Matt Gaffney’s Wall Street Journal contest crossword, “National Treasures”—Jim’s review
Jim here filling in for Dave who is, once again, trekking across Italy on his bicycle. Mangia bene, ridi spesso, ama molto!
On to the puzzle!
If you visit the WSJ official puzzle blog, you typically hear nothing but crickets. It’s an unusual day when someone comments on the puzzle—except on contest puzzle days, that is. On those days, comments typically number well over a hundred.
Before the contest period was over for this one (by Friday evening in fact), the chatter on the blog was that this contest was pretty easy. The folks over there (yes, I’m an occasional lurker) charmingly go for a metaphorical puzzle cruise each week, and the goal is to make it to shore (solve the meta) or else be left AT SEA with Capt. Stubing, Gopher, Isaac, and the gang (most prefer Isaac as he’s the one who’ll supply them with the alcohol they need to drown their sorrows).
So how did this one treat you? Are you repeatedly asking Isaac for Mind Erasers or are you safely on the beach enjoying a luau and sand between your toes?
Let’s get to the grid. We’re told that we’re looking for a country. Unlike last week, we have four obvious theme answers.
- 17a [Michigan university, or its town] SPRING ARBOR. I don’t know this town. I know Ann Arbor of course, home of the University of Michigan, but SPRING ARBOR? Huh-uh. The university has an undergraduate size of 2,940. In the 2000 census, the township had a size of 7,577.
- 27a [Meeting tactic] FORMAL MOTION. Mm-kay.
- 45a [Traditional Eastern European food] CABBAGE ROLLS. Never heard of these, but I must say, I’m starting to get hungry.
- 60a [#1 hit for Madonna in 1989] LIKE A PRAYER. Who else put LIKE A VIRGIN? That song was also a #1 hit for her, but in 1984.
Intriguingly, once you get to the bottom of the grid, you start to find clues that are nothing but a [*]. These turn out to be: 53a ACTRESS, 68a STORE, 12d BAND, and 54d CITY.
Often, my very first tactic at solving a meta is looking at the long theme entries to see if there’s something hidden there, spanning multiple words. In this case, that proved to be the right thing to do as it led directly to the solution. I only needed STORE and LIKE A PRAYER to figure out that we’re looking for Sweden.
To spell it out, the *’d entries tell us what we’re looking for, and the long entries are where to look for them. It’s up to you figure out which one goes with which.
- ACTRESS + SPRING ARBOR = GARBO, as in Greta GARBO, the Swedish-American thespian. This one threw me, though. Looking at that theme answer, the names Ingrid and Ingmar jumped first to my mind. But is there an actress named INGAR? Well, there was one named Inger Stevens who starred in numerous TV shows and films in the 50s. Currently, however, there really is a Swedish actress named INGAR Sigvardsdotter with quite a lengthy IMDB filmography. But that still seemed like quite a stretch for a theme entry since none of her films appears to have made it to our shores. It took several more minutes of staring before I saw GARBO. Still, I think this ranks up there as a really wild coincidence.
- CITY + FORMAL MOTION = MALMÖ. MALMÖ is the third largest city in Sweden, though I had no idea while I was solving. I have been fortunate enough to travel around Europe, but somehow missed the Scandinavian countries. How many Americans know this city?
- BAND + CABBAGE ROLLS = ABBA. This one doesn’t span multiple words, unfortunately, but it wasn’t hard to find. And any Swedish puzzle that doesn’t include ABBA is not very Swedish, at least from an American perspective.
- STORE + LIKE A PRAYER = IKEA. Ah, IKEA. Home of Swedish meatballs, lingonberry jam, and Kokosnöt.
Put them all together and you have a varied selection of things Sweden, your contest answer.
Fun puzzle, but it felt pretty easy, and like I said, I solved it by looking at only one pairing of starred and theme entries. That seems less elegant than having to gather all the pieces of the puzzle to fit together into one clear answer. Also, it would have been nicer if the starred entries were spread out more rather than having three of them clustered at the bottom.
And yet that SW corner has some of the nicest non-theme fill (DID BATTLE and CAMELOT).
Also nice is APENNINES the mountain chain running the length of Italy. I wonder how Dave is faring with the APENNINES. But are you like me and wanting to spell it Appenines?
I do have to take Matt to task for omitting one very famous Swedish national treasure ranking right up there with ABBA and IKEA. I am of course talking about…