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Reviews of Glimpses through the Forest

Here are some reviews of Glimpses through the Forest: Memories of Gabon. Please feel free to add your own if you’d like!

  • “With Glimpses through the Forest: Memories of Gabon, Jason Gray has penned a lively, lovely memoir of his time as an environmental education coordinator with the Peace Corp. Chronicling three years of forest elephants, drumming and dancing, and starry evenings of palm wine and grilled barracuda brochettes, Gray’s debut is decidedly romantic. Yet that romanticism never clouds the truth of the story, and Glimpses through the Forest is also a clear-eyed look at Gray’s own struggles as a volunteer and the many, many sustaining cultural practices of the people of Gamba town and beyond. Truly, Gray’s chronicle of his journey to and into the mist-drenched coastal African nation of Gabon does what the best memoirs always do: Glimpses through the Forest offers us necessary and stunning news from some far part of the world.” – Joe Wilkins, author of The Mountain and the Fathers: Growing Up on the Big Dry
  • “RPCVs [Returned Peace Corps Volunteers] know that the Peace Corps experience has the potential to change us far more than it does those we are sent overseas to ‘help’.  Gray’s memoir is a profound tale of the impact on one volunteer of his multi-year immersions into a foreign land and culture.  His detailed and deeply felt account of his three years with the people, the wildlife, the sights and the sounds in one small corner of Gabon illustrates this point with grace, humor and a wonderful style of storytelling. Glimpses Through the Forest gives readers the Peace Corps experience personified–the exploration, the discovery, the fear, the joy and the life changing experience that we all attest to when we come home.  A great read for anyone who wants a guided tour of Peace Corps life and a stunningly beautiful corner of Gabon.” – Patricia McArdle, RPCV Paraguay, author of the Amazon Breakthrough Award-winning fictional war memoir, Farishta
  • “A former Peace Corps volunteer reminisces about life, love and the tropics during his three years in Gabon, where the people, the countryside and nature captured his heart. For debut travel writer Gray, the coastal West African country of Gabon, a former French colony, was about the most extreme contrast to his native Montana he could have wished for. Tropical downpours, intense humidity, lush jungle and a tremendous variety of wildlife are the background to his daily existence as he helps develop a grade school education program. And the food—simple, deliciously fresh (such as fish grilled straight out of rivers), served in a variety of spicy sauces. Above all, the kindness and zest for life among the people enchant him most. They welcome him into their hearts and homes, and along the way, he finds that even without the material comforts of modern society, community bonds are cherished, and they enjoy life more than he could imagine. A wide-eyed Gray nearly bumps into a forest elephant, stares hippos in the eye, monitors sea turtles laying their eggs at night and nearly encounters a dangerous Nile crocodile. But not all was well during Gray’s posting. He witnesses a witchcraft tribunal, where an old, lonely woman was accused of transforming herself into different beasts and tormenting fellow villagers. After everyone was given the chance to have their say, the village elders pronounced their verdict, which was aimed at keeping harmony among the community. Steering clear of politics, Gray is careful to keep an open, objective mind about the customs. At the center of the country is oil revenue, but, with only passing references made to the presence of international companies, Gray’s efforts to avoid political controversy lead him to give no opinion on the matter—a shortcoming of this otherwise engaging portrait of a society caught between ancient and modern ways. A personal, somewhat overly romantic account of life far away from home.” – Kirkus Reviews
  • “Within the first few pages of his book, Glimpses through the Forest: Memories of Gabon, Jason Gray establishes at least one of the intended audiences for his book. ‘For any prospective Peace Corps Volunteers who might be reading this,’ he writes, ‘I do feel that it is important to acknowledge that for all the excitement and frustrations of the actual work assignment, there are countless days and nights spent getting to know one’s neighbors, community, and new friends.’ Reading that sentence, I couldn’t help wonder how successful the book was going to be in describing the Peace Corps experience to a would-be volunteer. Moreover, would there be other potential audiences for Gray’s memoir?             As a Peace Corps Volunteer, Gray worked on a conservation program in southwestern Gabon; he stayed on after his two years to continue building local capacity, this time with the World Wildlife Fund. The book is aptly entitled, for each chapter provides the reader with a peek at a particular slice of Gray’s Peace Corps experience. Some examples include: his time as a trainee, work as a teacher, the roads and transportation, local food and palm wine, the market, funeral ceremonies, drumming and dancing, bathing in Ndougou Lagoon, the neighborhood children, encounters with elephants and many other animals, and his relationships with people who touched him the most. Gray’s prose is clear and descriptive throughout, sometimes even lyrical, as in this excerpt from a chapter entitled, “Mist on the Lagoon:” ‘For me, the morning mist was like a prelude, covering over a magnificent masterpiece, unveiled in an instant when patience starts to run thin and anticipation runs thick. And I remember that feeling, like the cresting of a steep hill with a beautiful vista laid out before me, the feel of sitting in the boat, waiting for the mists to lift to show the wonder beyond.’                                                        While each of the 38 chapters can stand on its own as a mini-essay (in some cases as short as four pages), taken together they paint a full and vivid mural of a rewarding Peace Corps experience. Even though he served in a different country, decade, and technical area than I did, many of his experiences felt incredibly familiar to me. Getting stuck on the side of the road when the rainy season has left the roads particularly muddy, joking around with the neighborhood kids (and that one child that is initially terrified of you), trying the local brew-these were just a few of the things that resonated with me. Ultimately, I think this feeling of familiarity had less to do with my having served in the same region of Africa, as it had to do with Gray’s ability to capture the universality of the Peace Corps experience. Regardless of the region they served in, every RPCV has memories of that one family that took them in as one of their own, the challenges of learning the local language, the many frustrations and occasional breakthroughs, and finally, the realization (usually toward the end of one’s service) that despite well-intentioned and naïve designs to change things for the better, the biggest change that happens is inevitably within the volunteers themselves.                                                           As a result of Gray’s success in capturing the universality of the Peace Corps experience, his book lives up to its goal of being a helpful and engaging read for prospective volunteers; I would recommend it for people considering applying to the Peace Corps regardless of what kind of program they ask for or what part of the globe they are eventually assigned to. But I would also recommend Glimpses through the Forest to other groups of people. Gray’s memoir makes for an interesting read for people who are curious to learn more about Gabon, or those who want a better idea of what conservation work in a developing country looks like. And finally, former RCPVs from Gabon are likely to enjoy it as a trip down memory lane.” – Review for Peace Corps Writers by Susi Wyss (RPCV Central African Republic 1990-92). Susi Wyss is the author of The Civilized World, a novel in stories set across Africa that received the 2011 Maria Thomas Fiction Award from Peace Corps Writers and was named a “Book to Pick Up Now” by O, the Oprah Magazine. You can find her online at: http://www.susiwyss.com.
  • “From Great Falls to Gabon… Gray, a Great Falls native who now lives in California, recounts the three years he spent in the central African country of Gabon, two as a Peace Corps volunteer and one working for the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF)… During his time along the Ndogo Lagoon, Gray had malarial fevers, boredom, failed projects and frustrating relationships. And he also made some of his most precious memories, of senses overloaded, of love, food, memories, animals and culture.” – Kristen Inbody, Great Falls Tribune
  • “Jason Gray’s memoir, Glimpses through the Forest: Memories of Gabon, defies the widely held image of the Peace Corps that assumes it spends its time in regions far from civilization as we know it. During his time in the prospering West African country of Gabon, the author set out on his mission to promote the importance of protecting natural resources. In 2002, the Gabonese president designated vast swathes of land to National Park status making it imperative to demonstrate how to preserve and conserve this bounty. Gray worked towards this end primarily by developing programs for children and their schoolteachers and working alongside the Smithsonian and other natural history research groups. The book’s appeal lies not only in the information that it imparts, but more in the poetic and imaginative quality of Gray’s writing. It is divided into two sections and is an absolute pleasure to read. In the first part, Gray details his experience as a ‘newbie,’ learning the ropes with the help of his local Peace Corps buddy. Despite a ferocious climate so unlike his home in Montana, Gray focuses on the positive. He write about his day to day life in Gamba, the small coastal town where he is centered. He details the task of learning the fundamentals of regional languages. And once the introductions are over, he describes a growing expertise of the natural surroundings. He highlights an overnight trip to the beach with high school kids to watch leatherback turtles lay their eggs, forest elephants swimming across the river and rosy bee-eater birds winging up from their nests. Above all, he is enthralled when he sees “…a five-fingered leathery shiny black hand, thick fingers grasping at a leaf. The amazing single sighting … a gorilla’s hand.” In addition to the narrative and photographs (readers will wish there were more), Gray provides excellent lists for further reading and highlights the species mentioned in the text. Grammar errors may occasionally trip up the reader (the title of Chinua Achebe’s celebrated book has suffered a typo) but otherwise, full marks.” – Jane Manaster, Portland Book Review
  • “In the early two-thousands, Jason Gray spent three years in the African coastal nation of Gabon. The first two he served as a volunteer in the Peace Corps, and, for the third, Gray worked to further the conservation efforts that he began during his voluntary service. Here, Gray offers a beautiful story of his time there.  His tale is not told linearly; instead, he gives the reader, as he says, glimpses of this fascinating country. One chapter is about his first encounter with a forest elephant. Another describes the feeling in the air and in the soul when it rains. This is the perfect way to introduce the reader to Gabon. It enlivens the text so that, instead of one man’s adventure, it becomes a wonderful tapestry wherein all the delicate details that make up the place can come together to give a complete picture. It also lends the book the feeling of memory. This allows Gray’s stories to sink into you. When you finish the book, it feels like you were there with him. You can feel the fear of discovering a hippopotamus right behind you and see the colorful leaves of the forest. This is a completely transporting book. Gray’s language certainly contributes to the magic of his stories. You can feel his love for the land, for the people he met, and for the things he experienced. It pours forth from every page in the form of slow, loving descriptions. He describes even the most nightmare-inducing scenarios with a cheerful reverence. One chapter details his hours-long fight against a swarm of biting ants as they try to take over his house, coming in armies massive enough to cover the walls. Still, there is not a trace of complaint. His optimism and caring are contagious, and this book is enough to make me (almost) want to jump on a plane right now.  Glimpses through the Forest is a rare book, one that takes you from your comfortable couch and brings you full-on into a country where the power shuts off every time it rains and a simple hike can leave you in chest-deep water with crocodiles. Most impressively, not a single moment of this trip is unpleasant. It is all beautiful, rich, and alive. Gray does a fantastic job sharing his love and respect for Gabon and for all the people he met there.” – San Francisco Book Review

1 Comment

  1. Jill Sherrill says:

    This account of Peace Corps service makes me wish I had joined the PC myself many years ago. If I had read this book first, I would not have been afraid of the people, the land, or the service. Very personable account and pleasant to journey with Jason.

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