Happy bloggiversary to me! Diary of a Crossword Fiend began on this date in 2005. Only one person knows how many puzzles I’ve reviewed since then, and it isn’t me. (Jeffrey keeps spreadsheets of such things. Ask him.) Many thanks to the entire Crossword Fiend team who help keep this joint running every day, and to the commentariat—for my money, the smartest and most genial such group any blog can lay claim to.
Susan Gelfand’s New York Times crossword
This is one of those puzzles in which there’s a key word that compounds with the words in the theme answers and, as has become de rigueur in such puzzles in recent years, both halves of each theme answer come into play, not just one. PLAYING WITH FIRE describes what those halves are doing here: MANPOWER yields fireman and firepower; STONEWALL, Firestone and firewall; BIRDHOUSE (you know the They Might Be Giants song, “Birdhouse in Your Soul”?), Pontiac Firebird and firehouse; and my favorite, ANTEATER, fire ant and fire-eater. (What is it about the anteater, sloth, and armadillo that groups them together in my mind as intoxicating oddities, pannonica?)
Things I liked: The THROWN/THRONE homophone pair, [Moe, Larry and Curly, ethnically] as a clue for JEWS, the HANKIE spelling (which I prefer to hanky), tasty GELATO. I liked the clues for SAW and SNAIL, even if the latter clue did trick me into putting down SNAKE and racking my brain to figure out what the snake’s one foot was.
Anyone else get stuck in the lower right for a bit when FRENCH wouldn’t work out for 61a: [Like the Best Picture of 2011]? I knew it was The Artist, which is also (largely) SILENT.
My two least favorite entries are ones I didn’t see until after the puzzle was finished. We’ve got an awkward plural OEDS at 71a, [Ref. works sometimes sold with magnifying glasses]. I’m surprised to see that the Compact OED is still available, but the entire OED is a single reference work no matter how many copies you’re talking about. “Two copies of the OED” works better for me than “two OEDs.” And then there’s 14a: OMER, [Counting of the __ (observance after Passover)]. I’ve seen the entry a few times before, but I’ve not seen the word outside of crosswords (having never observed Pesach nor the observances thereafter). Other answers I didn’t care for include PENTA and ARPELS (both crossing OMER and the latter being a proper name, ergo a rough crossing for many a non-jewelry-loving gentile), ILA, SOYA, THRO, the LETHE/SNERD/OTROS combo, and less familiar names like KELSO, OSSA, and EWELL.
My general cutoff point for names (people, places, brand names—proper nouns in general) in a daily-sized puzzle is 14: Stay below that cutoff and not too many solvers will gripe about the name count. Go above and even people who like names in their crossword will notice the surfeit. Let’s see what today’s puzzle holds: NAPA, OMER, AZTECS, MARAT, IRAQ, BAJA, OSSA, ORTHO, k.d. LANG, KELSO, OEDS, ARPELS, JEWS, ATHENA, I.R.T., EWELL, POM, I.L.A., T.S.A., LETHE, SNERD. Aha! It’s 21, or 18 if you knock out the three-letter abbrevs. People, if you’re working on a crossword of your own and you wonder if you’ve got too many propers, count them up; if you pass 14, strip some of them out even if it means losing some Scrabbly letters. Your solvers will thank you.
Randolph Ross’s CrosSynergy/Washington Post crossword, “After the Separation” – Sam Donaldson’s review
Ross takes five words beginning with EX and re-imagines them as though they were two-word expressions with the first word being EX (as in a former flame):
- 18-Across: An ordinary “exposition,” or fair, becomes an EX POSITION, the [Point of view of an old flame?]. I tried to fit UNREASONABLE into the grid but I needed two more squares.
- 24-Across: You don’t see the plural form of “extradition” very often, but here it’s re-tooled into EX TRADITIONS, the [Customs of an old flame?]. My first instinct here was LEAVING THE CABINET DOORS OPEN, but even I knew that wouldn’t fit.
- 39-Across: Those who defy a church risk “excommunication,” but an [Email from an old flame?] is an EX COMMUNICATION.
- 51-Across: [One who fired an old flame?] is an EX TERMINATOR, not an “exterminator” who takes care of the other vermin in your life.
- 62-Across: I heard on NPR last night that thieves are breaking into salons to steal hair “extensions.” Here, they become EX TENSIONS, the [Stressful feelings about an old flame]. But who has stressful feelings about an old flame?
I’m a sucker for these “re-imagine a common word or phrase” themes, so this one found my sweet spot. (Yes, I edited that metaphor to make it a little less risque.) The theme introduces five Xs into the grid, but all of the X crossings look great. I especially liked KIX, the breakfast cereal I got to eat as a kid. (Anyone else notice AXLE directly atop AXEL? I love that kind of faux-rebellious swagger.)
If I fawn too much over this puzzle I could lose blogging privileges. So let me pick three nits, in increasing order of magnitude: (1) ORDERERS is a seductive term for a constructor (it lacks rare letters, so filling the surrounding white spaces is much easier), but it probably feels strained even to beginning solvers; (2) when I find myself in times of trouble, crossword editors say to me, “You can use any answer, except LEFT BE” (the answer to [Didn't bother with] just has to be LET BE, no?); and (3) I’m sorry, but you won’t find a TAMALE on the menu at Taco Bell, so [Hot item at Taco Bell] is plainly inaccurate
Favorite entry = BUTTS OUT, clued as [Minds one's own beeswax]. Favorite clue = [Maker of Kool-Aid] for KRAFT. I didn’t know that, and learning fun little tidbits like this is part of the joy of solving.
Bruce Sutphin and Doug Peterson’s Los Angeles Times crossword
Spoiler alert! The whole theme is shocking revelations at the ends of four movies. Chances are you’ve heard them all already. Oh, and in The Crying Game? That one lady’s a dude. Or, as we would say in these more sensitive times, the character you think is female is a MTF (male-to-female) transsexual. Haven’t seen the movie, but I’m betting the character is no mere cross-dresser. Anyway! This puzzle tells us about these twists:
- 17a. ["Soylent Green" shocker], IT’S MADE OF PEOPLE. Sorry if you’ve been eating Soylent Green all this time and enjoying it, but you’re a cannibal now. Also? Not that I’ve seen this movie, but between this twist and Planet of the Apes, doesn’t Charlton Heston have the category of Best Actor for Revealing a Shocking Twist sewn up?
- 28a. ["The Sixth Sense" shocker], HE’S ALREADY DEAD. This is not the lugubrious “I’m already dead” of Barney Gumble in that faux documentary in that one Simpsons episode, but the startling discovery that shrink Bruce Willis is a ghost.
- 46a. ["Psycho" shocker], NORMAN IN A DRESS. Mr. Bates donned a wig and his mama’s dress, and thus was not really conferring with her on anything.
- 61a. ["The Empire Strikes Back" shocker], LUKE IS VADER’S SON. Would read better with “Darth” in there too, but the daily puzzle grid is only so wide.
The fun, fresh theme is complemented by fun, fresh clues. A few examples:
- 14a. [Sooner than thou thinketh], ANON.
- 67a. [Meas. of how high you are], ELEV. This is not about drugs.
- 24d. [The "A." on many a patent], ALVA. Lame crosswordese name answer, but good clue. Alva is Thomas A. Edison’s middle name.
- 30d. [Former pen pal?], EX-CON. I’ll grant you the “pal” part doesn’t directly correspond to the answer, but the clue’s cute.
Best fill: I’M THERE, SHOULDA, HIP TO, LET’S SEE, EX-CON (much more in the language than EX-GI, which is in too many puzzles). I’m also fond of the words VEX and CHASM, in or out of crosswords.
Matt Jones’s Jonesin’ crossword, “GQ Poseurs”
In the theme answers, we’ve got some G’s now posing as Q’s:
- 20a. [Worked hard on a mathematical proof?], EARNED YOUR QED. Cute.
- 26a. [Leading figure on a long journey?], QUEST STAR
- 47a. [Voyage to see the world's great bedcovers?], QUILT TRIP. Constructor Liz Gorski took one of those last year, to see the Red & White Quilt Show. Granted, she probably just had to hop on the subway so it wasn’t a big journey.
- 52a. [Marketer's popularity quotient for Limburger?], CHEESE Q-RATING. Two remarks: One, “cheese grating” is fairly limp as base phrases go. Two, I keep reading “Limburger” as “Limbaugh.”
Highlights in the fill: BURQINI. FUCHSIA, which is easy to spell if you remember that the color and flower are named after a guy called Fuchs (“fooks”) and not Fusch; I don’t know who decided not to pronounce it “fook-see-uh.” ALISON, one of my favorite songs, by Elvis Costello, crossing the middle name of the other Elvis. OCTUPLET and ORIGAMI, so much better than little O words that populate crosswords, like OREO OPE ORE OARED OPAH. “GOOD GOD!” evoking for me what Trip Payne exclaimed when he figured out a gnarly piece of fill in an ACPT finals puzzle.
Tyler Hinman’s Onion A.V. Club crossword
It’s weird. You’d think the blog would know it was my bloggiversary and that I had already blogged upwards of 9,000 puzzles and thus it would blog today’s puzzles for me. But no. There is no rest for the weary, the wicked, the wordy.
Tyler “The Hin” Man, as approximately zero people call him, has made a theme out of other people whose surnames are [actual word + MAN]:
- 17a. [He should have starred in "The Deer Hunter"], PHIL HARTMAN. A male deer is a hart or stag or buck, but there haven’t been any famous actors named Stagman or Buckman so the hilarious Phil H. gets cast here.
- 25a. [He should have starred in "The Cable Guy"], HUGH JACKMAN. Gotta hook up the cable jacks.
- 36a. [He should have starred in "The Shawshank Redemp ..." wait ...], MORGAN FREEMAN. Does Morgan Freeman’s character get busted out of prison or paroled? I cannot remember. Certainly for most of the movie he is not free.
- 51a. [He should have starred in "The Saint"], JOHN GOODMAN. Raise your hand if you’re now thinking of the old American-lit short story, “Young Goodman Brown.”
- 60a. [He should have starred in "Taxi Driver"], GENE HACKMAN. “Hack” is slang for cab driver in the circles in which I do not travel.
Perhaps Paul Newman should have starred in a movie about a newborn baby boy, or a post-bar mitzvah teenager—no titles are coming to mind at the moment other than The Omen and The Bad Seed. He’d have been up against Henny Youngman, of course. Honor Blackman of Pussy Galore fame should have played Robert Downey Jr.’s role in Tropic Thunder. Natalie Portman should have taken the lead in On the Waterfront. Including women in the theme would have loosened the theme (hey, if “man” is also synonymous with “human,” it works), but keeping a theme tighter by going all male … well, there have been plenty of themes that are all male but didn’t have to be. I like to see a mix.
Moving along to the fill, ECOTAGE (31a. [Earth Liberation Front doings]) isn’t a common word—it’s a portmanteau of ecology and sabotage. I like ANTI-ART because I took a college class on plays and anti-plays (think Beckett, Ionesco, Stoppard). Discussion topic: What sort of crossword would constitute an anti-crossword?