James Webb Space Telescope: First Images Revealed Event

Launched on December 25, 2021, the James Webb Space Telescope (or Webb) has the potential to revolutionize astronomy, astrophysics, and other space sciences forever. Last month, the first images from Webb were transmitted back to Earth, and what they show is astonishing.

On Saturday, August 20, the Mission Viejo Library held the James Webb Space Telescope: First Images Revealed event, which showcased the preliminary images received from Webb as well as a live presentation by NASA Solar System ambassadors alongside expert comments and conclusions from video panelists. 

Webb works by using infrared light (or heat, imperceptible to the human eye), to view and capture images from deep space. This new technique complements the Hubble telescope, but it also allows Webb to see extremely far away at distances over 13 billion years away – nearly as old as the universe itself!

One of my favorite images from the presentation was the Carina Nebula, shown to the left. The James Webb Telescope has captured the first image of a star actually being born in a stellar nursery, confirming scientific theories while also raising new questions about the details of star birth. 

I also liked the picture of the deep space field, shown to the right. Although the brightest stars are “photobombing” the image, since they’re part of the Milky Way galaxy, some of the smaller and dimmer spots are actually never-before-seen galaxies, part of the ancient world formed just after the creation of the universe. The curves near the center of the image also show concrete proof of gravitational lensing (or the curving of space-time as theorized by Albert Einstein). 

Despite all of these fascinating discoveries, Webb is far from finished. Not only is there so much left to be discovered and explained about the images it has already sent, it is projected to last for a decade or longer, so it will undoubtedly unveil more and more about the universe we live in. Overall, I really enjoyed the Webb event, and look forward to presentations like this in the future.

Images courtesy of NASA (nasa.gov)

– Mahak M.

Human.4 by Mike A. Lancaster

When Kyle Straker volunteers to be hypnotized at the annual Millgrove talent show, he expected the usual amateur act – perhaps slight embarrassment from being made to act like a chicken, but nothing more than that. What he wakes up to, though, is a nightmare. Cars and televisions no longer work, townspeople communicate in a strange language, but worst of all, people simply pass by Kyle as if he does not exist.

In an attempt to discover what caused this monumental shift, Kyle teams up with the three other hapless volunteers in order to survive the strange new world they have found themselves in. However, the more they investigate, the more danger they find themselves in as they eventually realize that there is more than just their lives at stake, but also their way of life.

The novel is told through a series of cassette tapes that have subsequently become a historical artifact called the Straker Tapes. Mike Lancaster assumes the position of the historian with editor’s notes to explain parts of the story that would not make sense to the evolved human, which adds both humor and horror to the story. For example, he goes into great detail describing mouths, which, though amusing to the reader, inevitably implies that the future humans depicted in the novel do not have any and are therefore superior, emphasizing the oddness of the new world Kyle and his friends find themselves in.

Overall, I enjoyed Human.4 by Mike Lancaster because it was a unique premise I had never read or considered before. While it is not a conventional dystopian novel, I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys them for a new take on the genre.

– Mahak M.

The Steam Engine

If I were to ask you what the most important invention in human history was, what would you say? The computer, which kickstarted the digital revolution and launched us into the modern age? The lightbulb, which moved humanity out of the darkness and into the literal light? However, to find the invention that truly revolutionized humanity, one must go a few centuries back in time and consider the steam engine.

In 1698, an engineer named Thomas Savery invented the first steam engine, although it certainly was not used for the purposes we consider today. Instead, it was made to draw water out of flooded mines using steam compression. However, the slow heating-cooling process and wastage of steam made this and successive machines, notably the Newcomen engine, largely ineffective, but that changed with James Watt in 1765. Patenting a new, improved steam engine, James Watt was able to harness the power of steam into machines, which led inexorably into the Industrial Revolution.

Like the name suggests, the Industrial Revolution revolutionized industry. More specifically, it shifted the economy from agrarian to industrial, and people moved from working in the home to working for wages in the factories. These factories housed machines that were powered by the steam engine for every industry, from textiles to iron. Without the steam engine, these industries would have never gotten off of the ground.

However, the steam engine did more than impact industries – it revolutionized transportation. In steamboats, like those engineered by Robert Fulton, the steam engine allowed for the shipment of goods both downstream and upstream with ease, lowering costs and travel times. However, the most important impact of the steam engine to consider is the rise of the railroads. In Europe and America, railroads changed the way people lived, worked, and settled. The transcontinental railroad, for example, made moving to other parts of the country easier, since the transportation would cost less and there would be greater access to goods. Not only that, these railroads tied together the countries they were built in in a way that would have been impossible without the steam engine.

So the next time you use a computer or switch on a lightbulb, spare a thought for the oft-overlooked steam engine – it’s quite possible that none of these inventions would exist without it! 

– Mahak M.

A Critique of Eternals (2021)

Cover image for ETERNALS / produced by Kevin Feige, Nate Moore, Juan Cano Nono, Andreas Wentz ; screenplay by Chloae Zhao, Patrick Burleigh, Ryan Firpo, Kaz Firpo ; directed by Chloae Zhao.

Since the dawn of time, an eternal war has been waged across the universe: the Eternals, immortal aliens gifted with abilities to stop the Deviants, monstrous creatures who seek only death and destruction. Earth has been one such battleground for these two groups, and for millennia the Eternals have protected the seeds of humanity and allowed them to flourish into a thriving modern civilization. However, with the return of the Deviants, the Eternals are forced to come out of hiding and into the light to protect the Earth one last time.

This is the premise of Eternals, a 2021 film that is arguably the first film to really be a part of Phase 4 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), since it seeks to connect the past with the present, providing a new structure for the MCU as well as teases for future storylines. Unfortunately, it is this emphasis on the future that weakens the present film itself, leaving viewers looking forward to the new additions to the MCU rather than enjoying the film.

This is partly due to the sheer number of characters introduced in the span of a two and a half hour film. There are ten main Eternals in the movie, and it is difficult for the casual viewer to commit to memory each name, face, and power, especially since some of the characters have incredibly similar and trite powers, like lasers or super strength. This endeavor is quickly rendered futile, though, since half of the major characters are killed off within the first hour of the film.

The audience’s inability to connect with the characters on the screen diminishes every aspect of the film. The surprising plot twist would have worked better if it wasn’t shown primarily off-screen. The romantic aspects of the plot were awkward and at some points distasteful to watch. The Deviants, supposedly the big bad villains of the movie, were almost completely written off by the end of it.

All of this is to say that, in my opinion, Eternals was one of more flawed movies of the MCU, rivaling Thor: The Dark World, however strong of a comparison that may be. In the end, the weak plot was spread far too thin, leaving viewers unsatisfied with the entirety of the film. As a dedicated Marvel movie-goer, I hope that future MCU films do not make the same mistakes as Eternals did.

– Mahak M.

Eternals is available to checkout from the Mission Viejo Library.

Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz

Cover image for Magpie murders / Anthony Horowitz.

When the brilliant yet mean-spirited author Alan Conway is found to have jumped off of his tower, there is no evidence to suggest that it could have been anything more than suicide. In fact, no one cares to look into it too much, since there were more people who detested Alan Conway the person than who loved Alan Conway the mystery novelist. However, his editor, Susan Ryeland, has her suspicions.

After all, Conway had just submitted to her the manuscript of Magpie Murders, his latest and final novel in his world-famous Atticus Pünd series, but the last chapter is mysteriously missing from the pages. As Susan searches for the missing pages, she comes to the realization that, perhaps, the supposedly “fictional” novel is actually based on real events, and that maybe, just maybe, the murderer in reality caught wind of Conway’s tactics to expose them and took matters into their own hands…

Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz is an interesting read because of its story-within-a-story format. On the outside, there is Susan Ryeland’s investigation into Alan Conway’s life, the missing pages, and the murder the novel was based on. Within this framework, however, is the actual Magpie Murders, an Atticus Pünd detective novel written by Alan Conway (without the ending, of course). I enjoyed this format because it almost felt like a two-for-one read, where there were two well written mysteries in the span of one book. 

I would recommend this novel to any fans of Agatha Christie, since there are obviously a lot of similarities between her books and those of “Alan Conway” (compare Hercule Poirot to Atticus Pünd, for starters). However, any and all fans of mystery and adventure will enjoy this novel too.

– Mahak M.

Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz is available for checkout from the Mission Viejo Library. It is also available to download for free from Libby.

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

Cover image for The house of mirth / Edith Wharton.

Lily Bart: fashionable, socially-adept, and absolutely beautiful. Born and raised in the upper echelons of New York society, she seems the type of woman to immediately wed a wealthy man and secure her position as a rich socialite. However, due to her own warring nature between her material desires and her yearning for true love, Lily finds herself caught in a malicious web of jealousy and deceit that causes her fall from grace and social affluence to poverty and loneliness on the margins of society.

It is this unfortunate journey that Edith Wharton chronicles in her novel The House of Mirth. Although Lily is the protagonist of the novel, Wharton explores the events from other perspectives, notably Laurence Selden, Lily’s true love interest. The greatest irony of the novel is that although Selden openly despises the superficial and gossip-driven high society, when push comes to shove and Lily’s reputation is tarnished by forces outside of her control, Selden has the same prejudices against her, and it is these biases that keep Lily and Selden from their happy ending until it is too late to reach it.

Outside of Lily Bart herself, Wharton uses the novel to criticize the society of which she was a part. The most obvious of these is the disparity between what is expected out of men and women during this time. As Lily herself notes, while men could get away with shabbiness or not marrying, women were forced to always look beautiful and presentable, and had to marry in order to keep this up. Ultimately, Lily’s inability to cope with the demands her society made of her caused her decline into the fringes of society.

Overall, The House of Mirth is in no way a light or funny read as the title suggests. Instead, it represents the depressing struggle between what society has determined for people to be and what those people actually are through Lily Bart’s equally tragic story arc. In the end, The House of Mirth is an interesting read if only to understand the similarities between early twentieth century society and modern life.

– Mahak M.

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton is available to checkout from the Mission Viejo Library. It is also available to download for free from Libby.

Chronicle of a Death Foretold by Gabriel Garcia Márquez

Cover image for Chronicle of a death foretold : a novel / Gabriel García Márquez ; translated from the Spanish by Gregory Rabassa.

It was a clear, cold morning in an unnamed village in Colombia. Excited to see the bishop, who visited their town very rarely, the villagers were stunned when they learned, a few hours later, that the well-loved and respected Vicario twins had murdered a fellow villager, Santiago Nasar, in an attempt to restore her sister’s honor. The greatest irony of the situation, however, is that although the brothers tell anyone who will listen about their plans to murder Santiago, in the hopes that they will be stopped, the villagers either ignore the announcement, assume someone else has taken care of it, or, in some cases, actually encourage the twins to follow through.

This is the premise of Gabriel Garcia Márquez’s enduring literary work: Chronicle of a Death Foretold. Surprisingly, the actual novel is not a chronicle in any sense of the word; the narrator is shockingly unreliable and tells the sequence of events completely out of order. As for “death foretold,” where one might expect that to refer to the fact that the Vicario twins made their intentions perfectly clear to all, thus announcing the death, the truth is that the entire novel is steeped in dramatic irony, since the reader knows from the outset that Santiago Nasar is fated to die – it has been “foretold” by the narrator.

Aside from the murder itself, one of the more significant aspects of the novel is its representation of Colombian culture and society. Although traditional authorities are present, such as the bishop and the police, it quickly becomes clear that the ultimate authority in the town is the social construct of honor. The Vicario twins, who are established as good people, are pushed to commit a heinous crime because of honor, and people encourage them to do it because of the same. Even if the authorities previously mentioned attempt to stop them, the need to retain honor prevails. 

Ultimately, Chronicle of a Death Foretold is intriguing because it completely subverts the reader’s initial expectations for it while also shining a light on the influence of society on a murder. A departure from traditional “murder mysteries,” this novel manages to retain the aspects of a mystery while also being open about its true meaning, making it a fascinating read.

– Mahak M.

Chronicle of a Death Foretold by Gabriel Garcia Marquez is available to checkout from the Mission Viejo Library.

Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett

Cover image for Waiting for Godot / Samuel Beckett.

On January 5, 1953, the audience members at the Théâtre de Babylone in Paris entered a showing of Samuel Beckett’s En Attendant Godot, expecting to see a conventional play. However, faced with a play that lacked the key elements of Aristotelian models, viewers were torn between confusion and intrigue, and En Attendant Godot consequently became one of the most popular productions in France. When Beckett translated it into English a year later, christening it Waiting for Godot, it became a hit among British and American audiences too. Waiting for Godot chronicles two men, Vladimir and Estragon, who stand in a lonely landscape by a tree and, as the title suggests, wait for Godot, but this simple premise has a catch – it is the only premise.

All day, every day, Vladimir and Estragon do nothing but pass the time as they endlessly await Godot, and the only break from this dreary monotony is when two other characters, Pozzo and Lucky, pass through. The repetitive, inane discourse between the four characters initially irritates the audience, with good reason. After all, the seemingly illogical behavior of the characters rankles the usually more reasonable people watching or reading the play, who ask themselves: why don’t they just leave? 

However, as the play progresses, it becomes clear that they cannot leave. Even if they threaten to, there is some invisible force that keeps them tethered to the faint hope that Godot will arrive, even as it becomes increasingly obvious that he will not. As annoyed as one might be with Vladimir and Estragon’s behavior, one cannot help but draw parallels between their situation and that of humanity – after all, whether they are aware of it or not, everyone holds a secret hope or desire that they maintain despite clear evidence that it will never come to fruition. 

In the end, these men illustrate to the audience that humans as a whole, no matter what their differences may be, will continually strive for that which will never come without ever realizing its impossibility. As Vladimir and Estragon long for Godot, Pozzo for power, and Lucky for freedom, it is clear that they all are really searching for meaning in a world that has none to offer. 

– Mahak M.

Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett is available for checkout from the Mission Viejo Library.

Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer

Amazon.com: Into the Wild (Picador Classic Book 78) eBook : Krakauer, Jon:  Kindle Store

On April 28, 1992, twenty-four-year-old Christopher McCandless walked into the untamed wilderness of northern Alaska. Having donated all his savings to charity, abandoned his car, and burned all the cash in his wallet, he was fully prepared to forge a new life for himself. However, only four months later, he was found dead by the Sushana River.

In Into the Wild, acclaimed journalist and outdoorsman Jon Krakauer attempts to crack the case of what killed Chris McCandless. He retraces McCandless’ steps from his former life as a member of a well-off family in Virginia to his increasingly meandering, wanderlust-filled travels across the continent to, eventually, the fatal trip to Alaska. Krakauer intersperses his findings with personal information and claims, including facts about McCandless’ home life and how it led to his Alaska trip, as well as events from Krakauer’s own life, such as his ascension of the Devil’s Thumb.

Into the Wild balances the themes of the call of the wilderness with the pull of familial ties, the desire to explore the world with the need to settle down, the need for belonging with the desire to discover one’s true identity, and more. Though it is a nonfiction book, it certainly reads like an adventure novel, admittedly tinged with sadness because of the inevitable conclusion.

While I am personally not one for the outdoors, I appreciated and was intrigued by Krakauer’s writing style. He manages to create an investigative survival story out of McCandless’ story in a way that keeps the reader hooked on both McCandless’ adventures and his family’s concern back East. In the end, although McCandless’ story has a tragic ending, it not only serves as a lesson for aspiring naturalists who wish to “live off the land” as he tried to do, but also to regular people living their lives, encouraging them to follow their dreams, whatever they may be, or wherever they may lead them.

– Mahak M.

Into The Wild by Jon Krakauer is available for checkout from the Mission Viejo Library. It can also be downloaded for free from Overdrive.

As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner

As I Lay Dying - V745: Faulkner, William: 9780394747453: Amazon.com: Books

Set during the Great Depression, William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying explores the nature of existence while also denouncing the nature of humanity. Acclaimed for its stream of consciousness writing and use of multiple narrators, the novel challenges conventional grammatical and thematic ideas by showing the instability and unreliability of reality. 

The Bundren family consists of Anse (the father), Addie (the dying mother), and their children: Cash, Jewel, Darl, Dewey Dell, and Vardaman. The novel follows the Bundren family on their ill-fated journey from the (fictional) Yoknapatawpha County to Addie’s native Jefferson, Mississippi, ostensibly to bury her there as her last wish. In reality, each family member has a different, private reason for wanting to travel to Jefferson, and these desires come to light over the course of the novel.

In contrast to typical works of the time period, the Bundren family is shockingly dysfunctional. Each family member absolutely detests every other member, and, when faced with any problem, they will not hesitate to betray or place the blame on someone else. The lack of definitive parental influence only highlights this disparity between the ideal and the actual.

On a broader scale, As I Lay Dying investigates themes of mortality and inevitability. From Vardaman’s infamous statement when faced with his mother’s death (“my mother is a fish”) to Darl’s monologues on is and was to Addie’s narration of her story from beyond the grave, the novel considers the truth of life and death, and what it means to be alive, making it an interesting read.

– Mahak M.

As I Lay Dying by WIlliam Faulkner is available for checkout from the Mission Viejo Library. It can also be downloaded for free from Overdrive.