From Hope to Joy, Part I, by Jennifer Degl — Book Review!

We thought we had it tough. Our micropreemie was born at 22 weeks and 6 days, spent five months in the hospital, and generally scared the cookies out of us. At present, I am reading From Hope to Joy, by Jennifer Degl, and it makes our experience look like old ladies’ tea. I’ve gotten through Part I of the book, and I’m going to review it here on my blog today. (They say you’re supposed to blog early and blog often, which is why I’m only reviewing half of it today. And, Orthodox Easter is this weekend, so I want to get this done while I can.)

Jennifer Degl’s fourth child was born about three weeks after our micropreemie, and she was born very close in body weight to our son. Huge amounts of it ring true with us. The book opens with a camping trip on which she’s a teacher and she hemorrhages in the middle of the night, then tries to take care of her problem herself, not wanting to terrify a group of freshmen girls with a crisis. She also does not want to leave blood in the bathroom for fear of the girls waking up to what looks a crime scene. She second-guesses her decisions about how to get to a hospital, which hospital to get to, as does her husband, who had to be several hundred miles away with a different group of students, and boy does this kind of second-guessing dominate the experience of a high-risk pregnancy.

Degl had a severe case of placental previa, that is when the placenta attaches itself to the cervix instead of the uterine wall, where it is supposed to attach, thus causing bleeding and an assortment of other problems. Her book vividly describes that awful moment in a high-risk pregnancy when the doctor recommends an abortion, which will cause you to rearrange your views on life, earth and heaven in a very short period.

“Are you crazy?” Degl says to the doctor.

“No, you are,” the doctor says back.

She also describes 911 calls, ambulance rides, and a couple of near-death moments in a fast, gripping style. She seems to have an awful time keeping her cell phone charged and with a signal when she needs to call 911 or relatives, which seems to be a great argument for getting a goshdarned landline, even if the thing is expensive and attracts pointless calls from telemarketers and pollsters. (I’m getting off-topic, sorry.)

The book seems to suffer from the same problem that most medical memoirs do, that is the same problem that war novels suffer from, which is that the action carries the plot well so long as the German Army is advancing across France. When there is not a lot of crisis action going on, the writing fizzles out and makes you wonder what these people are doing in the book together and why you’re reading it. There is the old writing teacher’s adage of “show, don’t tell,” when developing characters or explaining things that are important, and the calm parts of this book do an awful lot of telling. Degl intersperses her writing with short journal entries from her husband, and the first one is a paragraph long and is basically a wedding banquet toast about how wonderful she is. The next one, “Mommy, the boss,” has John use five ghastly, trite similes quite close together, about how the house runs like a well-tuned Porsche, an assembly line, and Jennifer is like a CEO, a surgeon and a Tibetan monk. However, his writing ability picks up quite a bit when he talks about his feelings on the recommended abortion.

Jennifer, too, falls in to this kind of lazy description. Regarding a previous miscarriage, she states, “I was devastated, but I couldn’t let it get me down.” What the heck are these two clauses doing together in the same sentence? If you’re really devastated, that is, mostly destroyed, you’re already down. You might climb out of it later, but you can’t bounce back with a comma. And then, she moves on to the next topic without much more mention of the devastation. My wife says I’m being nitpicky, but I think more elaboration is necessary to justify a word such as “devastation.”

There’s also choppy copy editing throughout, with spaces missing between words, clunky sentences, etc., which makes me wonder if the book was self-published or run through a publisher of last resort. I don’t mean this pejoratively — my first book went through a publisher of last resort and the result was less than gorgeous (ya gotta do what ya gotta do). The publisher’s name is “Lemon Tree Publishing, Mahopac Falls, N.Y.,” which I can’t find anywhere on the Internet. And, how on earth do you keep a lemon tree alive in New York? But, the book does seem to be quite prominent — if you type “preemie memoir” in to Amazon, this title will be pretty near the top.

Despite these criticisms, I have to say this has been an enjoyable, exciting, educational book. I’ve learned several things I did not know, for example, that cesarean births increase the risks for later high-risk pregnancies given the scar tissue it creates in the uterus. Given that a quarter of births in the United States are cesarean births, it becomes a major contributor to the rate of high-risk pregnancies, and an important reason that we need to reduce our cesarean birth rate.

I’m at the end of Part I right now, and things are looking very, very bleak for both Mom and baby. It left me feeling quite unsettled about the possibility of future children. I would like to have another child, but my wife is less enthusiastic. I have decided that she’s not allowed to read this book. (And she agreed with me.)


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