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The Latest: Crusading for 'Sight'; the same old Sense

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Hope in Sight

Aisha Simjee, MD

White Spruce Press; 240 pages

Aisha Simjee is a tough cookie. On her first mission trip as an ophthalmologist, the Newport Beach resident flew to Guyana and set up her equipment in an unused school building. Shortly after, a volunteer came running from the bathroom and screamed that there was a snake inside. Instead of being frightened, Simjee was intrigued — and walked into the bathroom to see what kind of snake it was. Recounting that story in her memoir "Hope in Sight," the doctor notes that she had grown accustomed to the species in her native Burma, "a land full of snakes." The intruder soon moves on, and Simjee's team reclaims the facilities.

That brief anecdote points to Simjee's mindset as both a doctor and a writer: She comes off as efficient and unsentimental, traits no doubt required for the work she does around the globe. "Hope in Sight" is far from a self-pat on the back; a few pages on, the author describes herself as a "no-nonsense scientist and surgeon" and adds that profits from the book will go to charity or future missions. Still, the qualities that make Simjee admirable as a humanitarian don't always make for an exhilarating read. "Hope in Sight" tells an inspiring story, but much of it feels terse and detached — more of a detailed account than an emotionally taut journey.

The opening chapters are among the strongest, as Simjee recounts her childhood in Burma and her unorthodox introduction to eye care (at 7, she contracted trachoma and had it cured by squirting breast milk into her eye). In a household where daughters were raised to be homemakers, Simjee refused an arranged marriage and vowed to become a doctor; as a teenager, she marveled at the stories of emancipated Western women she read at the library. After settling in America and earning her medical license, she began taking her practice overseas — to more than two dozen countries, many deep in the Third World.

A few of Simjee's accounts are harrowing. In the book's most poignant chapter, she recounts a visit back to Burma in which she not only treated patients but revisited her childhood home and neighborhood, both dilapidated after years of neglect. Her account of Haiti, in which a young mother unsuccessfully begs Simjee to adopt her child, also resonates. Many of the shorter chapters, though, read chiefly as summaries — brief synopses of which group Simjee traveled with, where she stayed and how many patients she treated — and the book would have been stronger if she had trimmed the less colorful passages and fleshed out the more memorable.

More disappointingly, the patients Simjee encounters seldom register as characters. Often, the author describes them in brief, general terms — a 19-year-old girl, an elderly man — without hinting at the stories that led them to her operating table: How did impaired sight affect their daily lives, and how much of a godsend did Simjee's treatment prove to be? At one point, she mentions a Salvadoran boy whom she will "never forget," and her efforts to help him (she pleads with the warden at the prison where he lives) are stirring. But since we learn almost nothing about the boy beyond a short physical description, the story lacks the impact it might have.

In fairness, the author went on her mission trips as a doctor, not an interviewer, and she no doubt had limited time to become acquainted with those who lined up for care. The subtitle of "Hope in Sight" reads "One Doctor's Quest to Restore Eyesight and Dignity to the World's Poor," and as a heroic story of a doctor's quest, the book achieves its goal. But as an account of the poor — and the dignity sought from a cataract operation that the average Newport resident would take for granted — it leaves the impression of harboring a more moving story below the surface.

—Michael Miller

*

What's It All About

Common Sense

Common Sense Records; LP

Reggae band Common Sense has been around the block for quite some time — since 1986, to be exact.

After making music for almost three decades, the Laguna Beach-based band's still got the energy to jam and record another album, but it doesn't mean they should.

Common Sense tracked 15 songs for their sixth album, "What's It All About," which was self-produced by the band and recorded in the Hurley Studios in Costa Mesa.

"In This Life" opens the album with a simple, laid-back beat that will have you nodding your head. Calling it a love ballad is a bit of a stretch, but it'll have you grabbing and holding onto your significant other a third of the way into the song.

This track and the songs that follow — "Switchy Switch" and "What's It All About" — sound like what you'd imagine Common Sense to sound like: catchy surf and reggae tones. But when "Define Love" starts playing, you almost have to ask yourself, "Didn't I just hear this song?"

"Define Love" is structured almost the same as "Switchy Switch" and nearly has the same tempo. It is also monotonous, with little variation throughout the song. You can randomly skip to any part of the song and you wouldn't be able to tell if you were listening to the first chorus or the last. At least "Switchy Switch" had an awesome guitar solo.

"Tell Me How Gangster You Are" really shows the band's age. The song calls out beach kids who have new cars bought by their moms and try to act tough. The two-word line "Say what?" is repeated endlessly in the song, and what that tells me is that they're getting a little stale.

But Common Sense redeems themselves later in the album with "Feel the Dragon." The song reminds me of their previous album, "Don't Look Back," where they displayed their musical range. It has a bit of a funk/R&B-like feel to it and isn't your conventional reggae music.

Probably my favorite song on the CD, "Strange One," is indeed a strange track. It's more ska and punk than reggae. It's really upbeat, with parts of the song reminding me of The Offspring's track "All I Want."

A colleague of mine who knows the band's frontman, Nick Hernandez, told me that the band has been sitting on these songs for a while and has finally had the time to sit down and record them, which can explain a bit of the staleness of some of the songs.

Loyal fans will like this album. It's more or less the same band they've been listening to for the last three decades. But "Don't Look Back" was more cohesive, and the songs seemed to complement one another. "What's It All About" feels like it was scrambled together.

Anthony Clark Carpio

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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