus Reviews

NEW YORK SUN, July 2, 2008

Snake-Bitten, Twice Shy: Jamie James's 'The Snake Charmer'
By Eric Ormsby

The ancient art of snake handling is a tricky business. First you have to catch the thing; for this, a quick eye and an even quicker hand are essential. Once caught and held by the back of its head, the snake will often whip its whole length around your arm. There's an unsettling intimacy to its fierce grip. To uncoil the critter and maneuver it into the safety of a collecting bag demands a certain practiced finesse. But all that's the easy part. The real skill of snake handling comes into play when you extract the thrashing captive, especially if it's a venomous species. But even non-venomous specimens can administer nasty bites. And few things in nature are angrier or more aggressive than a snake let out of a bag.

In "The Snake Charmer: A Life and Death in Pursuit of Knowledge" (Hyperion, 260 pages, $24.95), journalist Jamie James tells the bizarre and compelling story of Joe Slowinski, curator of herpetology at the California Academy of Sciences. Slowinski was a classic study in extremes, simultaneously reckless and meticulous. A disciplined scientist, credited with the discovery of several new species and widely respected for his published papers, he was also something of a maverick, much given to macho antics, especially in the field. Fascinated by snakes from boyhood on — one of his favorite childhood pastimes was searching for rattlesnakes under rocks — Slowinski drew on this almost obsessive fascination to produce painstaking research. His scientific brilliance grew out of a lifelong passion, which he himself could not fully account for — and in the end it cost him his life. His research on snakes led him, step by step, into some of the central concerns in evolutionary biology; he was especially concerned with developing rigorous equations by which patterns of diversity within species might be explained. This research, first published in "The American Naturalist" three years before he earned his doctorate, is still widely cited in the literature.

Mr. James tells this odd story with great flair. His book is an affectionate — though not uncritical — biography of Slowinski that also offers a vivid glimpse into the practice of all science today. Unlike such 19th-century experts as Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh, who were concerned mainly with problems of taxonomy (and of whose bitter and lifelong rivalry Mr. James gives a dramatic account), Slowinski had to master a wide range of disciplines, from calculus to statistics. And there were turf wars to wage with rival colleagues. As Mr. James shows, not all venomous creatures are to be found in the remote jungles where Slowinski conducted his final research; the spitting cobra of Mandelay, which he discovered and first described for science in 2000, had its human counterpart in certain jealous competitors who more than once blocked him from grants and institutional support. Like other unconventional researchers, Slowinski suffered almost as much from professional backstabbing as from snakebites.

Academic infighting, as vicious in the obscure discipline of herpetology as in any other field of endeavor, is only part of Mr. James's account, however. His description of the little known and largely unexplored northern panhandle of Burma, with its muddy villages and snake-infested plateaus, is unforgettable. It was here, in the wretched hamlet of Rat Baw, near the foothills of the Himalayas, that Slowinski made a terrible miscalculation. While examining the day's catch of snakes, he stuck his hand into a bag, believing that it contained a harmless dinodon snake. When he pulled his hand out, a many-banded krait, one of the deadliest snakes on earth, hung by a fang from his finger. Slowinski had been bitten before by a cobra and had survived. But this time, within two hours, he felt the effects of the bite.

Mr. James structures his book around this fateful event. In the course of his story, each chapter of which is prefaced by a description (and lovely illustration) of a different venomous snake, he provides a great deal of lore on snakes and snake hunters, as well as much up-to-date scientific information on everything from reptile habitats to the composition of various venoms. The venom of the many-banded krait is second only to that of the Australian taipan in its toxicity; along with cobras and coral snakes, the krait possesses a neurotoxic venom that affects the central nervous system and causes death by respiratory failure. In Vietnam, it was known to American soldiers as the "two-step" snake, because its victims took only two steps before they died. In the event, it took Slowinski almost two days to succumb; all the while, until he finally lost consciousness, he coolly reported his symptoms to his distraught colleagues.

The account of Slowinski's death, and of the desperate rescue effort mounted to save him, forms the core of Mr. James's book, and is both gripping and horrifying to read. There was not only the remoteness of the location but the fickle weather to contend with; even when the intransigent Burmese authorities were persuaded (and bribed) to send a helicopter, it couldn't land. In a final twist, the fatal bite occurred almost at the same time as the attacks of September 11, 2001, in New York and Washington, and the American consular officials were thrown into a state of confusion and disorientation.

In the end, for all its high drama, this is a book about strangeness. In the exotic locales where rare snakes lurk, the scientists who study them come to seem even more exotic. They have their own lingo, their own customs, their private codes; they don't go hunting snakes, they go "herping." In Genesis, the serpent is described as the "subtlest" of the beasts; it hugs the ground, it knows the secrets of the earth. For scientists such as Joe Slowinski, the serpent embodies an elusive wisdom, as strange as it is precious. Unfortunately, it is a wisdom with fangs.

July 21, 2008

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


The tragic, engrossing story of scientist Joe Slowinski's fascination with snakes -- a fascination that finally led to his death in 2001.
By Melissa Rohlin

Most humans have an instinctive fear of snakes which can save their lives, but scientist Joe Slowinski apparently did not. He was fatally attracted to the slithering reptiles he devoted his life to studying.

"The Snake Charmer: A Life and Death in Pursuit of Knowledge" by Jamie James (Hyperion: 272 pp., $24.95) tells the fascinating, tragic story of Slowinski, whose experiences would create fear and avoidance in most of us.

James begins in the jungles of Burma, where Slowinski, a world-renowned herpetologist, gets bitten by one of the world's most poisonous snakes during an expedition in 2001. That snake, a krait, "carries enough concentrated toxin to kill two dozen grown men," and, despite his team's frantic efforts, Slowinski dies before he can be rescued.

Like Jon Krakauer's portrayal of Christopher McCandless in "Into The Wild," James' portrait of Slowinski draws readers on even though, as in Krakauer's book, we feel the same sense of hopelessness that he will be overwhelmed by the inherent danger in which he puts himself.

As James illustrates, Slowinski's passion for snakes was evinced early in life. When bitten by his non-poisonous pet boa constrictor as an adolescent, he displayed his bite mark with pride and regarded it as a badge of honor. This uncommon reaction distinguished him at a young age from the rest of us.

James identifies with Slowinski, and the story feels as if the author were joining him on the journey and participating joyfully in its dangers and conquests. He elaborates countless facts and detailed descriptions about herpetology, almost making you want to go snake-catching.

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.

OUTSIDE Magazine, April 2008
Required Reading

The Open Road and The Snake Charmer
By Dianna Delling

Joe Slowinski knew more about Asian snakes than almost anyone; the California Academy of Sciences herpetologist discovered dozens of new species in more than two decades as a field biologist. So on September 11, 2001, when he was bitten by a poisonous many-banded krait, deep in the jungles of Myanmar, he knew what to expect. He lay down in his tent, called in his expedition teammates, and, as the American embassy frantically tried to orchestrate a rescue, calmly prepared to die. Outside covered Slowinski's death in April 2002 (see "Bit," by Mark W. Moffett). In this frequently gripping narrative, journalist James fills out his life story, from his reptile-chasing childhood to his chilling final moments.