Jamie James,
The Snake Charmer
(Hyperion, 2008)

No creature inspires more fear and fascination than the snake.

Joe Slowinski's fascination with the animal world, particularly snakes, began as a child in the Midwest and led him to a career as one of the major figures in international herpetology before the age of 40. It also led to premature death as the result of a bite from one of the world's most venomous snakes.

Jamie James, who lives and writes in Asia, has crafted an intriguing and educational book on the life, achievements and death of Slowinski.

The book begins with a description of the many-banded krait, the species that took the life of the scientist. He notes that one bite from this snake has enough concentrated toxin to kill two dozen mature men. This was the snake American soldiers in Vietnam called the "two-step snake" in the belief its bite could kill a man before he took two steps. Slowinski suffered a bite from a krait while leading a scientific expedition in a remote area of northern Burma.

From the incident of the bite in the first chapter, James follows with a recounting of Slowinski's life and achievements and ends with the tragic report of how heroic efforts to save the young scientist were stymied by odds too great to be overcome.

Realizing his chances for survival were limited, Slowinski gathered his colleagues around him and calmly explained what had happened and what they might expect in the coming hours. Even as his condition deteriorated he sought to give his companions reports on what was happening as though he wanted to leave a scientific record of the event.

His colleagues, who only hours before had been wrangling with one another in petty jealousies, rallied in their effort to help him, giving him artificial respiration and striving to make him comfortable. Several porters ran three hours over rugged, muddy mountain trails to seek aid from the nearest army base. A Burmese doctor made it to the scene but was unable to do much due to lack of available supplies. Reached by radio, the consular officer at the American embassy set in motion efforts to send help. All was in vain.

The narrative makes clear Slowinski was a brilliant and dedicated scientist -- the discoverer of several new species, the creator of a major scientific collaboration between the California Academy of Sciences, the Smithsonian and a Burmese governmental agency and he was influential as an essayist on evolutionary relationships. It is also clear he had an arrogant macho streak that often made him careless of his own safety and that of others around him. It was not the first time he incurred a poisonous snakebite, and James records a number of incidents that illustrate a reckless propensity toward danger. A combination of stress, lack of sufficient sleep and overindulgence in alcohol appear to have been factors in this final fatal encounter.

James is an engaging writer and the book is hard to put down, fascinating on a variety of levels. Whether you like or loathe snakes, it's a book worth reading.

review by
John R. Lindermuth

27 September 2008

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