meta 0:30

hello and welcome to episode #776 of

**matt gaffney’s weekly crossword contest**, “The × Factor”. for this week 2 puzzle, the instructions tell us that we’re looking for

**a book once selected for Oprah’s Book Club**. okay. what are the theme answers?

- {Bestselling novel of 2011} SHADES OF GREY. well, at least that’s what goes in the grid, but that’s not the correct answer to the clue. the novel’s actual title is
**50 SHADES OF GREY**. - {×} TIMES. note that the clue (which is the same character that appears in the puzzle title) is a multiplication symbol, not a letter X.
- {With 46-Across, bestselling novel of 1871} LEAGUES UNDER / THE SEA. again, this is not the actual novel title; that would be
**20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA**.

okay, so what do we do with this? my first thought is that we needed to divide 20,000 by 50. i’m not sure why this was my first thought, but perhaps i was unduly influenced by “factor” in the title—50 is indeed a factor of 20,000, as 50 × 400 = 20,000. but no, we’re not supposed to divide. we’re supposed to multiply, of course, as that’s a much more logical interpretation of the information we’ve been given. 50 × 20,000 = 1,000,000, so we’re looking for an oprah’s book club book with a million in the title. the answer is, somewhat awkwardly, **a million little pieces**. it certainly is a book that was once selected for oprah’s book club, and it’s got a million in the title, so its eligibility as the answer to this meta is on very firm ground.

the book itself, however, is not. if you missed the controversy around this book the first time around, here’s the tl;dr version: the book was published in 2003 and marketed as a memoir of frey’s life as an addict. oprah picked it for her book club in september 2005, after which sales of the book skyrocketed. however, the additional attention brought with it increased scrutiny, which uncovered the fact that significant portions of the book were fabricated. the book’s publisher reclassified the book from non-fiction to fiction and offered a refund to anybody who bought the book thinking it was true.

so, yeah, kind of a problematic book and i wish it weren’t the answer line. in the abstract, i think the fact that there are rather famous books whose titles include very large numbers that multiply to each other is a neat idea for a meta.

other bits:

- the symmetric pair of {Like Debbie Downers} NEGATIVE and {Flourished} TOOK ROOT are tied for the next-longest answers in the grid. are they part of the theme? no, but both NEGATIVE and ROOT are math terms, so they look like they could be. i’ll be impressed when somebody does a literary title math theme that involves negative roots, though.
- more numbers in the grid: {Pitch count, often?} is a fun alternative to the {Common soccer scoreline} type of clue we’ve often seen for ONE-NIL.

that’s all i’ve got this week. how’d you like this one?

Joon: There is a book called “Imaginary Numbers” by Seanan McGuire.

I never heard of it, but it can be the foundation for your theme!

i never would have thought of that!

Great book, but it’s part of a series, and links to another of Seanan’s series as well. Don’t start with it, or you’ll be lost.

Joon: While you can’t take a negative root of a number, you can certainly take a positive root of a negative number. So if you read those clues as steps in a process it might be (1) x=50, (2) negative (i.e., -50), (3) take (square) root = SQRT (50) x SQRT (-1) = SQRT (50) x i, where i is the square root of -1 (an imaginary number).

I could see using that in a meta as i (robot) (the square root of

(-robot x robot)), or i,i,i,i (santa lucia) (the square root of (-16 santa lucia), etc. I’ll let Matt provide proof of concept .

Aren’t the two referenced titles “Fifty Shades of Grey” and “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea”, with the numbers spelled out? That was how I saw them when I searched. (Though with so many editions of the older, it’s hard to figure out exactly what was the original.)

I interpreted it as an added elegance that this was the case with both the titles in the puzzle and the answer title.

Thanks, Joon — 571 correct entries, so three more than Week 1!

I saw the additional clue “one more” in a prominent central position and found a book calle A Million and One Gods. But it wasn’t on Oprah’s list. Would have been a good answer otherwise.

I was not quite distracted by “Shades of Grey,” a novel by Jasper Fforde. But almost.

One thing that tripped me up for a little bit: TAKE ROOT at 30A sounds like an instruction telling us to take the square root of something. The clue numbers for two of the theme answers are 16A and 36A, which conveniently are perfect squares, with square roots of 4 and 6 respectively. But of course the line of thought ignores the 50, the 20,000, and the TIMES, and it doesn’t lead anywhere.

A good meta that was fun to figure out the answer. Though I find wishing a certain book title wasn’t a meta answer quite weird. Perhaps a bit of a book snobbery from Joon?