Edited to add links to a bonus puzzle: Patrick Blindauer and Michael Sharp (a.k.a. Rex Parker) teamed up on “20 Years of Detention,” available in Across Lite and as a PDF. I test-solved it and had fun with it (at a Wednesday/Thursday level of difficulty). The theme ties to pop culture, so I thought it was a hoot and you will too (unless you disdain pop culture).
Francis Heaney and Patrick Blindauer’s New York Times crossword
First things first: OTTER POP?!? That 22D: [Sweet frozen treat] is not something I have ever seen in a grocery store. Fla-Vor-Ice, sure; we have those here. Not the Otter Pops brand. I had OTTER PAW at first.
The theme pokes a hole in a standard convention of crossword construction: Do not repeat a word in the grid. But on NOAH’S ARK (21A: [Craft that’s the subject of this puzzle]), when there was a FLOOD ([31D: [Reason for 21-Across]) coming, he gathered up the ANIMALs (54A: [Brute]—not part of the theme, I don’t think, but distracting to include it if it’s unrelated) TWO BY TWO (51A: [How the passengers went in 21-Across]).
In each of the six NW/SE chunks of the grid, the animals appear two by two, both times clued in non-beasty contexts. How crazy is that? So crazy, it works like gangbusters. Here are the critters:
- 2D, 3D. SEAL is clued with [It makes an impression] and [Navy commando].
- 14A, 17A. CAT is a [Hipster] and a [Tractor make, briefly] (short for Caterpillar).
- 38A, 41A. MOLE with two syllables is a Mexican [Spicy sauce] and with one, it’s [Marilyn’s mark].
- 33D, 34D. HORSE is that [Basketball shooting game] and [Gymnast’s equipment].
- 60A, 64A. DOG is a [Frank]furter and the verb, to [Follow relentlessly].
- 65A, 68A. LION is a Detroit football player, a Minnesota [Viking foe?], as well as [Louis VIII nickname, with “the”]. Didn’t know that last one at all.
If you’re going to break the rules, it better be for a damn good reason. “I couldn’t quite get the fill to work without including two variations of the same word” is a bad reason. “Because it’s cool that so many animal names have taken on non-animal meanings and the two-by-two ark concept provides an underlying rationale for the pairing” is an excellent reason.
So what else is in this puzzle besides the theme answers and that nutty OTTER POP? Here’s what struck me:
- 5A. ABA gets split into “A B.A.” and clued [“What Do You Do With ___ in English?” (“Avenue Q” song)]. Ha! My dad had that same question for me in college. “Go into publishing” is the obvious answer.
- 23A. Fresh clue for LSD: [Subject of “Hoffman’s Potion”]. It’s a documentary I don’t recall hearing about.
- 26A. Not drinking coffee led me astray here. [___ Americano] is CAFFE, but I started with LATTE.
- 36A. CLEM who? [___ Haskins, 1960s-’70s NBA player], that’s who.
- 39A. The [PX, e.g.] is a STORE on a military base. I believe there are still things in my kitchen that my in-laws bought us at the PX.
- 43A. Also not about animals: [It may get food away from a canine] clues dental FLOSS.
- 45A. Wanted GORDY instead of GORDO for [Mercury and Gemini astronaut, informally].
- 46A. [Forename meaning “born again”] is RENÉE. That is, of course, the female version of René.
- 49A. It’s a bowling organization, the, uh, Professional Bowlers Association? Yes, that’s the PBA. [Group of pin-heads?: Abbr.] is the clue. Why did I start with WBA? I know that’s boxing.
- 1D. Napoleon, I presume? ELBA is the [Hundred Days campaign planning site].
- 9D. [Allen and ___, old comedy duo] clues ROSSI, which, if you ask me should follow “Martini &.” Comedy Allen wants to be Gracie partnering with George Burns, though they went by Burns and Allen, not Allen and Burns.
- 10A. [It fills a chest] clues the treasure called an INHALATION of air.
- 26D. Echoing the A B.A. clue, [“New York, New York” has one] clues a comma. It’s “songs about New York” day. The answer is COMMA, and I love this clue.
- 45D. Haven’t seen GAY LIT as an answer before. [Works stocked by a bookstore with a rainbow flag]. My local indie bookstore, Unabridged Bookstore, does indeed have a gay books section.
- 51D. Coal-mining crosswordese goes for clever: a TRAM is a [Vehicle that makes pit stops?], as in pit mining. Don’t most people think of trams as those long, multi-trailer motor vehicles that cart us around a zoo or take us across a Disney parking lot?
I appreciate a Thursday puzzle that’s Friday-tough but for a good reason (tricky clues or a clever gimmick). This sort of puzzle is the kind of themed puzzle we used to see in the NY Sun on Thursdays or Fridays.
Which reminds me—I still need to sign up for ex-Sun puzzle editor Peter Gordon’s Fireball Crosswords, one tough puzzle a week starting in January for the low, low price of ten bucks. They’ll mostly be themeless, and I can’t wait for the puzzles to begin arriving. If you enjoy a good crossword challenge, don’t miss out on Fireball.
Nancy Salomon’s CrosSynergy/Washington Post puzzle, “Small States”–Janie’s review
Not only is Nancy Salomon the puzzle-construction-world’s generous mentor and friend, she’s a top-notch constructor herself, and today’s puzzle gives us easy insight as to why this is so. The title, the fill (theme and non-), the clues all work together to deliver a lively, lovely solve. Nancy’s “small states” are not achieved as the result of ingesting “small cakes” with “EAT ME” tags. Rather they represent abbreviations of stateKentucky, Oregon and California before Nancy trims ya down some and makes us smile lots with: names that are used to great effect in places we don’t ordinarily see ’em. Props to
- 20A. “MY OLD KEN HOME” [Reminiscence of a dollhouse?]. Somehow, I don’t imagine this was what Stephen Foster had in mind when he published his song in 1853… You can listen to it here and read about its interesting history here.
- 41A. UNIVERSITY OF ORE [Gold digger’s college?] And look: here’re some of the students (Class of 1933, by the looks of things), singing the the “Alma Mater” in both English and Latin. Or Pig Latin, anyway…
- 58A. “CAL, HERE I COME!” [Heads-up to “Iron Man” Ripken?”]. Here’s the Jolson version of the song, and here’s the story behind it.
What else gives this one its GLITZ [Razzle-dazzle]? For starters, there are those physically symmetrical (as well as initial-consonants- and rhyme tied-in-) 11s each running vertically through two theme-answers: STRING ALONG [Lead on] and STRONG BOXES [Places for valuables]. Then, we get some levels-of-brightness (of the non-wattage sort) ranging from [Sharp as a tack]/SHREWD to [Downright dumb]/INANE. POOH [“Bear of little brain”], it seems, leans closer to the latter.
By using a repeated clue, we get a fresh take on two familiar ways to give a [Verbal nudge]: “PSST!” and “HEY!” These two almost bookend the puzzle and I think the puzzle benefits by having them well-separated. I even like the EVIL [Bad and then some] presence of the ICKY, RATTY GLOB… [Gross], [Torn and tattered] [Messy mass].
I guess a BART AB would be [Part of a Simpson six-pack]…, but a BAR TAB is a [Toper’s total]. To [Total badly] is not to BANG UP but to MISADD. Misadd? As with yesterday’s funfest, I can find no attribution for this word in OneLook.com. From MoreWords.com, however, I did find this…but omma don’ know. Feels stretchy to me, but (once again) takes away from my overall enjoyment of the puzzle not at all.
Sam Donaldson’s Los Angeles Times crossword
On the heels of Wednesday’s NYT crossword by David Kahn, Sam’s theme offers another riff on the “heads and tails”/words-before-or-after theme. This time the [Heads of the tails of 18-, 23-, 36- and 48-Across] are the U.S. Cabinet SECRETARIES, and they really are the heads of those agencies—the crossword lingo “head” would be “secretary of,” but here the “heads” are bosses. The Cabinet departments are here:
- 18A. [Court strategy] is ZONE DEFENSE. Knowing that Sam teaches law, I assumed this would be a legal term like SELF-DEFENSE but it turned out to be basketball. Robert Gates is the Secretary of Defense. He is not to be confused with Reggie White, the Minister of Defense for the Packers.
- 23A. [Some contractions] are FALSE LABOR. Who’s the current Secretary of Labor? I lost track after Robert Reich and Elaine Chao. Now it’s Hilda Solis, and I missed noticing Alexis Herman after Reich and before Chao.
- 36A. [Mid-Atlantic nickname, with “The”] is QUAKER STATE, for Pennsylvania. I briefly entertained the idea that the theme was brands of motor oil. Hillary Rodham Clinton, of course, is now Secretary of State, following Madeleine Albright, Colin Powell, and Condoleezza Rice. It’s a shame that women keep getting pigeonholed like this, isn’t it? Three quarters of the most recent Labor and State secretaries have been female. Maybe some day they can try the presidency.
- 48A. [Like hikers’ snack food] is HIGH ENERGY. The Department of Energy bores me.
Best fill: 11D: [Midway attraction] is a FUNHOUSE. 5D: GOOD LOOKS are clued thus: [They usually aren’t enough, so it’s said]. 36D: [Many a Canadian francophone] is a QUEBECER, also spelled Quebecer or Frenched up as Quebecois. FAKE ID, JOUSTS,
Worst fill: 16D: I LUV U, clued as [Part of a Valentine’s text message]. If you’re texting, you can save a character by using <3 (a sideways heart) instead of “love/luv,” not that I condone such things. RYDERS are 46D: [Comics cowboy Red and others]; I like to think that Red is Winona’s grandpa, though I’ve never heard of this comics character. I don’t think I like SAY AAH, a medical [Checkup request], but I just Googled it and it’s the title of a song by Trey Songz (featuring Fabolous) whose lyrics rhyme “pronto” with “Toronto.”
Ben Tausig’s Ink Well/Chicago Reader crossword, “Turn ‘Em Up”
- 18A. “Damn skippy” becomes DAWN SKIPPY, or [Peanut butter at the break of day?].
- 24A. [One who sets a VHS of “The Crying Game” precisely to the money shot?] is a CRUEL REWINDER (reminder) who spoils the movie’s ending.
- 53A. [Cash carrier for lawn game enthusiasts?] is a CROQUET WALLET (mallet).
- 61A. [“You’re rich, with cabbage delish/Once tried, always on my side,” e.g.?] is SLAW POETRY. Slam poetry is what’s read at a poetry slam.
Highlights: C-less HUTZPAH is 42A: [Balls: Yiddish]. 12D: [They’re usually left after dinner] clues TIPS. 52D: [Prepares the pot?] is about tea, not marijuana—STEEPS. But not to worry, the Ink Well puzzle’s not going all square—the very next clue is 54D: [One way to be high], or ON POT. Technically, POT shouldn’t be in a clue and an answer, but I love the resonance between 52D and 54D.