Hello, everyone! Sam Donaldson back for more, this time strictly from the perspective of a solver.
Ed Sessa’s New York Times Crossword, “What Makes It Itch?”
When I saw the puzzle’s title, my first thought was, “Eww.” My second thought was, “Looks like I’ll be adding “CH” to the ends of various words.” (I use words like “various” when I think to myself.) Fortunately, the second thought was right and the first one was wrong: instead of being turned off, I really enjoyed the solve. Let’s look first at the theme entries:
- A [Problem for a crane operator?] is a NO-WINCH SITUATION (with CH added to the end of “win” in “no-win situation”). I think the “winch” is the crank used to wind and unwind a crane’s cable, but that’s just a guess. This was the first theme entry I encountered, and I kept NO-WITCH in the grid for the longest time, thinking from the puzzle’s title that I needed to turn “it” into “itch.” When I finally convinced myself that witches have nothing to do with cranes, I tumbled to the right answer.
- An [Exceptional soldier on his only tour?] is a ONE-HITCH WONDER (from “one-hit wonder”). See, here’s “it” converting to “itch.” It didn’t help that I solved this one before NO-WINCH SITUATION.
- [What kind, decent people wear?] is MENSCH FASHION (from “men’s fashion”). This is cute.
- [Hidden help for one who's trying to quit smoking?] is a PATCH ON THE BACK (from “pat on the back”). The “trying to quit smoking” part immediately invoked “patch,” and since I had the P in the grid already, the answer was quickly evident. It’s always fun to nail down a 14-letter answer off of only one letter.
- [Instruction #1 for roofers?] is GET A LOAD OF THATCH (from “get a load of that”). This one ate up a lot of time (like 20%+ of my total, no joke). I had “OF THATCH” in the grid and was trying to think of phrases that would fit “M___ of that;” in fact, I was pretty sure it was supposed to be “Make a note of that.” Why a phrase starting with “M” and not “G,” you ask? Because I was absolutely positive that the crossing [Bachelor] was SINGLE MAN when instead it was SINGLE GUY. It didn’t help that I could use the “N” from MAN to get NAG AT as the answer to [Vocally bother]. Instead, it’s YAP AT. I should have caught that sooner, because I had already placed NAG–the [Noodge]–in the northwest corner of the grid. I knew ALETA as [Prince Valiant's love] and ARA [Parseghian of Notre Dame], but that was it in a section that had me stymied for longer than it should have.
- [Hit below the belt?] is MAKE A BAD PUNCH (instead of “make a bad pun”). Some might argue there’s no such thing as a bad pun. They’re wrong, but they might still make the argument.
- A [Really angry group?] is a HOT, CROSS BUNCH (from “hot cross bun”). I didn’t like this one at first, but once I placed the comma between HOT and CROSS, it seemed much better.
Seven theme entries in a Sunday-sized puzzle is a bit light, so that left Sessa with lots of room for great fill. There’s a lot in this grid that made me grin (grinch?), including: OSAGE TRIBE, the [Native Oklahoma group] spanning two consecutive across entries; SADDLE UP, clued as [Get ready to go]; CIGAR CASE, a [Cuban's home?]; SARA LEE, the [Food giant based in Downers Grove, Ill.]; THREW IN, clued as [Included for free]; the aforementioned SINGLE GUY; ONSTAR, the [G.M. tracking system]; and NEW HIGH, clued deceptively as [Wall Street landmark?].
Did anyone else try ZELLWEGER as the [Academy Award winner for "Chicago," 2002]? Turns out it’s Catherine ZETA-JONES. The [Beggar], MENDICANT, was hard for me, as I’m not sure I’ve ever heard the word. Also new to me was KAPOK, the [Pillow fill]. I’m not sure why I could remember [Six-time baseball All-Star Rusty] STAUB, but I think it saved me from getting bogged down in the northeast. Speaking of the northeast, O TYPE, [Like universal blood donors], hurts my ears a little because I know it as TYPE O.
Other potentially knotty spots came to me pretty easily because of the crossings. I didn’t know [Charlie Chan creator Earl] DERR [Biggers], but the crossings saved me. Same goes for PABA, the [Sunscreen additive]. I thought every four-letter word with sunscreen in the clue is always supposed to be ALOE–who moved my cheese? I should know TERNE, the [Lead and tin alloy], given that any five-letter entry consisting only of letters supplied in the bonus round on Wheel of Fortune (say it with me: R, S, T, L, N, E) is bound to appear with some frequency in crosswords. It also seems I never remember AGIO, the [Currency exchange premium]. The [Cuddly cat] is a BURMESE, and the [#1 hit for Jimmy Dorsey] is “BESAME Mucho.” Speaking (of) Spanish, the [Spanish wave] is OLA. To be fair to yesterday’s Stumper, I still don’t much care for RIT, [Slowing down, in mus.].
My favorite clues not already discussed above included [Play center, often] for ACT II, [Centers of early development] for UTERI, the fresh [Cry from beyond a closed door] for ENTER, [Hint offerer] for HELOISE, [Follower of Christopher or Carolina] for WREN, and [Succinct warning] for DON’T.
Merl Reagle’s Syndicated Crossword, “The Nickname Game”
The “Nickname Game” involves minor modifications to the first names of famous people so that we’re left with a shortened name plus a nickname. Yeah, I didn’t think that would make sense. I think this is one of those themes where you have to see some samples to appreciate what’s going on:
- The [great actor but not-so-great golfer?] is CHRIS “DUFFER” WALKEN, a play on Christopher Walken of “The Deer Hunter,” “Pulp Fiction,” and “More Cowbell” fame).
- The [writer of a popular food column?] is WILL “YUM” SAFIRE, playing off William Safire.
- The [author with a really smooth writing style?] is ALEX “SANDER” DUMAS (from Alexander Dumas).
- The [actor who doesn't work cheap?] is MAX “A MILLION” SCHELL, from Maximillian Schell. He won an Oscar for “Judgment at Nuremberg,” but I first saw him in the 1979 sci-fi flick, “The Black Hole.” He is also Angelina Jolie’s godfather. I just felt that needed to be said.
- The [film star-turned-hairstylist?] is MAL “COMB” McDOWELL, a variation of the English actor Malcolm McDowell. Welcome to the unofficial weekend of Star Trek moview villains. Yesterday we saw Eric Bana’s Nero, and today we have Mr. McDowell, the nemesis from “Star Trek: Generations.” It’s okay to admit I know this, right?
- The [first guy to say, "I don't like your type face"?] is AL “FONTS” CAPONE (from the notorious Alphonse Capone). I think the “Fonts” used a baseball bat when he said that.
- The [author of the first hip-hop almanac?] is BEN “JAMMIN” FRANKLIN, from Benjamin Franklin. One of his best-known hits, “Knickers on the Ground,” was later sampled by General Larry Platt.
Highlights in the fill included TEA LEONI, the [Actress who wed David Duchovny], ERA YES, the [Rights slogan on bumper stickers, ca. 1980] (looks funky in the grid but I remember those stickers well), LOPSIDED, DIVVY, and ELIXIRS.
There were only a few missteps along the way. I had MAIDEN for the [Fair one in fairy tales], but it turned out to be DAMSEL. That took a while to unwind since they share two letters in the same spot. The NE corner was also a little vexing, housing FERVID (clued as [Passionate]) next to OEUVRE, the [Body of work]. It didn’t help that I couldn’t make sense of the tricky clue for the intersecting RUE, [Herb you may regret buying?].
Speaking of clues, this puzzle was loaded with good ones. I especially liked [Husky treat?] for TAMALE, [Field marshals?] for REFS, [Duster's target] for CROP, [VIP's introduction] for VERY, and [Where to live and learn?] for DORM.
Emily Cox and Henry Rathvon’s Boston Globe Crossword, “Hollywood Squares”
As someone who grew up on game shows (I still harbor a secret desire to be a game show host), I thought this was a terrific and nostalgic theme. The grid is roughly broken into nine “squares,” resembling the tic-tac-toe board design of the Hollywood Squares set. Inside each square sits a celebrity who appeared on at least one incarnation of the show. Reading across the grid, starting in the top row, we have SANDY DUNCAN at 1A and 24A (I know her mostly as Peter Pan and as a spokesperson for Wheat Thins), CHARO at 6A (cuchi-cuchi!), MARTIN MULL at 23A and 32A, ALEC BALDWIN at 65A and 74A, PAUL LYNDE at 66A (the legendary center square celebrity, whose name in the grid intersects with 42D, MIDDLE MAN), BARBARA EDEN (aka Jeannie, of whom I dream) at 57A and 68A, JOAN RIVERS at 99A and 113A, “Thriller” rapper VINCENT PRICE at 107A and 120A, and impersonator RICH LITTLE at 103A and 115A.
I had hoped to see some of my favorite Hollywood Squares celebs in the grid, like Rose Marie, Wally Cox, Charley Weaver, Wayland Flowers and Madame, and Karen Valentine. Old school! But I have no complaints given the constraints posed by the grid. This puzzle features full celebrity names tucked within narrowly defined regions of the grid. This could not have been easy to execute, and yet the fill did not feel compromised.
It was very helpful that I could enter the celebrities into the grid with only a few crossings. I suppose those who never watched the show (or those yet to attain a certain age) would have a much harder time. That said, I still clocked in with a relatively slow time because there was much here that was unfamiliar to me. I thought some of these entries were especially tough:
- [Triple Crown Jockey Earl] SANDE, DRACUT (the [Town north of Lowell, MA]), and YAMA (a ["Mountain" in Japan]) were all lurking in Sandy Duncan’s square, making it the last section to fall in place. Plus, NANNAS looked wrong to me (I kept wanting NANAS, but that wouldn’t fit).
- The ["Ants on a log" log] is neither a chunk of wood nor a reference to a diary. It’s CELERY. I had no idea there was a name for that snack featuring celery spread with peanut butter and topped with raisins. Maybe my mom was sheltering me – I had (okay, have) a mild fear of ants. They’re persistent, they’re organized, and they can lift hundreds of times their weights. Isn’t that a textbook definition of evil?
- [Aardwolf, for one] is a challenging clue for HYENA–at least it was for me–and sussing this out was more difficult thanks to its intersecting the [Florida racetrack] HIALEAH and the [PBS flagship station] WNET.
- The Joan Rivers square may have problematic for some, with [Superman's father] JOR-EL, SOLIDI (clued as [Slashes or virgules], which might as well have read “[xzfftgs or jkmnhs]“), and OLIVIA, the [Juliet-playing Hussey].
- In the Across Lite version of the puzzle, the clue for CLVI (156) reads [MDLX ~ X]. The “~” must be a division sign, because MDLX (1,560) divided by X (10) yields the correct answer. I may be in the minority, but I like to see Roman numerals in my puzzles (limit one per grid, however, unless it’s part of the theme), especially when they are clued as mini-math problems. Merl’s puzzle (blogged above) also used an equation to clue CXIII (20% of DLXV). Oh, and one of yesterday’s puzzles had a Roman numeral, too.
- The Rich Little square played host to EIGG, the [Spot south of Skye], and the [Hallux], which I can never remember as the name for the BIG TOE.
- The GENIPAP is an [Orange-like fruit], and according to my dictionary it’s pronouned as if it has a silent E on the end: jeh-nuh-PAPE. Those are genipaps off to the side. Um, yum? I have never heard of (or seen) this fruit, but I bet Amy has. Oh, and there was another hat-tip to our fearless leader here at the Fiend: the [Breakfast chain] IHOP, which I believe is one of her faves.
I found it odd to see EDENIC, having already entered BARBARA EDEN in the grid. But that’s not a foul in my book, since one EDEN is a surname and the other makes reference to a location. I loved seeing CHEEZ-IT, the [Kellogg cracker], together with the [Off-the-wall] GONZO. Some of my favorite clues included: [Undulating fans] for THE WAVE, [Snake that does sums?] for ADDER, and [Yak like a cow?] for MOO.
Pamela Amick Klawitter’s Los Angeles Times Crossword, “From the Produce Department”
- [Chancellor Angela Merkel leads it] refers to the GERMAN GOVERNMENT, a phrase hiding a mango. I always suspected there was a mango lurking in the German government. Now we have proof!
- Looking for that missing lime? Why, it’s in the [Bologna location], the DELI MEAT COUNTER. I like the tricky clue, since my first thought was Italy. But I’m lukewarm on the phrase since it adds an extra word (“counter”) for length. DELI MEAT is the only part containing the hidden fruit.
- Why does it seem especially fitting that the [1989 Fred Savage comedy], LITTLE MONSTERS, contains a lemon?
- [Houdini et al.] clues ESCAPE ARTISTS. Given that the hidden word is pear, it would have been fun for the clue to have a “pair” of escape artists, like [Harry Houdini and David Blaine, e.g.].
- The [Proving ground NW of Vegas] is the NEVADA TEST SITE, where you’ll find your missing date. There she is! See my comments above about the leftover word (this time it’s “site”).
- A [50:1 bet, e.g.] is certainly an EXTREME LONGSHOT, which someone with a good melon might well avoid.
- Finally, the [Striped reef dweller] is the EMPEROR ANGELFISH. Look, it’s Orange! I think Amy’s son has a new pet fish, but I don’t think it’s an emperor angelfish. That would be almost freakishly weird.
I’m a sucker for the hidden word gimmick, so I liked this puzzle overall. Here too we have only seven theme entries, and again that allows for some interesting fill. Just above the equator we see a message ripped from the headlines: MADONNA OD’ED on TIRAMISU. Well, maybe not, but I got a kick out of it. Another headline appears below the equator: PASTA FAZED YETI. Too many carbs will slow even the most ambitious Himalayan monster. Other interesting–though disconnected–fill includes HAIRNETS, RAMJET, ARF connecting to FIDO, IT’S ME, the brands TFAL and XEROX, and MORTAL SIN.
[First name in "Popeye"?] is an interesting way to clue SWEE. It’s normally the fill-in-the-blank [___'Pea]. I confess that I had WHAT’S for ["___ a Grecian Urn"] when it should have been ODE ON–too much TV, I suppose. That reminds me, I loved ["The Big Bang Theory," e.g.] as a clue for SITCOM. If you haven’t watched it, try it for a few episodes: the Sheldon character played by Jim Parsons steals every scene. Other entries “from the great clue department” include [Hyper?] for ADMAN, [Something to shake or break, so to speak] for LEG, [Hit back?] for SIDE B (the back side of a hit single record), and the interesting [Candy originally from Austria] for PEZ.
BRIO, clued [Con ___:spiritedly], was new to me, as was SAR, the [Genealogically based men's group]. I’m guessing that’s Sons of the American Revolution, counterparts to the Daughters of the American Revolution. I honestly only knew about the DAR. The grid boasts little crosswordese. We have ELIHU, the [1912 Nobelist Root], ETAIL ([Internet commerce]), ESME, the [Salinger character who said "I prefer stories about squalor"], and the [Trompe l']OEIL. The plural OLEGS, [Designer Cassini et al.], will cause some to grumble since Cassini is the only famous OLEG (and he may be the only Oleg, period–famous or unfamous), but that peeve is not my pet.
Tyler Hinman’s CrosSynergy Crossword, “Sunday Challenge”
This smooth 70-word themeless (or, if you want to sound cool, “freestyle”) crossword showcases a couple of triple-stacked 10s that really shine. The northwest stack contains FIFTH WHEEL, a [Useful type of hitch in a pickup truck, or an undesired part of a social circle]. Working solely off the last part of that clue, I wrote THIRD WHEEL, but when nothing else was working for the first five downs and I re-read the clue, my error quickly revealed itself. Head-slapping ensued, especially since “The Fifth Wheel” was only one of the most awesome dating shows ever on TV (topped only by MTV’s “Next” and “Parental Control,” in my book). Paired under the FIFTH WHEEL are OPERA HOUSE, the [Sydney sight], and RACECOURSE, the [Ascot attraction]. Ascot Racecourse is a track in Berkshire, England. Naturally, I walked right into this trap, wondering for a long time what part of an ascot could command such attention. The paisley print? The fine silk?
I like the stack in the southeast EVEN BETTER (["Actually, I like that more"]). That’s topped with LINE OF FIRE ([You don't want to be in it]) and PRETTIED UP ([Just out of the salon, say]). Prettied up, indeed: the stacks are representative of other sparkling fill, like HOW GOES IT (["What's happening?"]), IS IT NOT (["Right?"]), OVERDID IT ([Went too far]), and CRISTAL, the [Expensive champagne brand often heard in rap lyrics], abutting the [Developing chain of old], FOTOMAT. I loved [It's often made out of sheets or snow] as a clue for FORT, and [Their first and last games ever were both against the Mets] is a fun clue for Les Montreal EXPOS.
Only a few missteps and misgivings beyond the THIRD WHEEL incident described above. I tried FERTILITY for [Reproductive capacity], but once I figured out the [Dot follower, frequently] was EDU, I realized the grid wanted FECUNDITY instead. I didn’t know TRE Cool, the [Green Day drummer], and for some reason HACK, the [Quick, easy fix], took a while to emerge. I did not know LEE IACOCCA was the [Businessman who dies in the movie "Watchmen" since I'm saving the movie for when I finish the graphic novel. I also needed four of the crossings before getting NIMES, the [French city that's home to the Maison Carree]. Does that qualify as an “Olaf” clue?
I can’t decide whether I like NICE PEOPLE, clued here as [They make for pleasant company]. Obviously I’ve heard the term used before, but I’m not sure that similar phrases (NICE CAR, NICE SHOES) would cut the mustard. Does it seem a tad forced to you, too, or do I just have a problem with nice people? Maybe part of my problem is that I resisted NICE because I had just written NICENE ([___ Creed (church recital)]) within close proximity. The words are unrelated, sure, but the overlap of four letters so closely in the grid made me uncertain during the solve. The only other entry that kinda-sorta bothered me, but only a little bit, was RIV (short for “river”), clued as [Miss., for one]. Again, though, that’s a very small nit to pick–overall I enjoyed this one a lot.