Note: A change is coming to the editorship of the Universal Sunday 21x puzzle. See Jim’s post below for more details.
Michael Schlossberg’s New York Times crossword, “Abridged Too Far” —Nate’s write-up
Happy weekend! I hope you’re well and, if you’re lucky enough to have a long weekend, enjoying the extra bit of time off. Let’s jump into this puzzle, which is the second ‘theme entry with a sub-theme entry in circles’ puzzle we’ve had recently:
– 23A: A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM [Play about love and heartbreak in Ancient Greece [1605, 431 B.C.]] with MEDEA spelled out in circled letters
– 37A: THE WIND IN THE WILLOWS [Timeless children’s classic about country dwellers’ friendships [1908, 1881]] with HEIDI spelled out in circled letters
– 64A: CRIME AND PUNISHMENT [Magnum opus about a man, family and the concept of free will [1866, 1965]] with DUNE spelled out in circled letters
– 76A: THE CATCHER IN THE RYE [Coming-of-age novel about a teenage boy and his isolation [1951, 1986]] with HATCHET spelled out in circled letters
– 102A: FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS [Tale about soldiers and treachery in southern Europe [1940, 1603]] with OTHELLO spelled out in circled letters
– 121A: TO MAKE A LONG STORY SHORT [“In a nutshell” … or an alternative title for this puzzle?]
I will admit that I had to check out the review on xwordinfo to figure out the theme / how the pairs of books related to each other here. According to that review, each theme entry and its corresponding circled letters theme entry can both be described by the same synopsis clue. I guess the idea of common synopses is interesting, but many of the sub-theme entries weren’t long enough for me to make for a compelling “transformation,” so to speak.
The literature in the theme entries seemed to come from a relatively narrow set of “classics” often taught in intro English classes… but that aren’t quite representative of many readers. It would have been nice to see a broader diversity of authors / characters in a modern puzzle. I also didn’t get how the revealer worked; as xwordinfo mentioned, it seemed that this would have worked better as a revealer for a puzzle where a work was boiled down to one of its fundamental themes. For this puzzle, the themer might have been something instead along the lines of TWO-FOR-ONE or the like.
What I did enjoy about this puzzle were some of the fun clues, like those for SSN and ITT. Entries like WHEATEN and RON MIX were rougher for me, though. The rest of the clues seemed pretty straightforward, with not much hint of personality. The xwordinfo review mentioned that most of the constructor’s original clues were replaced by the NYT editing team; I wish we’d gotten to see more of the constructor’s personality in those original clues. Release the constructor’s cut! :)
Evan Birnholz’ Washington Post crossword, “Backstories” —Matthew’s write-up
Breezy Sunday from Evan this holiday weekend — I think I’ve only been sub-4 once before on a 21x — helped by an easy-to-grok theme, super in-the-language themers, and a bunch of them, at that.
Our title is “Backstories,” and each of 11 themers contain a book title in reverse:
- 21a [Computer user’s resource (Sapphire)] TECH SUPPORT. Push
- 23a [TV Prize (Amy Bloom)] EMMY AWARD. Away
- 32a [Copy writer? (Michael Grant)] STENOGRAPHER. Gone
- 52a [Optic metaphor for experience (Stanislaw Lem)] TRAINED EYE. Eden
- 54a [When you go to bed, cutesily (Herman Melville)] SLEEPYTIME. Typee
- 67a [Regulars on the slopes (Philip K. Dick)] SKIBUMS. Ubik
- 73a [Ingredient in balsamic red wine sauce (Bob Woodward)] VINEGAR. Rage
- 88a [Home of the Spurs (Emile Zola)] SAN ANTONIO. Nana
- 90a [Went from Tokyo to Kyoto? (Jane Austen)] ANAGRAMMED. Emma
- 107a [Opens, as a meeting (Alex Haley)] CALLS TO ORDER. Roots
- 118a [Southern Region of Spain (Toni Morrison)] ANDALUSIA. Sula
The revealer adds an Easter egg for us: 121a [Important part of each reversed book title in this puzzle (which you can use to spell out an apt phrase)]. That phrase is PAGE TURNER, apt not only for a book-centric theme, but for this particular grid, where books (and their “pages”) are “turned.” Sometimes I call these extra flourishes out as necessary to provide more constraint to an otherwise flexible theme. I don’t think that’s the case today — there’s *11* books already. That they’re in a relevant order, and hidden in such common entries, is lovely.
- 5a [Latin phrase following a surprise attack] ET TU. In a newspaper puzzle such as this one, a completely reasonable angle for ET TU. Some indie constructors are likely to use the same entry to point to Et Tu Etui, a crossword blog active in 2020 and 2021 that specialized in a type of… crossword anti-art? Tough to describe, good for a laugh or three.
- 44a [Island where Hercules captures a bull in his seventh labor] CRETE. The Seven Labors of Hercules are sneaky well-represented in crosswords, no?
- 125a [Low land?] FARM. I quite liked this misdirection – a farm is land where lowing happens.
- 85d [Jimmy who played Nero Padilla on “Sons of Anarchy”] SMITS. I hear good things about Sons of Anarchy, but when I’m put in charge of the crossword world, all Jimmy Smits clues will be NYPD Blue clues.
- 108d [Person who might ironically say “How do you do, fellow kids?”] ADULT. The 30 Rock episode in which Steve Buscemi utters this phrase, with hat backwards and skateboard slung over his shoulder, aired *eleven* years ago.
Jessie and Ross Trudeau’s Universal Sunday crossword, “Farewell Tour”—Jim P’s review
Oy. Talk about some bizarre timing. A puzzle titled “Farewell Tour” referring to Elvis Presley when his only daughter suddenly passed away a few days ago? Obviously the puzzle is scheduled well in advance and the theme has nothing to do with Lisa Marie Presley, but still, it’s unfortunately timed.
The 3-part revealer starts at 60a with the clue [With 69- and 75-Across, announcement after a Presley concert … and a hint to the word removed to form each starred clue’s answer]: ELVIS HAS / LEFT THE / BUILDING.
The word removed from the other theme answers turns out to be “king”.
- 24a. [*Emotionally supports a prof’s aide?] IS THERE FOR THE T.A. Taking. Weird having that starting “IS”.
- 31a. [*Issuance of fines for bogeys?] PAR ENFORCEMENT. Parking.
- 49a. [*Plea from a “Little Women” casting director?] “YOU HAVE GOT TO BE JO.” Joking.
- 84a. [*Start wearing a beret?] PUT ON ONE’S THIN CAP. Thinking.
- 105a. [*Sticker that says “Warning: Margaret’s jokes slay!”?] CHO HAZARD LABEL. Choking. Meh. “Choking hazard” is an in-the-language phrase. “Choking hazard label”…not so much. And I don’t get how jokes that slay are a hazard.
- 113a. [*Transgression aboard an ill-fated liner?] SIN OF THE TITANIC. Sinking. Also meh. The entry reads as if the ship itself needs to go to confession. Something like SIN FEELING might’ve had more surface sense.
These were okay. Nothing really slayed me here and some of them felt overly forced. I love the revealer and I don’t mind the concept behind the theme, but maybe the timing has negatively influenced my feelings toward it.
The long fill is quite nice especially GEEK GIRL CON, BOY SOPRANOS, AHEAD OF TIME, ALTER EGOS, NAME BADGE, TEST BAN, GET INTO A RUT, “DON’T CRY,” and “HEY SIRI.”
Clues are mostly the standard affair as Universal puzzle clues are apt to be, but there are a couple standouts like [Try to stay safe?] for SLIDE and [Returns from the Grand Canyon?] for ECHOES.
In other news, it was announced this weekend that Jeff Chen will be taking over editing duties for the Universal Sunday 21x puzzle in March as David Steinberg takes on some additional responsibilities at Universal. Per Mr. Steinberg, “As of today, all Universal Sunday Crossword correspondence should be directed to Jeff’s new email address: firstname.lastname@example.org. Please join me in welcoming Jeff by sending him lots of 21×21 queries and submissions! The first puzzle under his editorship will run March 5.”
And per Jeff, “Theme queries are very welcome (preferred over finished grids), and although we have to focus on a solving base that expects simpler concepts, I want fresh, interesting ideas from both new and established constructors, from all backgrounds.
“I’d also love GRID ART that helps a crossword pop off the printed page. Toward both of these goals, I’ve created some grids that I hope inspire constructors, especially new ones of underrepresented backgrounds. Maybe one or more images will spur your imagination, and you’ll come up with a theme set to do it proud.
“And if you don’t have the ability to make a 21×21 crossword all by yourself yet, I’m happy to work with you to split theme development, gridwork, and cluing, using a shared byline (your name first, mine second).”
Here is a link to some of the sample (empty) grids Jeff created to get an idea of what he means by “grid art.” They look pretty fun, so if you’re an aspiring Sunday constructor, have a look and maybe it’ll give you some inspiration.
Zhouqin Burnikel’s USA Today crossword, “Soft” —Darby’s write-up
Editor: Erik Agard
Theme: Each theme answer includes a phrase with a word beginning with S and a word beginning with T have an OF in the middle, making them spell out SOFT.
- 17a [“Common viewpoint”] SCHOOL OF THOUGHT
- 27a [“Linen cloth housed in a cathedral in northern Italy”] SHROUD OF TURIN
- 58a [“Usual rhythm”] SWING OF THINGS
I really liked these theme answers, finding each to be pretty fun and fresh. I’d be curious to see how other folks found the SHROUD OF TURIN. Once I had SHROUD on the crosses, it was easy to get the rest (and by then, I knew an OF would appear in the answer as well). SWING OF THINGS was undoubtedly my favourite here, but I also quite liked SCHOOL OF THOUGHT. On the other hand, I wasn’t necessarily as sure about the repeated use of OF in each one, personally.
The beginning of this puzzle felt rather devious, seeing LIE, PLOT, and PLOYS in the topmost section. I also enjoyed the inclusion of 9d [“Markings that extend from home plate”] FOUL LINES and 29d [“Up-and-comer”] RISING STAR. It was also fun to see 36d [“‘Despacito’ singer”] FONSI next to ALTO and homophones SOME crossing SWUM.
Overall, I had fun with this puzzle!
NYT: The theme answers are interesting finds, especially as a vague description of each book’s plot can fit both the long and short titles. But once I had a few crosses on the long titles, it was easy to fill in the rest. So to a certain extent, the theme was irrelevant to my solving.
My biggest snag was WHaA for WHOA. The football player with the law degree could have been ROb MIX or ROn MIX, for all I knew. The A where I should have had an O kept me from seeing the devilishly clued TENORS.
NYT: What’s the explanation for Mercury and Mars being TENORS? Are these roles in an opera I should know?
I took it to be Freddie Mercury (Queen) and Bruno Mars.
NYT: NUTSY is pretty awful fill. NUTTY and NUTSO are a million times more idiomatic.
Oddly similar themes for NYT and WaPo this week. I can’t say I was bowled over by either one, but as usual WaPo > NYT for the extra Birnholzian touch.
Agree, although some of those novels were rather obscure IMHO. The crosses were fair, however, so it was nice puzzle in the end. NYT had a bad title, a bad “alternative” title, and a bad clue [my opinion again] for 76A. The other four were excellent, however.
UCSunday: I guess it was a wild coincidence, but I was momentarily addled when the letters KING were clearly underneath the topmost theme answer.
Re LAT: I thought this was really clever theme. I had no idea what was going on until I got to the revealer. Then when I went back to figure out how to change the clues to match the answers, I was really impressed with how they came up with these.
Hey thanks! I had a blast putting this one together
Re WAPO: Couldn’t get over the brilliant clue for CEL: Still filling in the blanks of “_ind_re_la”, if you note that “filling in the blanks” could also refer to the painting of cels, which is essentially filling in the blanks of the ink lines with paint. Exceptionally clever, if intentional!