Alex Rosen’s New York Times crossword, “What a Character!”—Amy’s write-up
This wide crossword (22×21) offers a visual aspect to the theme. The circled squares spell out, from top to bottom/left to right, the punctuation marks that make up an emoticon smiley face (this one is winking): SEMICOLON, HYPHEN, and PARENTHESIS. The traditional themers are:
- 25a. [Phenomenon such as the tendency to see human forms in inanimate objects], PAREIDOLIA. Similar to seeing shapes in clouds, but pareidolia goes more to things like “there’s a face in that tree” or “that rock is a face in profile,” I think.
- 27a. [Any of the groupings of circled letters in this puzzle], PUNCTUATION MARK.
- 112a. [How to see the image formed by this puzzle’s circled letters], ROTATE CLOCKWISE. Although when somebody types an emoticon, are you actually expected to turn your head or the screen sideways to see it? No.
- 115a. [What’s formed by the circled letters in this puzzle], SMILEY FACE. Well, a winking face.
It’s a cute theme and I liked it but didn’t love it. I didn’t time myself but the clues felt maybe a little harder than usual. There was lots of pop culture and cultural references that I knew right off the bat, but I started out stymied by both 1a. [They come with bouquets] and 1d. [Eastern cicada killers, e.g.]. Bouquets of WINES, and cicadicidal WASPS. Some fill felt clumsy (partials, crosswordese) but I did appreciate CONGA LINE, AHA MOMENT, AIR KISS, LOWLIFES, BUGABOO, and SPACE BAR with the clue [What can make men swear from menswear?].
Seven more things:
- 58d. [Card game with a PG-rated name], OH HELL. I don’t know this game, but I suspect its PG name is bowdlerized from Oh Shit, which I definitely have played in Wisconsin.
- 41a. [Smoking and swearing, e.g.], VICES. Is swearing really a vice, though?
- 81d. [One who consumes a ritual meal to absolve the souls of the dead], SIN EATER. What’s the menu for that meal? Does it include dessert?
- 121a. Makes less powerful, in video game slang], NERFS. Still mad about when Pokémon Go nerfed Blissey a few years back.
- 20a. [Pal, in Peru], AMIGO. I was really hoping the answer would be a word in one of Peru’s indigenous languages. Wikipedia says: “According to the Peruvian Constitution of 1993, Peru’s official languages are Spanish and, in areas where they predominate, Quechua and other Indigenous languages. Spanish is spoken natively by 82.6% of the population, Quechua by 13.9%, and Aymara by 1.7%, while other languages are spoken by the remaining 1.8%.”
- Thematic HYPHEN is clued 67a. [One of two in a jack-o’-lantern?]. Reminiscent of the SPACE BAR clue, and appropriate in a puzzle whose punctuation marks are on keyboard keys.
- 98d. [Green vehicle], ECOCAR. I just don’t think this word is in circulation enough to be in crosswords. How often do you see it outside of a grid?
Four stars from me.
Evan Birnholz’s Washington Post crossword, “Voice-overs” – Jim Q’s Write-up
First off, a hearty congratulations to Evan for publishing his 300th crossword for The Washington Post. I’m stunned it’s been that long. I have very specific memories of solving Evan’s puzzles on his indy site that feel so very recent.
To celebrate, Evan has slathered a baseball in napalm, lit it on fire, and served up a knuckleball. This one was a doozy.
THEME: Various cartoon characters are off-the-grid (or “over” the grid is more appropriate wording I suppose). The first letters of each of the character’s names, when read in order, collectively spell MEL BLANC.
Outside the grid:
Inside the grid:
- 39D [Animated film with voice-overs by Idina Menzel and Kristen Bell] FROZEN.
- 101A [Animated TV show with voice-overs by Alex Borstein and Seth Green] FAMILY GUY.
- 118A [Animated TV show with voice-overs by Yeardley Smith and Nancy Cartwright] THE SIMPSONS.
- 120A [Animated film with voice-overs by James Earl Jones and Moira Kelly] THE LION KING.
A feat of construction,; multi-layered, tight, extremely clever. And well placed in the line-up (it’s been a while since we had something screwy). Very Birnholz.
A couple technical things to appreciate: I’m sure it wasn’t easy to get the (very good) WaPo webapp to type letters off of the grid. I think it’s only my second time using the site to solve (rather than Across Lite or in print), but it’s an excellent application and a lot of pride obviously goes into that. Also, it shouldn’t go under-appreciated that all of the words in the actual grid are still acceptable crossword fill, even with the first letter of the clued entry missing. That is, MASS, UNIT, FAME, ALIVE, SOLES, AGENT appear as the (still acceptable) ASS, NIT, AME, LIVE, OLES, and GENT. Okay, maybe not the best fill ever, but still passable. I recently solved a puzzle in another publication that used black squares to hide letters in a similar conceit, but it bothered me that the grid did not look “clean” afterward. That is because we I’ve been pampered with how high Evan continuously sets the bar.
There’s one drawback to solving on the webapp that I would call a major one (at least for me). The instructions at the very beginning of the puzzle all but blatantly give away the gimmick. Like, there was no question for me that I would be forming words off the grid. With a crossword this difficult, why give up the goose? This is not a crossword for everyone… some are going to hate it regardless of whether or not they got the instructions. Let them. It’s as if the note is saying “Hey solver… I don’t trust you to figure this puzzle out, so I’ll help you before you even start!” I’d rather there be a hint in Rot13 or a hyperlink giving me the option of wanting to know the puzzle’s special feature. On the same token, it was very easy to tell where the characters were and were not hidden because of where the “cursor” would or would not “disappear.” So, in retrospect, as enjoyably difficult as the puzzle was, I would’ve preferred a paper solve so I could do a bit more figuring on my own.
Anyways, the timer on my end read 40+ minutes when I had finished solving. I don’t know how accurate that is. I solved it over the course of a few days in a few different sittings with a few distractions, and I just finished up this morning. But it was pretty damn hard. The last thing I filled in was the NW corner where I couldn’t get a foothold anywhere. [Like some bathroom scales] [High as a kite, e.g.] [“Minari” star Yeun] [A secret one may have intelligence] [Pint or gallon, e.g.] [Sunday event] were all left entirely blank. Also, I had LACES for [Things that may be replaced on shoes] instead of SOLES, which certainly didn’t help. I was 100% confident with LACES too because ACES is very acceptable crossword fill. Luckily I finally determined it had to be MUFASA hiding up there, which cleared everything up (my favorite kind of theme is where the fill and the themers work synergistically to help figure one another out, so Evan checked another box with that).
[Legal org. found in Tampa Bay?] ABA. ABA is found in TampA BAy. Those cryptic clues rarely elude me anymore, but this one did. Forehead slap.
[Plant life?] SPYING. A “plant” being a spy in this case. Good one.
[Action film’s following?] CHASE. Another good one. Took me forever to see.
New to me:
LILI Reinhart, OLIVIA Coleman, STEVEN Yeun, Suni LEE, Wendy ORR, Nick FOLES, Elizabeth OLSEN, GAY LIT, GIL Scott-Heron.
PLENTY of new stuff in the clues too, and fun-fact trivia stuff as well. Too much to list.
Anyways, good stuff today. Frustrating at times, but followed by many satisfying clicks.
Looking forward to puzzle 301.
Zhouqin Burnikel’s USA Today crossword, “Ski Lift!”—Darby’s write-up
Theme: The letters for SKI are included in reverse order in the three themed down answers, as if being lifted.
- 3d [“Six-sided twistable puzzle”] RUBIK’S CUBE
- 15d [“First Asian American coach in the NBA”] ERIK SPOELSTRA
- 30d [“Indonesian-style top”] BATIK SHIRT
It’s always nice to see a down-centered theme, and I loved the theme answers here. I wasn’t familiar with ERIK SPOELSTRA, the head coach of the Miami Heat, but I was able to catch his name on the crosses no problem. I also always love when RUBIK’S CUBE is slipped into a puzzle, so it was fun to see it included as part of the theme in this one. Plus, I also wasn’t sure what a BATIK SHIRT was but then looked it up only to see that it was a style that I’ve definitely seen, so I appreciated that this clue gave it some more context for me.
I thought that the fill on the longer answers in the corners—especially the top right and lower left—was really well-clued, as such open corners can be intimidating. However, [6a “Choir members”] SINGERS, 17a [“‘I’m gonna be honest with you…’”] REAL TALK, and 61a [“Unrestricted means of access”] OPEN DOOR were some favorites here. MAGNOLIA (66a [“Flower on Mississippi’s state quarter”]) fit in well with the other floral clue 14a [“Flower part”] STEM. However, I’m torn on ALOE GEL (68a [“Natural sunburn soother”]). On one hand, ALOE GEL as a two word answer feels a bit contrived, but it also keeps us regulars who consistently fill in ALOE and then keep going on our toes.
Other Eye-Catching Clues:
- 15a [“Gender ___”] – I loved that this was slipped into the puzzle because gender EUPHORIA is a positive thing. It refers to the senses of fulfillment or joy felt when a person feels good about their gender. I came across this great article about how gender euphoria as a concept is “helping to redefine what it means to be transgender” if you’re interested in learning more.
- 37d [“Cooling devices”] – Even though FANS wasn’t clued as sports-oriented, I felt like it was an appropriate one, given how early we still are in football season and the general excitement around being back in person for football games. I know I’m all ready for the first Buffalo Bills game today. Hopefully everyone PLAY[s] FAIR (36a [“‘No cheating!’”]).
- 40d [“Drool catcher”] – Seeing BIB here was a nice easy three-letter fill that I enjoyed but feel like I don’t see as often. It was also one of three palindromic answers, the others being EKE and GAG, though the latter’s clue is the only one to refer to it as such.
I hope y’all have a great week!
Dylan Shiff’s Universal Sunday crossword, “Pop-Up Restaurant”—Jim P’s review
Even before I entered a singled letter in this grid, a glance at the pattern of circles—along with the title—told me exactly what the theme would be. Each set of circles in each theme row contains the name of a well-known American chain eatery, except for one letter which “pops up” into the above row.
- SUBWAY contained mostly in NUCLEAR SUB and “AYE CAPTAIN.”
- PANERA contained in DEADPAN and RAPS FREESTYLE.
- DUNKIN contained in DOT EDU and KINDRED SPIRITS.
- RED ROBIN contained in GETTING NOWHERE and ROBING.
- POPEYES contained in ALEXANDER POPE and ESCAPED.
- WINGSTOP contained in TOOK A SWING and TOP BANANAS.
Nice theme, and I like that each set of theme entries spans the entire grid. The short choices for theme entries get the job done, but the long ones are quite nice, except maybe RAPS FREESTYLE which doesn’t feel as strong as the others. There are any number of phrases starting RA- that would fit: RAPID RESPONSE, RACK AND PINION, RANGE OF MOTION, RACE RELATIONS, etc.
Solid fill in the grid though nothing especially sparkly, just a scattering of 7s here and there. Of these, GRENADA, DELILAH, and ODYSSEY are the most interesting.
Clues of note:
- 109a. [People who can’t live without video games?]. SIMS. Ha. Cute.
- 111a. [Bugs Bunny animator Tex]. AVERY. Today’s youth probably don’t know the name, but this name and many others who brought Bugs Bunny to life are seared into my memory: Chuck Jones, Friz Freleng, and Mel Blanc of course.
- 56d. [Hair-preserving garment]. DURAG. I wanted DO RAG. Wikipedia says, “The simplest etymology for do-rag is that it is named as such because it is a rag worn to protect one’s hairdo. However, The New York Times claims that the correct spelling of the word is durag.”
- 105d. [One may contain a whole chicken]. CAN. I don’t know what this is referring to. Is this a thing? Apparently it is.
Solid, accessible Sunday theme. 3.75 stars.
Jeffrey Wechsler’s Universal crossword, “Strong Chance of Showers” — pannonica’s write-up
The day is cold, and dark, and dreary;
It rains, and the wind is never weary;
The vine still clings to the mouldering wall,
But at every gust the dead leaves fall,
And the day is dark and dreary.
My life is cold, and dark, and dreary;
It rains, and the wind is never weary;
My thoughts still cling to the mouldering Past,
But the hopes of youth fall thick in the blast,
And the days are dark and dreary.
Be still, sad heart! and cease repining;
Behind the clouds is the sun still shining;
Thy fate is the common fate of all,
Into each life some rain must fall,
Some days must be dark and dreary.
The Rainy Day (1842) – Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
- 4d. [Like Mensa?] BRAINY AND LARGE (by and large). Wikipedia lists the membership at 134,000. Does that work?
- 16d. [One in a medieval joust, presumably] TRAINED KNIGHT (Ted Knight).
- 8d. [Nonsense in a Persian Gulf country?] BAHRAIN HUMBUG (bah, humbug).
- 14d. [Food intake for the very young?] STRAINABLE DIET (stable diet).
- 16a [It’s often hard to tell] TRUTH. Me, I can’t figure out whether the clue means ‘to utter’ or ‘to discern’ or if it’s meant to be ambiguous.
- 24a [Application for the very young] BABY OIL c.f. themer 14-down.
- 55a [Triangle sound] TING. Haven’t seen that in a grid too often, stragely.
- 59a [What Zapzyt treats] ACNE. Get out! That’s really the name?
- 1d [Words before and after “what”] IT IS, though I toyed with I DID.
- 21d [Film studio acquired by Amazon in 2021] MGM. Whoa.
- 25d [British plane attachment?] AERO-. Did not come as easily as it should have.
- 26d [One of many in a chili] BEAN, but I thought for sure it was SEED.
- 46d [Like a good shake] THICK. It’s in the poem above, but in a much different context.
Clear skies here, but a bit on the warm side.
Mark Feldman’s LA Times crossword – Gareth’s summary
Today’s theme by Mark Feldman is pretty simple: take a reduplicative word; add a third word that follows the pattern; make up a droll clue. Because its so simple we get A LOT of entries: COOKBOOKNOOK, FATCATTAT, DOWNTOWNCLOWN, CHIPDIPDRIP (not TRIP?), SNAILMAILFAIL, FUNRUNGUN, combo-breaking BOOBTUBERUBE and, for good measure, ROMCOMTOM and JETSETPET going down. The concept is fairly open ended, which I guess suits a Sunday, but it requires some wit to stay interesting, which in the case the puzzle maintained, for the most part.
A smattering of other entries:
- [Fragrant tea-flavoring shrubs], JASMINES. For some, reason wanted cAtMINtS here.
- [Formed with the tip of the tongue, like the letter L], APICAL. Me, I think of meristems when I see this.
- [Award-winning Mark Tatulli comic strip], LIO. New to me. Seems to have a fantasy / sci-fi aesthetic.
NYT was a bit dull for me. The theme would have been fresh 25 years ago, but is there anyone left who doesn’t know what emoticons are now, or who would be tickled with surprise at the revealer to rotate the grid? And the SMILEY FACE really being a winking face bugged me too. So the theme didn’t really add much to the mostly dull fill (I’d like to get through three puzzles in a row sometime without NTH). I did like the clue for NERFS, though.
When my uncle introduced the family to the card game in this puzzle, he called it “Back Alley Bridge” because (I’m pretty sure) there’s no way my grandfather would have played something called OH HELL. Our family played the heck out of the renamed game, though.
The NW corner of Evan’s puzzle gave me some trouble also, especially as I didn’t know MUFASA and took a while to see FAME as the answer for 3D.
I assume an additional feature is that the names outside the puzzle come from the shows mentioned within. I know LISA and BART from the Simpsons, and NALA is from Lion King (something I learned from crosswords) but I couldn’t place the others. Oh, ELSA is Frozen, right?
Ingenious puzzle, as we have come to expect, but it fell a little flat for me since I’m not familiar with most of the names in context.
NYT was blah to the NTH. Also, haven’t we seen CRETAN three times recently? I’m too lazy to check.
I loved the WaPo! Congratulations to Evan on his 300th. And what a puzzle. I don’t know the Family Guy references, but got all of the others, so it was easy to figure out that Chris and Lois were from that show. And it was a pleasure to remember the wonderful Mel Blanc.
This was a lovely feat of construction. I solved on paper, so I could write wherever I wanted. I would recommend that, although it’s not as Earth-friendly, I know. These days, I allow myself fewer paper solves, but this one seemed worthy.
Thank you for a lovely start to my day.
Rather underwhelmed by NYT. Not a bad puzzle, but the theme is not really strong enough to carry off a Sunday-sized grid.
To clarify, the hint about the cursor disappearing in the online version was there because it wasn’t possible at this time for AmuseLabs to program the spaces outside the grid to be highlighted in dark blue like they are inside the grid. Well, sort of. They could highlight those squares, but doing so would have shown you the hidden square immediately just by clicking on any entry that had one. So the choice was either A) a hint that might tip off more experienced solvers, B) something that would give the game away for everyone right from the jump, or C) if we left out that hint entirely, something that might lead to a *ton* of complaints about the website glitching. We thought option A was the best option.
I started solving on the app as recommended, but was quickly frustrated by its insistence on making rows disappear and moving the grid around the screen. I jumped ship after a coudle of minutes and went to the puz file, which was much more satisfying. The random placement of the sectors with outside letters was a tad frustrating, which I guess was what you were trying to address with the blue squares, but it was not all that hard to figure out when you were going there and when not — and I strongly dislike notes or hints or any other gimmicks that try to feed me the theme. I would not recommend repeating this technique. Other people are plainly entitled to a contrary view.
Here’s the contrary view: I think Evan made exactly the right decision to pick Option A. This was a fantastic puzzle that is an incredible feat of construction: in addition to all the great things already mentioned, the animated shows are symmetrically placed, and each one has exactly two characters at the periphery. But it did not feel overly strained.
The people who are reading this website are the best and most expert crossword solvers in the world. So they may want the puzzle to be super-challenging and a challenge for them. But that’s not most of the WaPo audience. This was the right difficulty for that audience. You gave a bit of a hint without giving the game completely away. I thought it was just right.
Option B would have been even worse for the experts here, and Option C would have been an all-around disaster.
Sorry for the long URL but my new OS, Edge, won’t allow my old SnipURL to work. (BTW — I hate Edge!) This link will get you to a site full of pareidolia — if it works..
I think it was da Vinci who said an artist should be able to see the face of Christ in the stains in a wall. John H. may be able to be more specific (and accurate) about the quote.
fwiw, I always try to do puzzles in AL, ignoring Notepad hints. I had no problem with Evan’s. I solved, realizing what was going on, and printed the completed grid. Then I wrote in the characters in the margins. The only thing I missed was MEL BLANC. I hesitate to even say this, since there was so much crammed in this already, but I would have loved an in-puzzle hint to this, as, say, BUGS in the fill with a clue about being “voiced by someone you might find in our voice overs.” But I’m not complaining.
The weaknesses of PuzzleMe took a lot of the fun out of the WaPo puzzle. Once I had something in a word that extended beyond the grid (say, part of 8D from having filled in 7A), the only way I could figure out how to enter the character outside the grid was to delete 8D and re-enter it.
Sheesh. Tough crowd. Personally I’m grateful that AmuseLabs found a way to program letters outside the grid at all when that’s just not an option in other solving programs. But then I remember trying to make everyone happy in every solving format is always a losing battle.
Tough crowd? Most seem pretty complimentary! I’ve seen way tougher crowds :) I def made sure to point out how great a job app development was for puzzle… think it’s fair to say most admire the work here. Just thought maybe Rot13 or link to hint since the webapp’s “notepad” is sorta unavoidable.
I always do the crossword in the Sunday magazine, so I missed out on the hint. One thing folks haven’t pointed out (maybe because it’s too obvious) is that the voice actors in the clues are the ones providing the voices for the characters outside the grid. Once I saw “James Earl Jones” and “Lion King,” I knew Mufasa had to be there somewhere. Also, I have never seen Frozen, but given its frequent appearances in crosswords, I feel like I have.
Oh come ON, NYT. That’s a winky face, not a smiley face. These things have names. Get it right.
Pop-up letters in USun spell WENDYS too ?
Whoa! I totally whiffed on that one. Great catch and an elegant touch by the constructor!