Friday, December 1, 2006
Solving time: around 25 minutes
Another crossword constructor whose name sounds suspiciously like a pseudonym. "Nothnagel" is also an anagram of HANG NOLTE! NOLTE is a not infrequent Guest of the Grid (he was here just a few days ago). I'm quite pro-NOLTE, so naturally I'm a little suspicious of Mr. "Nothnagel's" true motivations. Luckily for him, his puzzle has done nothing to rankle me. It's really tough in parts, but (mostly) fair, and even, in parts, impressively clever. The NW and SE were nearly disastrous for me - the shape of the damned grid is such that you can work your way into those corners only through the narrowest of, uh, straits. Hallways. Corridors. Whatever. Ends up feeling like I'm working three nearly self-contained little grids (NW, SE, rest of puzzle). There are also a LOT of trappy clues - more than I've experienced in a single grid in recent memory. This phenomenon is best demonstrated by my experience in the NW, so let's start there.
1A: Hit Japanese TV import (Iron Chef)
Having spent much of the day preparing the syllabus for my Comics course next semester, my mind was thinking of totally different kinds of Japanese imports: I thought, "wow, what a coincidence: I'm putting Osamu Tezuka's Astro Boy on my syllabus, and that same day the animated TV show adaptation of the comic is the answer to 1A!? What are the odds?" Answer: none. ASTROBOY just felt so right, so perfect, so serendipitous. But I ended up being pretty sure that 8D: Comic collected in "The Chickens Are Restless," with "The" was FARSIDE, which meant an "F" where the "Y" was in ASTROBOY. Perhaps I would have seen IRONCHEF sooner, if it hadn't been for further fake serendipity lurking right around the corner...
2D: Stick alternatives (roll-ons)
26A: _____ case (in no)
30A: Follower of Mao? (Tse)
In what must be some kind of record for size of a PLAUSIBLE wrong-fill pile-up, I managed to put together three closely interlocking Wrong answers in the nadir of the northwest quadrant. Since AUTOMATICS did not fit in the space allotted for "Stick alternatives," I knew that the answer had to be the Ingenious CARROTS. The "S" at the bottom of CARROTS made 30A easy: "Follower of Mao?" was clearly IST. Nice. The kicker, though ... the coup de grace ... the icing ... was the thrill I got when I noticed that, at four letters, and with a "T" in the second position (from CARROTS), "_____ case" could only be the legendary ETUI. Revenge of the ETUI! I had kept him out of the Pantheon, and here he was, serving notice of his relevance. Good for him. ALL OF MY ANSWERS WERE WRONG. I'm not even going to bother relating how I figured that out. Let's just say it took me a while. Oh, I will say that part of my problem was that I could Not convince myself that the answer to 15A: Celebrated smiler was really MONALISA. "Too obvious," I thought. "That's a trap." ... said the already trapped solver to the Gimme that was trying to rescue him. Ugh. (that's a good "Ugh," though - I'm happy to flail around if the reason for my flailing is true cleverness, as it was here)
So that was the rocky northwest coast. Let's move on to the equally difficult swampy southeast.
39D: Comment when no one is up ("It's a tie")
Brutal. Looks so obvious in the light of day, but something about my brain does Not want to read "is up" as "leads," as in a baseball game. I had ITS-, and the problem was that the rest of the answer was what would take me through the narrow corridor (of which I spoke at the beginning of this commentary) into the otherwise self-contained SE corner. Without the rest of the answer, I couldn't get in, and with the exception of a couple of little gimmes, nothing in the SE was coming together. Actually, those little gimmes - 57D: Gasteyer of "Mean Girls" (Ana) and 58D: FedEx pickup: Abbr. (pkg.) - because of their proximity, helped me finally get a longer cross - 60A: One-room schoolhouse features (inkwells), the initial "I" of which got me the penultimate letter "I" in ITSATIE, which then helped me eventually get all the three long crosses at the bottom of the SE.
So, game over, right? Oh no no no no. Here we come to my only beef with this otherwise tricky-but-fair puzzle: my most hated of puzzle phenomenon: abutting geographical obscurities. I am sure that champion solvers do not blink when they see 46A: Town SE of Sacramento (Ione) and (lord help me) 49A: Ukrainian hub (Lvov), but the only IONE I know is SKYE, and the only LVOV I know is that choking sound my dog makes sometimes. Throw in that one of the Down crosses was Very dubious - 43D: Coin part (reverse) - and you can see that I was slowed to a halt by this morass of unfamiliarity (and so close to the finish!). Oh, and the worst part, which luckily for this puzzle ended up being so genius that I nearly forgot my pain, was the following clue: 42D: Blip, ending in -ALY. For far, far too long, I was trying to think of how "Blip" could be a @#$#-ing adverb. THEN I remembered that adverbs with "A" as the penultimate vowel will typically have TWO "L"s (e.g. "vocally"). THEN I tried to think of a word that ends in "-LY" and is somehow NOT an adverb. Oh, and that means "Blip!" Answer: ANOMALY - it's horribly perfect.
In closing, I'd like to create a mini-parade of all the answers in this puzzle that I either thought of or actually wrote in a Wrong answer for (that's a really inelegant sentence, with lots of prepositions in awkward places, but I've no time to fret about such details right now - sorry):
1. ASTROBOY for IRONCHEF
2. CARROTS for ROLL-ONS
3. ETUI for INNO (especially great as they have NO letters in common)
4. IST for TSE
5. TURF for CLAY (5D: Grass alternative)
6. TACOS for TARTS (32D: Foods with fillings)
7. HAR for HEE (33D: Part of a snicker)
8. ON A LINE and
9. ON A WIRE for ON A ROPE (36D: Tethered)
That's a lot of wronganswery. But I worked it out.
I enjoyed the comics component of the puzzle: in addition to the non-existent ASTROBOY, who did not belong there, and the previously mentioned FAR SIDE, there was also 44A: "Herman" cartoonist Jim (Unger). Found 59A: Begin operating, datewise (open on) a little icky on both sides of the equation ("datewise" is an unappealing little word that would make a great name for a parody of NBC's "Dateline" - and OPEN ON just sounds like a poker term. Plus the juxtaposition of "operating" and OPEN makes it sound like you've taken your date to the O.R. for a fun night of surgery). But the clunkers were few in comparison to the good-to-great fill. Any puzzle that crosses ALTO SAX (12D: Cannonball Adderley played it) and CEMENT MIXER (It goes around at a construction site) at the "X" deserves at least a solid pat on the back.
Signed, Rex Parker, King of CrossWorld
PS one of the answers on today's grid could feasibly have been clued "Blogger Parker, in reality" - I'll let you guess which one.