The Snake Charmer is one of two books I plucked from Dr. Al Mohler's suggested reading list for dads. It is a book that is rather unlike any I've read before. It is a biographical account of the life of Joe Slowinski, one of the world's great herpetologists. Slowinski dedicated his life to studying snakes and, in particular, poisonous snakes.
In 2001, Slowinski led an expedition of biologists and botanists as they traveled through the jungles of Burma. It was there that he was bitten by a many-banded krait, the most deadly snake in Asia and one of the most deadly snakes in the world. A world away from any kind of hospital or clinic, Slowinski knew that his chances of survival were slim. It was this quote, provided by Dr. Mohler, which gave me an interest in reading the book:
"As his friends gathered around, Joe calmly explained what was happening to him. No one in the world knew more about the venom of Bungarus multicinctus than Joe Slowinski. He described the effects of a slowly deepening paralysis: The snake's venom works on several different parts of the nervous system simultaneously, blocking the nerve impulses that transmit instructions to the muscles, including those required to maintain life. There will be no pain, he told them. "First my eyelids will drop; I won't be able to hold them up." Soon he would lose the ability to speak and move his limbs, he said. Within a few hours, his respiratory system would shut down: The paralyzed central nervous system would be unable to instruct the diaphragm to breathe, causing a swift death by asphyxiation...
"As the morning wore on, Joe's physical condition deteriorated precisely as he had predicted it would. In stark contrast to the hysteria that prevailed after Joe was bitten by the cobra when he was filming with the National Geographic team, the scene at the schoolhouse in Rat Baw was wonderfully calm, even solemn. Joe lay down on his sleeping bag in his tent, with Moe Flannery and Guin Wogan lying next to him to provide human warmth and comfort. The men quietly gathered nearby. Joe asked someone to find an Ace bandage he could wrap around his right forearm to slow the traffic of blood and lymph in his hand, though by now the toxin had passed throughout his body. There was nothing more to be done except wait and see how serious the bite was."
Written by Jamie James, The Snake Charmer is a good and interesting account of the life of this man. He is a man who is hard to like--he was brash and immature and obnoxious; he was committed to understanding nature through a Darwinian lens and had only venom for creationists. Yet he was a man who loved God's creatures and who fought to understand and preserve them. Woven into the book are many interesting facts about some of God's least-understand and most-feared creatures. This book is an easy read and a perfect selection for a warm summer day outdoors.
Most biographies are about people you've probably heard of already. However, Jamie James' biography of Joe Slowinski, an energetic herpetologist, is more interesting than the lives of most of our presidents and celebrities. James depicts Slowinski as a man full of energy, and his biography is also full of energy. It tracks Slowinski from his childhood finding fossils right up until his death in northern Burma. In between, James recounts raucous tales of a young scientist catching venomous snakes barehanded and traveling the world.
One of James' best tricks is to interweave short biographies of the snakes along with the biography of Slowinski. Since Slowinski's life was so intertwined these beautiful reptiles, they reveal much about the man himself. I ended up learning as much about snakes as I did about the life of a herpetologist.
I especially liked this book because I've visited some of the places Slowinski did and met some of the same Burmese scientists. I spent a week in Alaungdaw Kathapa National Park, where Slowinski conducted some of his earlier research, and can attest to Jamie Jame's depiction of northern Burma as remote and wonderful. It was a pleasure to see some of my old friends and locations mentioned in the book. This book will also appeal to readers with a general interest in Burma.
The final chapter recounting Slowinski's death is especially poignant. Slowinski was fatally bit by a Multi-Banded Krait, the very snake he was studying. James brings the doomed rescue attempt to life and highlights the bravery of Slowinski's colleagues in the field. When reading it, I recalled Steve Irwin's similarly tragic death several years ago. Slowinski's death was tragic, but reading the biography one gets the sense that he packed more into his brief life than most of us do in twice his lifespan. It made me believe, more than ever, that the light that burns half as long burns twice as bright...
on June 28, 2008
When I first heard about Joe Slowinski's bizarre and tragic death by snakebite in Burma, I was fascinated and wanted to learn more. The moment I saw this book, I grabbed it---an impulse move that was a lot safer than Joe's impulsive grab into the snake bag containing the krait.
This book is riveting, being simultaneously a character study, an adventure story, a peek into the world of academic science, and a biology primer. It succeeds in all categories, making it almost impossible to put down and haunting afterwards. The author's writing is concise yet accurate and descriptive.
As a trained biologist and a herpetologist on the hobbyist level, I appreciated Joe's fascination with snakes. I am a turtle person myself (oddly, nothing much is said about the turtle people in the prestige rankings among herpetologists) but have also had a snake. I can verify that herp meetings that feature snakes have had nearly all male attendance, as Mr. James states. Snakes exert a draw for a certain type of person, exemplified in Joe Slowinski, that other reptiles don't. They have magic.
Like all possessed geniuses, Joe Slowinski would not have been easy to live with, but he contributed immensely to the life around him. It is so tragic that he did not get to fulfil his lifespan. I think the last 2 sentences in Mr. James's "Sources and Methods" afterword sums it up so well: "..it's the great gap at the end I regret most of all. It's a peculiar kind of sadness to feel sorely the loss of someone I never met."
Highly recommended, for readers of all ages and backgrounds.
on March 31, 2014
This was one of the most enteresting books I have read in a long time. A real adventure and tragedy for a young man who loved studying snakes. The effort that his friends put forth to save a life was above and beyond the call of friendship. When I told my son the doctor he did not believe me. He took the book and read with as much enjoyment as I had.
on March 10, 2014
Hard to believe a PhDsnake master who blazed into the wildest of the wild lands with the specific intention of identifying unknown species would stick his hand in a bag full of serpents. There is something to be said for caution but what the hey, live with 'em die with 'em.
on December 15, 2008
I'm at odds about this book. On one hand, I very much enjoyed learning more about herpetology and field biology. The best parts of the book, I thought, delved into advances in the classification of snakes and description of key species. Did you know that nearly all snakes are poisonous but that some are simply not toxic enough to affect humans? I didn't. That some "primitive" snakes such as pythons have pairs of organs (kidneys, lungs, etc.), but that more "evolved" snakes have single organs, making them more streamlined and efficient? Or that those who survive the nearly-always-fatal bite of the Russell's viper undergo a peculiar pituitary reversal, taking on childlike characteristics and becoming hairless, impotent, and sterile?
This sort of snake lore provided a fascinating glimpse into a little-known world. However, overall the book is structured as a biography with herpetological interludes. It commences at the moment when Joe Slowinski, a gifted but reckless herpetologist, was bitten by one of the world's most deadly snakes during an ill-fated expedition in a remote region of Burma. The book then breaks off and returns to Slowinski's childhood and progresses gradually back to the point of the fatal bite, which ultimately kills Slowinski after prolonged and heroic efforts to keep him alive.
Author James, in the epilogue, makes the connection between Slowinski's rashness and overconfidence and his death, but I still had difficulty overcoming an aversion to the beer-swilling, macho Slowinski, who at thirty-eight still behaved like a disarmingly charming but socially stunted twelve-year-old. I suppose I've met too many characters in this mold over the years to retain much regard for them. They gravitate toward the never-never land of labs and field research, places that allow them to obsess over a chosen subject, insulated from significant moral and social development.
James does a good job of scrupulously telling Slowinski's tale, and he has a clear, easy-to-digest style that makes for rapid reading. But I found myself wondering if his efforts to be even handed about his subject -- not to mention safeguard access to his sources of information, including Slowinski's parents, sister, and friends -- led him to indulge in a bit of hagiography. Slowinski's manner of death may have been sensational, but I didn't feel his life itself merited the full biographical treatment.
on December 15, 2015
One for hardcore herpetologists, I fear. Not that they would learn anything more about reptiles than they would already, but maybe they might like an insight into someone who was supposedly a herpetologist who was at the top of his game and a rising star in the field.
For the rest of us, who were hoping to read a lot about snakes, it’s a disappointment. Apart from the occasional snake-related anecdote, this is really only a biography of Joe Slowinski, who, frankly, I didn’t much care about. It‘s not like he was an international superstar, hence why I think any interest in him would have niche appeal.
Another reviewer has suggested that the book reads like an Into the Wild for snakes, and it does. Yet it lacks the interest angle of ITW for me – the mystery there was why McCandless decided to up and off into the forest. We already know why Slowinski did. The only real takeaway point of this book was that Slowinski was seemingly a bit lax in his care with snakes. The one that was to kill him, he just stuck his hand in the sack and picked it up. If I’d’ve been told by my assistant that he thinks it to be a harmless snake that looks more or less identical to the potentially fatal krait, I think I’d err on the side of caution!
So, the book functions neither as an interesting biography, nor anything of any substance to natural history. Talented but careless herpetologist eventually gets bitten and dies, there you have it, the whole book.
on May 5, 2009
Author Jamie James shot three birds with one bullet in "The Snake Charmer." While the story is about a world's renowned herpetologist, the late Joe Slowinski, James managed to cover along almost seamlessly two other fascinating topics closely intertwined with the life of Joe Slowinski. The first one is the basics of snake taxonomy with illustrated examples of exotic snakes. This is an impressive crash course on the classification in the snake world that brings back the memory of the good old days the last time I touched Biology when I was a senior in high school dealing with the Latin names of plants and animals. In addition to a basic division of non-venomous (Colubridae) and the venomous group; further divided into Viperidae and Elapidae (p.13), James also provides a chilling account of what snake venom is and the kind of havoc it produces; the neurotoxin, whose nervous-system disabling effect is similar to when someone unplugs the power cord of a computer from the electrical outlet, and the hemotoxin; "killing muscle tissues as it inexorably advances through the victim's body" (p.40).
The second one, an equally thrilling one, is a vivid description of Burma; the culture, the government, the people, the cities, and the trails the Slowinski expedition took on to Hkakabo Razi National Park in the northern park of the country; the eastern edge of the Himalayas; perhaps can also be called the Yosemite or the Yellowstone or the Denali of Burma. Maybe I shouldn't brag too much anymore that I really like hiking after getting the written exposure of the kind of trail the Slowinski team took on that was described as setting "a new standard of misery" considering its "muddy trails, bad food, squalid campsites, a deep river of fine, clinging clay mud, malarial mosquitos and sharp-biting sandflies swirled in tormenting clouds; legions of thirsty leeches lurked in every dank, dark recess" (p.5). James' description of the country's history, landscape and the northern tribal people is highly enjoyable. I understand why he calls Burma a "beautiful, unhappy" land. The fact it has a share in the Himalaya range itself with its 19,295-ft Hkakabo Razi summit qualifies it to be classified as beautiful (p.112). It is an unhappy land, not because of poverty per-se, but because of the country's mismanagement under the military junta (p.118-119). After learning about his assessment about Burma, it intrigues me to hear what he thinks of Bali and Indonesia in general since it sounds like James lives in Bali, at least the time he wrote the book when he noted, "...after I returned home to Bali" (p.246).
The biography of Joe Slowinski itself is a touching account of a brilliant yet careless man with a passion for nature, coming from a seemingly humble, hard-working all-American family, though sadly not a happy one. It struck me to read about the political wrangling in high places in the science world as the personal ambition and contention to be the best of the best turned into an extreme ugliness; though Joe's case against Alan Rabinowitz didn't turn into one. The height of a narcissistic spirit can be seen in the case of Edward Cope, belonging to the Anthropometric society, "who basically wanted to study why they were so smart... Before his death, Cope had proposed that he himself be declared the type specimen for Homo Sapiens - the only known species on earth that has no holotype" (p.151).
I thoroughly enjoyed "The Snake Charmer." It is educational, touching, humane, and entertaining; an excellent choice for summer reading materials.
on July 4, 2013
Even knowing from the start what was going to happen to Joe at the end, I found myself transfixed by every single event told about his journey to find and identify snakes. An interesting point of creativity was making each chapter begin with information about a snake, not just any snake, but one that had a key impact on that part of Joe's life. This book could have been a dry, scientific sort of thing that only told what happened from beginning to end in order to memorialize a famous scientist, instead the author used information combined with great storytelling to paint the picture of someone so clearly it was as if you had actually met him somewhere.
I have never loved or hated snakes, but this book made me realize what beautiful creatures they can be. In reading, I discovered their abilities and their faults, I discovered the natural wonder that is the snake itself, and I came to understand why others would spend their time searching for these creatures and surrounding themselves with them in homes or offices. By the end of the book I found myself grateful for all the work that Joe had done and was heartbroken at the loss of one so great.
"It's a peculiar kind of sadness to feel sorely the loss of someone I never met." This is author Jamie James' sentiment, his final sentence in The Snake Charmer's afterword on Sources and Methods where James describes the level of detail of subject Joe Slowinski's personal notes and records and their invaluable usefulness to this book. I repeat these words because by the time I came to Slowinski's death, over 200 pages into the book, I too felt that sadness at the loss of a man I never met and, to be honest, had never heard of before I bought this book two weeks ago.
The Snake Charmer is about the life and death of Joe Slowinski, a renowned herpetologist who specialized in poisonous snakes, particularly in cobras in his later years. The book begins by describing the circumstances of Slowinski's demise, that is his being bit by a juvenile many-banded krait, the most poisonous snake in Asia, after thrusting his hand into a specimen bag believing based on his assistant's word that the snake inside was a non-venomous lookalike. This serves to entice the reader and get the reader engaged in the story, after which James spends the next ~150 pages giving a biography of Slowinski's life to that point, from his youth hunting for fossils to his many herping exploits in graduate school to his brief tenure with the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco and the numerous scientific expeditions he led into Burma while with Cal Academy. The last 85 pages or so describe Joe Slowinski's final Burmese expedition, the big one he put everything into that was supposed to be his triumph, and its tragic ending with that fatal mistake and the inability of the crew to get a timely helicopter evacuation given their remoteness, the hesitance of the Burmese government to assist without ample compensation, and the inability to get strong dedication from the American government given that Slowinski was bit on the morning of September 11, 2001.
For the uninitiated like myself, Joe Slowinski lived a fascinating life. A natural naturalist, he had an innate ability to seek out and locate the objects he was surveying for. His natural curiosity and fearlessness made him perfect for studying poisonous snakes, and over the course of his life he was bitten several times, at least twice by venomous snakes preceding the krait. It was this ability to thrust himself into his work, doing whatever it took to capture his specimens--often with his bare hands--that also allowed him to be a good scientist, furthering the scientific knowledge of snakes and cobras in particular, such as the Burmese spitting cobra which he himself named. His passion for snakes and herpetofauna was strong and, from the sound of it, contagious to those he approached about his work. I am an aspiring herpetologist, and while I am not much into snakes and really am not into poisonous snakes, I was utterly fascinated reading about Joe Slowinski's life and the herping adventures he had.
These adventures are described through the tireless research of author Jamie James. James conducted exhaustive investigative work into Joe Slowinski's life and work, interviewing his family, friends, collaborators, and coworkers and using Slowinski's own extensive personal notes and journals to reconstruct the man's 38-year life. The result is a book which many, many times causes the reader to ask how the author could know certain detailed facts (before James describes in the Afterword how invaluable Slowinski's personal writings were to the book). One notable and very cool thing that James does is name every chapter after a species of snake, the first page of which gives a brief natural history of the snake with an illustration of it (the illustrations are nothing too special). However, as the reader finds out, each respective species of snake had a significant effect on Slowinski's life. Hence the first chapter of the biography, "Black Rat Snake," reveals how this species was the first snake Slowinski ever caught as a young boy, whereas the "Burmese Spitting Cobra" chapter describes his efforts to find the mysterious and oft-rumored spitting cobra before finally obtaining a holotype during one of his expeditions. This neat style of James' helps to get the reader to be a little more interested by learning a bit about each snake and then seeing how each species influenced Slowinski's life.
There are two points of contention I have with the book, and I'm sure people will disagree. The first is that I think it's gimmicky to start the book off with Slowinski being bit. I completely understand that it really helps to grab the reader from the beginning and create a strong desire to read the book to see what eventually transpires following the bite. However, this is a trick I would personally associate more with fiction thrillers, not with a biography. It probably doesn't detract for most people, but I thought it was a bit cheap. Second, I often found James' writing style to be a bit boring. The material, as I've said, is fascinating, even to someone like me who is more into anurans than snakes. However, James often writes with a style that roughly goes like, "This happened. Then this happened. Then this other thing happened. And ____ felt this way about it." There isn't a strong use of interesting sentence structures, I felt. The subject matter stands on its own, however. Again, probably won't bother most people too much.
Despite some of the flaws I see in the book itself, this is a great read. I would consider it essential reading for anybody with an interest in herpetology, as you may find many aspects of Joe Slowinski's life that mirror your own. Even for those who have no interest in the pursuit of herps, this book is an engrossing read about one man's passion to learn more about a subject that he always knew could, and eventually did, kill him. Highly recommended.