BOOK REVIEW: The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

written by David Steffen

The Time Traveler’s Wife is a 2003 time travel romance book written by Audrey Neffenegger, about a man afflicted with a condition that causes him to time-travel more-or-less randomly and the woman he marries. The book was very popular and inspired a 2009 movie adaptation of the same name, previously reviewed here.

Henry has experienced the time-traveling condition since he was a child. When he travels, only his body is transported, so he does not take along his clothes, wallet, or any other possessions. He learned from a very early age to be ruthlessly pragmatic as a way to survive, because if you get dumped with no clothes and no resources into random locations you’re always against steep odds of getting arrested or starving or whatever else. He has a more or less central timeline that is the trunk from which all of his time travel branches, so he has some normal continuity, but at seemingly random intervals he will travel for seemingly random amounts of time to seemingly random places.

He spends much of his life just trying to survive and get by, until he runs into Clare in his main timeline (when he is in his 30s and she in her 20s) and she tells him that she’s known him since she was a grade schooler and that they’re going to get married in the future. He hasn’t experienced this yet, but early in her life he gave her a list of the times when he would appear in the grove outside her family’s house so that she could remember to bring food and clothes out to him.

Their romance after that is very complicated, as at any given point they are in different parts of their relationship, just as with this initial meeting where she has known him for most of her life and he’s just met her. He then proceeds to meet her as a child and eventually meet her when it was the first time for her. It’s a story of marriage, the obstacles to finding happiness together and what we do to fight for it, and in many ways is about being in different parts of a relationship at the same time, which I think can be true of real relationships that have no time travel involved.

As with the best speculative stories, this one explores real territory with a speculative lens for emphasis. The characters are very different but compelling (with a plus that I didn’t have to watch Eric Bana’s acting for the book, but the minus that I didn’t get to watch Rachel McAdams’s acting). I thought the book as a whole was reasonably well done.

One of the big hangups I had about the book, not being able to tell where in the timeline this fit in, was resolved in the book by section headings that gave the date and the age of both characters. Time is always somewhat confusing at the best of times, but this made it a lot easier to just go with it than I found the book to be.

I also thought it was interesting how Neffenegger chose to follow the continuity thematically rather than necessarily chronologically for either character in particular. For a series of chapters it may follow Clare chronologically through a particular set of years to explore themes of her childhood, then follow him chronologically from his point of a view for a while to show how he ended up there, then switch to something else. Because of the caption headings this was reasonably seamless and I probably only really thought about it because I was thinking about the writing process.

The big thing that makes the book harder to recommend is that for much of the first quarter or so of the book, 30-something Henry is interacting with grade-schooler Clare and I found that whole section of the book deeply creepy and troubling. By that time, he already knows that he will marry her someday when she’s older, and he depends on her for food and clothing on these visits where he would otherwise have to steal and forage like his other time travel jumps. So, it makes sense from a character motivation perspective. But at the same time, it’s hard to avoid the interpretation that he is grooming her during this period. If you removed the time travel element and you had a thirty-something man hanging around a grade-schooler without her parent’s knowledge while mentally preparing himself to marry her, that would be a story about a predator. There are reasons to think that’s not where this was going, but I found it really hard to shake myself off of that interpretation, so throughout this whole section I really just wanted it to be over and get to the part where they’re both consenting adults (even thought that was also somewhat colored by her having been groomed by him for so long that she’s bound to have feelings for him). I’m not sure that was supposed to be creepy or disturbing, but for me it absolutely was, and it makes the book hard to recommend as a result, though overall I thought it was pretty good.

MOVIE REVIEW: Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie

written by David Steffen

Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie is a computer animated film produced by DreamWorks Animation that was released in June 2017 in the US, based on the long-running book children’s book humor superhero series.

George (Kevin Hart) and Harold (Thomas Middleditch) are the 4th-grade comic book authors who created Captain Underpants, who is pretty much Superman except all of his powers are toilet-related and instead of wearing a cape and underwear on top of his clothes, he wears a cape and underwear on top of nothing.   They’re known for being the class clowns, always pulling pranks on the teachers, and the principal Mr. Krupp (Ed Helms) is always looking for a way to bring them down a notch.  Mr. Krupp decides to pull the ultimate power move and split them into separate fourth grade class with the intention of destroying their friendship.  Desperate, the boys sneak into his office to try to prevent this, and when they’re caught in the act George uses a toy hypno-ring which (surprising them both), actually hypnotizes Mr. Krupp.  They plant a suggestion that Mr. Krupp is actually Captain Underpants.  They discover that whenever he is touched by water he becomes Mr. Krupp, and whenever he hears a finger snap he turns into Captain Underpants, and so to keep their friendship intact they keep him as Captain Underpants pretending to be Mr. Krupp.

But Captain Underpants keeps trying to cause problems, always tending to lose his pants, and trying to rush off into danger, and his happy demeanor is so different from the grumpy Mr. Krupp.  Before the boys can stop him, he hires mad scientist Professor P (Nick Kroll) to the faculty, who soon makes his evil intentions clear.

Keeping in mind that I am in my mid-thirties and thus quite a ways away from the target demographic, I thought this movie was pretty fun, and I’m sure it’s a hit with the kids with all the poop and underwear.  I’m not at all familiar with the source material, but we picked it up as a rental to watch with a four year old, and he loved it.

So keeping all that in mind, I found the protagonists honestly pretty terrible, terrorizing the teachers and then acting surprised when the principal wants to do something about it.  When they realize that they’ve hypnotized the teacher I can understand them being excited at succeeding at stalling the principal’s plan, and at the immediate sense of control, but they apparently have no remorse over completely stealing this man’s life and replacing his mind with a comic book character, only getting upset at Captain Underpants’s behavior when they are afraid of being caught in the act.  And the entire crisis was based on the premise that splitting them into two different fourth-grade classrooms would destroy their friendship.  But their biggest point of bonding was making comics, which they did in their treehouse after school.  I don’t think that every kid’s movie has to have an overexplained moralistic story, but I do think that the themes and ethics involved in the story should be considered, because kids pick that stuff up.  So I guess I’ll file this one with Trolls under “problematic themes that no one else seems that worried about”.