"Burmese Motorcycle Diaries," author Jamie James' journal of his jungle trek to research the book, from Natural History, June 2008
Snakes have always fascinated us, from ancient myths to 21st-century horror films. From 20-foot-long pythons that can squeeze a man to death and eat him whole, to tiny serpents with venom powerful enough to kill dozens of grown men, snakes are endowed with an awesome power that pulls perpetually at the human imagination. The Snake Charmer: A Life and Death in Pursuit of Knowledge, by acclaimed international journalist Jamie James, chronicles the career of the American biologist Dr. Joe Slowinski, one of the leading experts on venomous snakes in the world. For Joe, the lure of snakes was all-consuming: tragically, his life’s passion also became his undoing.
In the fall of 2001, he was leading an expedition deep in the jungle of Burma, in search of rare species of snakes. It was the most ambitious scientific expedition to the region ever mounted. At dawn on a rainy morning near the Chinese border, in a tragic blunder, Slowinski was bitten by a many-banded krait — the deadliest serpent in Asia. This accident set into motion one of the most remarkable rescue attempts of modern times, as Slowinski’s colleagues kept him alive for 30 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 explorer 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 – 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.
For the first time, The Snake Charmer documents Joe Slowinski’s final expedition and the events that preceded it. Exhaustively researched in interviews with Slowinski’s colleagues and family, and the author’s own trek into the wilds of Burma, this absorbing examination of Joe Slowinski’s research, relationships, and bold field exploration is animated throughout by the passion and charisma of the man himself. The Snake Charmer will enthrall readers from the first page to the last.
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.
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.