June 11, 2009

Friday, 6/12

BEQ 4:55
CHE 4:07
Tausig (untimed)
NYT 3:42
LAT 3:24
CS 6:25 (J—paper)
WSJ 7:44

Patrick Berry's New York Times crossword

Just before doing this puzzle, I did two Berry puzzles from an '06 Games World of Puzzles—my goodness, how did I leave both a Rows Garden and a Ringside puzzle unfilled?!? Berry's variety grids are always terrific—if you like challenging crosswords and you're not wedded to themes, buy his Puzzle Masterpieces book immediately. And don't be put off by the introduction's claim that the book's puzzles are of Wednesday difficulty—only the snake-grid ones are easyish, and some are beyond Saturday-level. My favorite variety might be Some Assembly Required, which work the jigsaw and crossword parts of your brain in tandem, and the Rows Gardens, in which Across answers intersect with answers that travel hexagonally. The book's an attractive hardcover, which may make you hesitate to write in it—but go ahead and do it. Once the book is in your hands, your pencil will not be able to resist its pull. Shall I give it an Amazon-style rating? Yes: ★★★★★. Crossword books don't get any better than this.

Berry is, of course, also a master at the wide-open themeless grid. His Friday NYT crossword has just 64 words, and holy cow, would you look at that midsection? That fat swath of 7's and 8's marching up the stairs from left to right? That's impressive. I suppose there's some advantage to the easier cluing—why not make such a grid more accessible to a broader cross-section of solvers? But you know me, I like the gnarly clues best. Here are the answers and clues that were right up my alley:

  • 23A and 25A rhyme. SINGSONG is an [Uninteresting voice], while ["Don't give up!"] clues BE STRONG. In my circles, "be strong" is used mainly in jest.
  • 26A. Tricky clue—[Manufacturer of boxy cars] is OTIS, for elevator cars. With the O in place, I tried OPEL. I also thought of SAAB and FIAT as other 4-letter automakers.
  • 33A. [Frequent subject on "Desperate Housewives"] is ADULTERY, which I got off the Y alone. If you know anything at all about the show, that shouldn't be too tough to guess.
  • 35A. Didn't see this clue while solving. TOPE is clued with the verb phrase [Empty bottles]. No, that's not a plural noun today.
  • 39A. BANZAI always sparkles in the grid. It means ["Char-r-rge!"], more or less.
  • 41A. [Lousy driver, say] clues DUFFER. A duffer is a bad golfer.
  • 42A. GEOID is an [Imaginary surface coinciding with earth's sea level], and while I don't quite understand the clue, I like the pile-up of vowels in the answer.
  • 3D. ELECTRICAL STORM, or [Potential blackout cause], is one of two 15's in this puzzle. (PRISONER OF ZENDA, an [1894 adventure novel, with "The"], is the other 15.) Only three of its 15 crossings are 3- or 4-letter words. How on earth does Berry get everything to interlock like this? Have I heard that he hand-crafts his puzzles, or does he use technology to make the magic happen?
  • 4D. DEMOTES is clued as [Puts in a bad position?]. See also AXING, or [Giving a pink slip]. Recessionary crosswording!
  • 8D. LESS IS MORE is the [Central concept of minimalism] and of themeless puzzles—64 is a low word count, but not ridiculously low. You get into the 50s and you really start to see clunky or obscure words.
  • 10D. "SOUP'S ON!" means ["Come and get it!"].
  • 23D. SERPENT gets an arcane (to me) clue: [Midgard ___ (monster of Norse myth)]. Norse mythology has a lot of cool stuff.
  • 25D. The [Top dog] at the Westminster dog show is BEST IN SHOW.
  • 36D. [Musical O'Connor] is SINEAD. What a nice change to have this Irish singer in lieu of crosswordese ENYA.
  • 39D. [Very well done]—hmm, this must be an accolade such as one might apply to Berry's Masterpieces, right? Nope—it's BURNT. Burnt cookies are a keen disappointment.

Ben Tausig's Ink Well/Chicago Reader crossword, "If I Could Turn Back Time"

In the six theme entries, Ben has turned back time by flipping an AM or PM into MA or MP:
  • 17/62A. [With 62-Across, a senior racer?] clues PONTIAC / GRANDMA. Perfect play on the Pontiac Grand Am with the delicious GRANDMA payoff.
  • 18A. [Keep an antioxidant-heavy juice in check?] is STEM POM, Pom being a brand of pomegranate juice and stepmom being a phrase with a reversible PM in it.
  • 32A. The past-tense [Put actress Amanda in the freestyle?] clues SWAM PEET. Swap meet, Amanda Peet.
  • 38A. MAPLE EVIDENCE (ample evidence) is [Syrup presented to the jury?].
  • 46A. RAM PETAL plays on the rap-metal music genre, and the clue is now [Pretty sheep decoration?]. The original clue cited a nonspecific farm animal and man, did I have a hard time figuring out the answer.
  • 58A. BASS MAP might be a [Rhythm instrument guide?]. I can't say I know what "bass amp" means. An amp that produces low-frequency sounds? A bass player's amp? A rockin' smallmouth bass's accessory?

My favorite clues and fill include [Adjective for some past-their-prime musicians] for BLOATED; the [Fighting words] "oh, IT'S ON"; [Golfer Ernie with his own wine company] provides a bit of trivia for Mr. ELS; [Mark of wit] clues writer TWAIN; [They're usually No. 2's] clues PENCILS, not vice presidents; and [Alexander the Grape, e.g.] is an example of a PUN. This week's Ink Well mystery word is RATINE, or [Rough, loose fabric]. Wow, I don't even recall that one from the heyday of Eugene Maleska. [Banned MLB substance] is the general abbreviation PED, or performance-enhancing drug, rather than a specific steroid or hormone. I didn't know that abbreviation before doing this puzzle.

Ed Sessa's Chronicle of Higher Education puzzle,"Storied Institutions"

Greetings, academics! Last week, there wasn't a CHE crossword and this week, there is. What's the deal with the Chronicle's summer publishing schedule? Is it every other week and then a few weeks off in August, something like that? Ah, here's the scoop from chronicle.com: "The Chronicle appears weekly in print except for every other week during June, July, and August, and the last three weeks in December (a total of 42 issues a year)."

The theme this week is fictional schools, and wow, I sure haven't read many of these books set in fictional schools:
  • [Fictional school in "Goodbye, Mr. Chips"] is BROOKFIELD.
  • [Fictional school in the Harry Potter books] is HOGWARTS. Hey! I knew this one.
  • [Fictional school in "Nicholas Nickleby"] is...dang, I'm probably parsing this wrong. Dickens wouldn't have had a DO THE BOYS HALL. Wikipedia to the rescue: it's Dotheboys Hall.
  • [Fictional school in "To Serve Them All My Days"] is BAMFYLDE. Non-intuitive spelling and it's from a book I've scarcely even heard of? Ouch. The Y crosses SYD, [Charlie Chaplin's half-brother], so BAMFILDE looked equally plausible.
  • [Fictional school in "The Catcher in the Rye"] is PENCEY PREP.

In the fill, PECK is clued as [What a bird in the hand might do?]. I beseech you: guard your eyes. [Makes a botch of] clues BLOOPS; while "blooper" is common and there's a baseball usage of this word, I can't say BLOOPS came to me easily. I like the echo between AT BAT and KEPT AT BAY—that T and Y are right next to each other on the keyboard, so it'd be easy to mangle these two. Did you know that the STAR FRUIT, or carambola, is an [Edible Malaysian export]?

Updated Friday morning:

Randall J. Hartman's CrosSynergy/Washington Post puzzle, "Covered with Mud"—Janie's review

Back in May, Randy brought us a puzzle whose theme fill was literally to be found "in a NUT shell," where the first two letters of the theme-phrase were NU and the last was T. Today, we're "covered with MUD," as MU and D surround ("cover") the letters of the theme-phrase. As anyone who enjoys being pampered on occasion can tell you, MUD treatments are not only relaxing, they're refreshing. Ditto this puzzle. Behold:
  • 17A. [Score keeper?] MUSIC STAND. Great clue; great CS-debut fill.
  • 10D. ["Not a peep!"] MUM'S THE WORD. Shhh—it's a secret. But not that this is another CS first-timer.
  • 24D. [Kingdom of heaven comparison, in the New Testament] MUSTARD SEED. Hmmm. While this was easy enough to solve by way of the crosses, the clue here helped me not one iota as I have almost no familiarity with the NT. To me, MUSTARD SEED is one of Titania's fairy servants in A Midsummer Night's Dream. Or the stuff you crush up and add vinegar to to make a savory condiment...
  • 55A. [Part of a 401(k) plan, often] MUTUAL FUND. The slightly dry MUTUAL FUND (you will SURELY be ELATEd to know) is making its first appearance in a major puzzle; and—after the turn in the economy last fall, I have some friends who wryly refer to their 401(k)'s as 201(k)'s...
This puzzle is but one letter shy of a pangram ("J"), and it was really nice to encounter the scrabbly end of the alphabet in its entirety in such lively (and in some cases "street-smart") fill as: BAD VIBES, MEOW clued as [Copy cats?], EXERT, YOU DA MAN (YIKES!), and ZIPPO (which I filled in first with ZILCH).

Other fine fill and/or clues:
  • LA BOHÈME [Opera by Puccini] (whose score might be found on that MUSIC STAND...)
  • NO 'COUNT [Good-for-nothing] and DODO [Knucklehead]
  • [Swimming center] for EMS (the letter M appears twice in the center of the word. This kind of clue appears with some regularity and maybe you're already alert to it. If not—pay heed! It will show up again.)
  • [Tub or tug] for VESSEL
  • [Victoria and Albert] for LAKES. Perfect.
Got myself off on the wrong foot by confidently entering SANTA for SATAN (hello again...). Now I know that [OLD NICK] and Beelzebub are one and the same. Ditto the Deuce, the Dickens, Old Harry, Old Ned, Old Scratch, Old Horny, Old Poker, the Old Gentleman and a slew of others. Thus spake Roget.

The reminder of iconic newsman Chet HUNTLEY and the HUNTLEY-Brinkley Report stirred memories of a time when getting the nightly news from unimpeachable sources still mattered (also memories of their classic "Goodnight, Chet," "Goodnight, David," sign-off). And while we're looking at journalism, the puzzle also makes a nod to the dead-tree sort with OP-ED.

One little grid-bit and then ('til Monday) I'm history: the crossing of IRMA and FIRMA.

Happy weekend!

Robin Stears' Los Angeles Times crossword

A constructing debut for Stears? I think so. Congratulations! I loved unraveling the theme and I admire the theme's execution. Each theme entry has TRY tacked onto the end to completely change the gist of a phrase, and since it's a Friday puzzle, there's no give-away hint anywhere that explains it all. Here are the fun theme answers:
  • 17A. [Where Jerry Garcia kept food for the band?] is the (DEAD PANTRY). Grateful Dead, deadpan.
  • 28A. BLANK TAPESTRY would be a truly [Minimalist wall hanging?]. I probably still have some blank tapes around here even though I'm not using tapes anymore. You know how 20-somethings might use a bedsheet as a makeshift window covering? They could class that up by calling it a BLANK TAPESTRY and expounding on its artistic value.
  • 47A. [Small clergy group?] could be a MICRO MINISTRY. A micro mini is, I believe, this thing that Daryl Hannah wore recently.
  • 64A. Playing on faux pas, we get FAUX PASTRY as a [Wedding cake mock-up?]. You know how some bakeries keep faux pastry on display in the window? This could almost be a real phrase.

In the fill, I like the French vowel trifecta combo of EAU (51A [__-de-vie: brandy]) and BEAUT (36A [Doozy]). Geography brings us TONGA—5A [Kingdom called the Friendly Islands]—and both ELON and ASHE from North Carolina. The people in the puzzle are mostly familiar to regular solvers, except for 23A [1990s speed skating gold medalist], somebody named KOSS. No relation to the headphones company, I presume, Wikipedia tells me that "Johann Olav Koss (born 29 October 1968) is a former speed skater from Norway, considered to be one of the best in history." There's also an oddball fictional character whose name I learned from crosswords: GORT is clued as 8D ["The Day the Earth Stood Still" robot].

Brendan Quigley's blog crossword, "Getting Extra C-R-E-D-I-T: Let me spell it all out"

Brendan's added a new feature, a difficulty-meter for the puzzle. This one's rated hard, and I'd say it's at least Friday-level but with a theme that might take Saturday effort to glom onto. The theme entries sort of sound like familiar phrases, and HARD ICHOR looked like "hard liquor" without the L. But what's going on here is that each of the six theme entries has a letter added to a phrase, and the spelling's changed to make a real word out of the word that adopts the extra letter. Those extra letters are, in order, C, R, E, D, I, T. Straightforward enough, right? This is an instance of a puzzle where the title really helps pull the theme together and make it more fun for the solver, less mystifying. The theme:
  • Harriet Lane was a big name in pediatric philanthropy, but I don't think I'd know her name if I hadn't worked for the publisher of The Harriet Lane Handbook. Add a C and you get CHARIOT LANE, or an [Appian Way section?] in ancient Rome.
  • Eiderdown turns into RYDER DOWN with an R. That's a [Phrase describing a rental truck with a flat tire?]. Seeing the rhyme with eiderdown is what finally tipped me off to the theme.
  • [Simple partnership?] is an EASY AXIS. Sounds like "easy access" but that's irrelevant. There's an E added to...I don't know what. Help!
  • "Kind of" + D = KIND DOVE, or [Considerate peacenik?]. I like this one best.
  • [Blood of the gods with that extra kick?] is HARD ICHOR, "hardcore" + I.
  • [Effect of a serious earthquake on the Golden Gate?] is a BRIDGE TWIST. Uh, just a guess that there's a card game called bridge whist. Apparently its heyday was a century ago.

Favorite clue: Maple SYRUP is a [Silver dollar covering] if you're talking about silver dollar pancakes. Mmm, pancakes... Second favorite: [Goes from prenatal to parental, e.g.] clues ANAGRAMS.

That's all the time I have right now, as it's just about time to pick up my kid from school. In Chicago, they get out at 9:30 a.m. on the last day! Will be back later on with the Wall Street Journal puzzle.

Updated again Friday evening:

Wall Street Journal crossword, "Speaker Boxes," by Mike Shenk a.k.a. "Alice Long"

Mike Shenk is known in the puzzle business for being an innovator, for devising cool new types of puzzles. Mike can even bring innovation to the fusty concept of the quote theme: here, the words in the quote are hidden within longer phrases or words, which are clued straightforwardly. So the hideousness of the standard quote theme—the "sure hope you can get the Downs because you're not getting much help with the long Across entries" thing—is eliminated. You're not getting a ton of thematic material, it's true, but you do get a 21x21 with 29 answers of at least 7 letters, and you're getting Shenk-grade fill. The Matthew Prior quote that's spelled out in the circled squares, one word per long answer, is THEY TALK MOST WHO HAVE THE LEAST TO SAY. Hey, that's only 32 letters of quote in a Sunday-sized puzzle. This I find much more palatable than a 50-letter quote in a 15x15 grid.

Highlights in the fill include a COON'S AGE (which is a more familiar phrase than the DOG'S AGE that was in another recent puzzle), LIP BALM, a PANAMA HAT, a comfy OLD SHOE, NO-DOZ, RENT-A-COP, STEPMOM, and some of the entries hiding the quote words—THE YANKEES, MORTAL KOMBAT, FIFTH AVENUE, and crossword-ready ADELE ASTAIRE graduating to full-name status.