January 03, 2009

Sunday, 1/4

PI 10:28
LAT 9:10
BG 8:33 (links for 2009 puzzles here)
NYT 6:39
CS 6:10

(updated at 6:45 Sunday night)

Wow! I hardly ever crack the magical 7-minute mark on a Sunday puzzle. It's seldom enough that I break 8 minutes. So I'm pleased with my experience doing Daniel Finan's New York Times crossword, "When In Rome." (This just means, of course, that speedier solvers are sure to come along and trounce me completely. But that's fine. I have a full life anyway.) The theme is Roman numerals, and each theme entry replaces a spelled-out number with a Roman numeral in assorted lively phrases, in numerical order from the top of the grid to the bottom:

  • I = 1. THE I THAT GOT AWAY is what [Many a fish story] details.
  • V = 5. V O'CLOCK SHADOW is whisker [Stubble].
  • X = 10. THE X COMMANDMENTS is the [Last film directed by Cecil B. DeMille]—or the title with "Ten" in it is, anyway.
  • L = 50. L WAYS TO LEAVE YOUR LOVER is the [1976 #1 hit whose title follows the words "There must be..."]. Paul Simon, lots of rhyming: "Slip out the back, Jack. Make a new plan, Stan. Drop off the key, Lee."
  • C = 100. C YEARS OF SOLITUDE is the Romanized [Gabriel Garcia Marquez best seller].
  • D = 500. The INDIANAPOLIS D is the [Event first won by a Marmon Wasp]. The Marmon Wasp is a teeny 1911 racecar that looks like a toy.
  • M = 1,000. M ISLAND DRESSING is a [Salad bar option].
I like the mixed bag of theme entries—a couple idiomatic phrases, a movie, a song, a novel, a car race, and a comestible. From my standpoint, all of the fill answers and cluing were easy and smooth—the proper names were gimmes for me, but I suspect not everyone recalls [Emmy-winning actor Powers ___] BOOTHE or GISELE, [Supermodel Bundchen]. My favorite clues:
  • LAB RAT is an [Experiment runner?]. Let's ditch the question mark and start hiring rats to run laboratories instead of mazes.
  • [Pop maker?] is the WEASEL that goes "pop."
  • NATTERS means [Gabs] or talks too much—it's a quaint word I feel I should start using more often.
  • MAZDA is an [Auto whose name is derived from a Zoroastrian deity]. I think I thought it was a coincidence that the Zoroastrians had a deity with the same name as a Japanese car.
  • [Like shower rooms, often] is TILED. Why was my first impulse COED, which is one letter too short? Must be that movie, Starship Troopers, in which all the attractive young soldiers showered in one big coed bathing extravaganza, totally nonchalantly.
  • EAU DE VIE is one of those old-fashioned sounding drinks I've never encountered. It's a [Clear brandy], which, ick.
  • [Nassau native] is a BAHAMIAN. I bought some Bahamian postage stamps from a Bahamian post office on my trip. Now...where did I put those??
  • The [1997 horror film with the tagline, "If you can't breathe, you can't scream"] is the terrifically bad ANACONDA. I misread the year as 1977, which got in the way here.
  • "NOW, NOW" is clued ["Simmer down!"]. Sounds grandmotherly to me.
  • You know how there are a lot of 4-letter Greek goddess types ending in A? [Mother of Helios] attempted to be GAEA and RHEA before THEA fought her way to the fore.
  • SMILE is the [Word said before someone snaps] a picture—and maybe also the word said before a really cranky unstable person snaps.
  • [Blasted] means CURSED, as in "I can't figure out how to work the blasted/cursed thing."
  • [One with two X's] is a WOMAN, chromosomally speaking.
After being flogged by the Newsday puzzle earlier today, it was a treat to feel a sense of mastery over this puzzle. And isn't that what keeps us going? Each new crossword presents a new intellectual challenge, a new opportunity to triumph over the empty grid or to learn something even when we're stymied.


Merl Reagle's Philadelphia Inquirer crossword, "Speaking of Cold Season...," felt a good bit tougher than the usual Merl puzzle. Is the theme objectively tough or is it just me? I think it's the theme. M sounds are changed to B's, as if the speaker's nose is all stuffed up, but there are other spelling changes in many of the words. Here are the theme entries:
  • [What Rasputin always got at camp that made him irritable and crazy?] is THE BAD BUNK. This plays on Rasputin's epithet, "the Mad Monk."
  • "Marries a millionaire" becomes BARRY'S A BILLIONAIRE, or the [Reason Manilow can stop touring now?].
  • [Boozy musical star?] is ETHEL BOURBON (Merman).
  • Mamie becomes BABY EISENHOWER, or [Ike as a tyke?].
  • "My Little Margie" turns into BYE, LITTLE BARGIE, a [Kid's sad farewell as his toy boat floats away?]. Merl, you may be pushing it a little too far with BARGIE!
  • "Meets one's match" yields BEATS ONE'S BATCH, or [Mixes some cookie dough].
  • [Most popular dessert at Dylan's Diner?] is BOB'S (Mom's) APPLE PIE.
  • [Worst-ever title of a Martha Stewart Easter special?] is BAKING A LITTLE BUNNY (making a little money). This one's my favorite.
  • [Novel about Buffalo Bill's lesser-known brother?] is OF BISON BEN (Of Mice and Men). The D sound at the end of "and" disappears here.
It felt like the overall fill and clues were putting up arbitrary fights with me throughout, too, whereas usually the whole Merl puzzle is a fun ride. Maybe I shouldn't start on the crosswords before the caffeine reaches my brain, I dunno. On the plus side, Merl has once again managed to stack theme entries in adjacent rows at the the top and bottom of the grid—not too many people try this, but Merl pulls it off regularly.

Maybe I got up on the wrong side of the bed this morning, because I wasn't crazy about Liz Gorski's Boston Globe crossword, either. I had to wend my way to the bottom of the puzzle to find out why the theme was called "Color Commentary": BACK TO BLACK is an [Amy Winehouse song linked to starred clues' answers?] and the starred clues begin with words that follow "black" in common phrases. For example, PEPPER SPRAY is a [Canned defense], and black pepper is found in many of our kitchens. One thing that threw me off is that the long central answer, a [Bach aria], is SHEEP MAY SAFELY GRAZE—and it's just not a title that has dwelled in my head, ever. With crossings like SAR., FELICE the ['70s tropical storm], PAYNE the ["Band of Gold" singer], and LYS the [River in France] needed to fill this in, apparently the title was supposed to be more familiar to me. But it wasn't. Having stacked 9-letter fill would be awesome if there weren't 8- and 9-letter theme answers lurking about, and this was a tad jarring. There were some other flat spots with more arcane fill—MALACCA is a [Cane variety], and I wouldn't have gotten that if I didn't know how to spell boxer Hector CAMACHO's name. SACRAL wanted to be SACRED here, as sacral also means "relating to the sacrum," a bone. I think anatomy before I think sacred symbols. PEAN as a [Hymn of praise (var.)] also gave me pause. Because I'm a little weird, I did appreciate the pile-up of moony astronomical terms in one section, with ALBEDO ([Reflective power]) two rows above UMBRA ([Shadow]). I may have learned both of these words from crosswords. Cluing ONE ACROSS as [First clue] is quite meta, isn't it?

That's all I've got time for now—the holiday festivities aren't quite over, and I've got three pints of strawberries to wash and trim for a brunch chocolate fountain at my aunt's house.

Updated again Sunday evening:

Dan Naddor's Los Angeles Times syndicated Sunday crossword, "T Formation," is an absolutely solid puzzle. The 11 (!) theme entries take phrases that include an -ed past tense verb and spells them as sound-alike words that have a T instead. (If you're British, you might not think the words are pronounced the same, but in the States, most people will hear no difference.) Since it's late, I'll just mention a few theme entries:
  • 80-D is FAST PASTE, a [Quick-drying adhesive?] that sounds like "fast-paced."
  • 108-A is ACTION PACT, an [Agreement made in the heat of battle?] ("action-packed").
  • 68-A is BASTE OVERSEAS, or [Prep a turkey in Turkey?] ("based overseas").
This weekend's themeless CrosSynergy "Sunday Challenge" is by Bob Klahn, which means it's time for Adventures in Cluing. Which clues did I like best? These ones:
  • [Liberal party?] is an ORGY. You'd be surprised how many Republicans attend.
  • Two tricky clues are ones I've seen before: [Salty hail?] is AHOY and [Curly poker?] is MOE of the Three Stooges.
  • [Game played with matches?] isn't an arson game—it's LOTTO, in which you've got to match the winning numbers.
  • [Caps] means UPPERCASE or capital letters.
  • [Beer barrel poker] is the TAP in a keg, but "poker" sounds rather like "polka."
  • [Winter runner] is a runny NOSE. Yup, been seeing that around these parts.
  • The HARD G sound is clued [It begins "gradually"].
Besides the individual clues, there's the overall Klahn vibe, too—if you read through the clue list, 25- and 26-A are both [Station launched in (a year)]. 35- and 36-A both include the word "people." The next two Across clues rhyme; the pair after that end with "poker" (as does the 32-D clue); right after that, two clues end with "key." Klahn likes to have pairs of clues bounce off each other, especially when the same word will point you in different directions.