Investments since 1975 / FRI 2-28-14 / Philatelic goals / Suffix with Edward / Singer who's a Backstreet Boy's brother / Salk Institute architect Louis / Shakespeare sonnet mentioning Philomel's mournful hymns / Modern-day locale of ancient Nineveh / City with major avenues named Cincinnati Columbus

Friday, February 28, 2014

Constructor: Martin Ashwood-Smith

Relative difficulty: Medium-Challenging

THEME: none

Word of the Day: FLAUTIST (28D: Sir James Galway, e.g.) —
One who plays the flute; a flutist.

[Italian flautista, from flauto, flute, from Old Provençal flaüt. See flute.]

Read more:
• • •

Constructing, shmonstructing. Welcome to the age of database management!

I laughed when I opened this puzzle. Out loud.

I wish I could've been on some game show where, after seeing the constructor's name, I could've put All My Money on "Quadstack." I'd be so rich.

I feel like I need some boilerplate language I can just cut and paste into every quadstack (or wide-open "record-setting" low-black-square-count puzzle) I write up. You know: long answers have a combination boring / made-up feel, short crosses are weak / forced, etc. So let's just assume that unless I say otherwise, I am *always* saying that for these kinds of puzzles. So here's what I enjoyed about this puzzle:
  • XXX
  • Toughish cluing
  • I learned how to spell FLAUTIST (I would've gone, and did briefly go, FLOUTIST)
I think this puzzle must surely have set a record for "TION"s. I count four. Including, dear lord, three "TIONAL"s all on top of one another in those middle answers. Repeated letter strings of any length (say 4+) are generally frowned upon / kept to a minimum. So you really gotta love the gutsiness of stacking three 6-letter strings. Or you don't have to love it. Probably you don't.

I, ANA is terrible in all circumstances until the day when former SNL cast member Ana Gasteyer writes an autobiography with that title.

Did you know there are more than 100 species of MALARIA PARASITE? I  learned this when I googled [MALARIA PARASITE] to see if it was a real phrase. Much to my surprise, it is. I would've thought "malarial."

HAD A TIN EAR has all the moral authority of ATE A HAM SANDWICH (15!)

AT SIX now has me rethinking whether XXX was truly worth it.

OK that's enough. Goodbye.
    Signed, Rex Parker, King of CrossWorld


    Columbus stopping point of 1493 / THU 2-27-14 / Some Coleridge colleagues / Epicurean explorer

    Thursday, February 27, 2014

    Constructor: Stanley Newman

    Relative difficulty: Easy-Medium

    THEME: Sign at a neighborhood bar: "DON'T TALK ABOUT / YOURSELF. WE / WILL DO THAT / AFTER YOU LEAVE" 

    Word of the Day: DIURNAL (11D: Active when the sun shines) —
    1. Relating to or occurring in a 24-hour period; daily.
    2. Occurring or active during the daytime rather than at night: diurnal animals.
    3. Botany. Opening during daylight hours and closing at night.
    1. A book containing all the offices for the daily canonical hours of prayer except matins.
    2. Archaic.
      1. A diary or journal.
      2. A daily newspaper.
    [Middle English, from Late Latin diurnālis, from Latin diurnus, from diēs, day.]

    Read more:
    • • •

    I am on record as being, let's say, not the biggest quote-puzzle fan. This quote is both strange and vaguely menacing, which I infinitely prefer to cutesy or punning, so I was not as put off as I might have been. Also, the grid is whisper quiet. 72 words (that's low for a themed puzzle) and not a rattle anywhere. This is what Stan is perhaps best known for, as editor of the Newsday crossword—search-and-destroying the short dreck that can clog up puzzles. I don't normally care what a constructor has to say about his/her own puzzle—while such "notes" have the potential to be interesting, they're usually either boring or self-serving, and at any rate have no relevance to my feelings about the quality of the puzzle. But I'm gonna quote from Stan's notes on this puzzle—not on this specific puzzle, actually, but on puzzle-editing in general—because I think his "fussiness" (as he puts it) is admirable.
    In the 1,000-plus crosswords I’ve constructed and the 5,000-plus I’ve edited (for the New York newspaper Newsday and since adopting Crossword Compiler in 2000, I’ve found that with careful grid patterning it’s never necessary to use obscurities, even for wide-open grids such as the 72-worder here. This sometimes requires that I check Google News and Google Books, to be sure that words I think are in common current use actually are. I look forward to the day where this fussiness will be standard procedure for constructors, so we can finally bid the OLEOs, OLIOs and ANILs of crosswordese an unfond farewell.
    I told Stan last week that I was solving one of his Newsday puzzles, Downs-only, with my wife in the diner last week, and found myself adjusting my guesses based on my knowledge that he was editor of the puzzle. Wife: "4 letters: [Amazing thing]" Me: "Oh crap, it's probably stupid ONER … oh wait, no. This was edited by Stan. Try LULU." And LULU it was. A similar thing happened when we were trying to parse an Across (w/o looking at clue) and had the pattern EV_L. Wife: "It's EVIL." Me: "Could be EVEL … no, wait, it's Stan. You're right; it's probably EVIL." And yes, it was EVIL. It's nice being able (mostly) to rule out the dreck.

    This grid isn't what I'd call sparkly, but for a 72-word themed puzzle, its smoothness is pretty damned impressive. Loved the clue on SODA POP (1D: Redundant-sounding refreshment), as well as the clue on AMA (8D: Org. offering group practice membership), which had me thinking NRA and imagining a bunch of people on the shooting range at once.  FOODIE is fresh and original and, again, I like the clue (61A: Epicurean explorer). Unexpected clue on RIP (59D: Cut in the direction of the grain). Modern clue on AMY (55A: Adams of "American Hustle"). Just a solid, professional effort overall.

    Puzzle news now: Matt Gaffney is now doing a regular metapuzzle contest for New York Magazine. See the first contest hereAnd, again, I'll be at the Finger Lakes Crossword Competition this Saturday (3/1) in Ithaca, NY, judging and mingling and talking and god knows what. Should be fun. Info on the competition, which is open to all skill levels, here.

    Now, for no reason, here is a picture of me and my dad from the early '80s. I have no idea where we are or why (in the world) I'm wearing shades.

      Signed, Rex Parker, King of CrossWorld


      Mob Wives star Big * / WED 2-26-14 / Compadre of Castro / Harry Belafonte genre / Hobby farm denizen / Mike Tyson facial feature / Sheer curtain fabric /

      Wednesday, February 26, 2014

      Constructor: Ruth B. Margolin

      Relative difficulty: Easy-Medium

      THEME: Sadist songs — -IST is added to familiar phrases, creating much wackiness

      Theme answers:
      • CUBIST REPORTERS (17A: Journalists covering abstract art?)
      • POMPOUS ASSISTS (26A: Help from a jerk?)
      • STARKIST NAKED (44A: Canned tuna without mayo?)
      • SLEEPER CELLISTS (58A: Narcoleptics with string instruments?)
      Word of the Day: VOILE (38A: Sheer curtain fabric) —
      A light, plain-weave, sheer fabric of cotton, rayon, silk, or wool used especially for making dresses and curtains.

      [French, from Old French veile, veil, from Latin vēla, neuter pl. of vēlum, covering.]

      Read more:
      • • •

      You know what might be interesting? An ADDICT puzzle. See, that would be your revealer, and then you add -ICT to familiar phrases to create wackiness. Adding -ICT would likely be *much* harder than adding -IST, but my point here is that at least with ADDICT there'd be some rationale for adding the letters you are adding. Adding random letter strings, with no clever reveal to justify it or bring it all together, just leaves me with a hollow feeling. This is a solid puzzle, as this theme-type goes. Theme answers are mildly amusing, and you've got a couple of sassy base phrases in "pompous ass" and "stark naked" that liven things up a bit. That center part—with five consecutive 5+-letter Downs running through two theme answers—is actually very hard to pull off with any kind of grace, and I thought the effort here came off nicely. Fill is not that interesting, but neither is it groan-worthy. So what we end up with is a very adequate grid with somewhat amusing theme answers and no real sense of purpose. Revealers give add-a-letter puzzles purpose. They bring them to life. This one needs one. It doesn't have one. That is pretty much the entirety of what there is to say about this puzzle.

      ASPIRE … that has interesting possibilities. [Reptilian anger?]. As you can see, I'm just looking around the grid now trying to think of anything to say. This Is How The Sausage Is Made, People. I thought the Bahamas city was NASHUA, which will be of interest to New Hampshirites, if no one else (15A: Bahamas cruise stop). Thought the [Winter topper] was a  SNOCAP. It felt … right-ish at the time. There's really too many Es Rs Ls Ss and Ts for me to care much about the rest of the grid, so I'll just let you go now.

      Reminder: Finger Lakes Crossword Competition is this Saturday in Ithaca, NY. Should be fun. I'll be there. Info here.

      Signed, Rex Parker, King of CrossWorld


      Bond girl Andress / TUE 2-25-14 / Tomato lettuce pickers org / Many Persian Gulf war correspondent / Madrid tidbit

      Tuesday, February 25, 2014

      Constructor: Matthew E. Paronto and Jeff Chen

      Relative difficulty: Easy

      THEME: CROSSWORDESE (55A: What this puzzle's capitalized clues are, both by definition and pun) — capitalized clues are all examples of CROSSWORDESE (common, overused crossword fill) that start with E (hence the pun, "crossword E's")

      Theme answers:
      • SEA BIRD (ERNE)
      Word of the Day: UFW (38A: Tomato and lettuce pickers' org.) —
      The United Farm Workers of America (UFWA) is a labor union created from the merging of two groups, theAgricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC) led by Filipino organizer Larry Itliong, and theNational Farm Workers Association (NFWA) led by César Chávez. This group was originally a workers' rights organization that helped workers get unemployment insurance but rapidly became a union offarmworkers. The shift occurred when the NFWA went out on strike in support of the mostly Filipino farmworkers of the AWOC in DelanoCalifornia who had previously initiated a grape strike on September 8, 1965. The NFWA and the AWOC, recognizing their common goals and methods, and realizing the strengths of coalition formation, jointly formed the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee on August 22, 1966.This organization was accepted into the AFL-CIO in 1972 and changed its name to the United Farmworkers Union. (wikipedia)
      • • •

      First, you shouldn't celebrate this stuff. Second, you shouldn't celebrate this stuff in a puzzle that contains this stuff, in abundance (OBOE, EXE, NIN, LAN, IBIS, AFRO, ONO, REE). I don't see the humor and I don't see the point. The "pun" doesn't do much to mitigate the pointlessness. I guess one might get a mild chuckle after figuring out what the pun is (i.e. "crossword E's). But it would have to pretty darned mild. Neither the clues nor the answers display any wit, any sparkle. I am all for repurposing crosswordese for crossword purposes, and I've seen it done well, but this? Why? Conventional clues for CROSSWORDESE are trite and dull, and so the theme answers are … just that. CLOWN AROUND is a nice answer (25D: Be a goof), but you can have the rest. Fun CLOWN fact: top NFL draft prospect JADEVEON CLOWNEY has 15 letters in his name—a perfect grid-spanning length.

      What else to say? Not much. Finished in just over 3, which is pretty fast for me. Not a lot of resistance here. I hesitated a bit at [Relatively near] because I expected a comparative adjective, i.e. something ending in -ER. I let NOT FAR into the grid entirely based on crosses. The clue on EMBED is fairly contemporary, and a highlight in this otherwise pretty bland offering. How do you give KIEV such a bland, fill-in-the-blank clue (14D: Chicken ___) when it's such a major political hotspot at the moment? I guarantee you the city is mentioned in the NYT. Today. Come on, man. My friend Matt just pointed out that the "Asian-American" in the LIN clue is unnecessary—you'll note there's no corresponding "African-American" for ISIAH Thomas. Speaking of BARN owls … which I am doing now … reader "Jen from CT" posted some crazy owl pictures to the FB page of The Great Backyard Bird Count yesterday. They were taken with an infrared, motion-activated camera. Here's a detail, which I'm considering making my new FB avatar.


      Signed, Rex Parker, King of CrossWorld


      Racer Yarborough / MON 2-24-14 / Actor MacLeod of old TV / Newswoman Logan / 1957 Everly Brothers hit with repeated lyric Hello loneliness / Maryland home of Walter Reed medical center

      Monday, February 24, 2014

      Constructor: Adam G. Perl

      Relative difficulty: Medium-Challenging (***For A Monday***)

      THEME: LOUISA MAY ALCOTT (39A: Author who created the characters named by the starts of 17-, 24-, 49- and 61-Across) — theme answers begin with names of the March girls

      Theme answers:
      • MEGABYTE
      • BETHESDA
      Word of the Day: CALE Yarborough (41D: Racer Yarborough) —
      William Caleb "Cale" Yarborough (born March 27, 1939), is a farmer, businessman and former NASCARWinston Cup Series driver and owner. He is one of only two drivers in NASCAR history to win three consecutive championships. He was the second (2nd) NASCAR driver to appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated […]
      His 83 wins places him at number six on the all-time NASCAR winner's list (behind Bobby Allison and Darrell Waltrip, who are tied for fourth with 84). His 14.82% winning percentage is the ninth best all-time and third among those with 500 or more starts. Yarborough won the Daytona 500 four times; his first win coming in 1968 for theWood Brothers, the second in 1977 for Junior Johnson, and back-to-back wins in 1983 and 1984. In 1984, he became the first driver to qualify for the Daytona 500 with a top speed of more than 200 miles per hour (320 km/h). Yarborough is a three time National Motorsports Press Association Driver of the Year (1977, 1978, 1979). (wikipedia)
      • • •

      The theme is interesting—I've seen the rough equivalent of this theme before, I think (and recently), but  I still generally like the way the girls' names are hidden inside other words at the beginning of the theme answers. The non-theme fill, however, was another story. It felt very stale, very phoned-in. Also, I can't tell you how badly NESTING SITE (?) tripped me up. Had NESTING- and then … nothing. Could not bring myself to accept SITE, as that did not seem like nearly a tight enough phrase to be a crossword answer. It's not a GREEN PAINT* answer (i.e. a totally arbitrary adj./noun pairing), but it just felt off. Also, while I like that there are four longer Downs, I don't like how much longer the Downs are than half the theme answers. Very strange to have four non-theme answers be longer than two of your theme answers. But the real problem here is the staleness of the fill. Ugh to CALE (never can remember if he's HALE or KALE or what, but since both of *those* are actual words, I should really commit the non-word CALE to memory right now), and OLIVA and ADELA (super ugh) and RAE. Then there's the randomest of Roman numerals, CMVI. And lots of crosswordese like ORONO and EZINE (super ugh). And more fill-in-the-blank clues than you can shake a stick at. Most cluing feels lifted from Cluing Compendium of Yore. So, yeah, the puzzle skews very old. And not old-interesting, but old-tired. Old-dull. Old-"please, not again." There's even "Old TV's" GAVIN MacLeod… see, there's just not *balance* here; bring on the old, the new, the whatever, just mix it up and (above all) show evidence of *care* and *trying*.

      Here's what trying looks like:


      Now it's not Great (I mean, it's still got ADE, so how could it be Great), and admittedly I *tried* for only about 30 seconds, but it's an undeniable improvement on the current NW, nonetheless. BAJA can stand alone, unlike DÉJA. ERE is crosswordese, but sure as hell beats INE. AZURE crushes EZINE. DUKE beats DIKE. I think BIDEN beats DIDIN, but even if you call that a draw (or a downgrade), the overall quality of my revision is better. And I am not a top-flight constructor, and I did not get paid to make this puzzle. So … buttons.

      Signed, Rex Parker, King of CrossWorld

      Morning update: I read the clues to my wife as she cooked last night and she (a woman who knows her birds fairly well) couldn't get NESTING SITE to save her life. Even with NESTING in place. It was pretty funny. "NESTING … LIMB?"


      1925 Percy Marmont film / SUN 2-23-14 / 1932 Clark Gable Jean Harlow film / Sitcom with 1974 wedding / Snow queen in Disney's Frozen / 1980s-90s series based on fictional firm mckenzie brackman chaney Kuzak / New Haven reuner

      Sunday, February 23, 2014

      Constructor: Victor Fleming

      Relative difficulty: Easy

      THEME: "Reel-life Anniversary" — tribute to constructor's namesake, director VICTOR FLEMING (119A: Director of the eight starred films in this puzzle, who was born on 2/23/1889). Grid has a bunch of his movies in it.

      Theme answers:
      • "RED DUST" (5D: *1932 Clark Gable/Jean Harlow film)
      • "THE WIZARD OF OZ" (24A: *1939 Judy Garland film)
      • "A GUY NAMED JOE" (54A: *1943 Spencer Tracy/Irene Dunne film)
      • "BOMBSHELL" (37A: *1933 Jean Harlow film)
      • "GONE WITH THE WIND" (68A: *1939 Vivien Leigh/Clark Gable film)
      • "TORTILLA FLAT" (89A: *1942 Spencer Tracy/Hedy Lamarr film)
      • "JOAN OF ARC" (103A: *1948 Ingrid Bergman film)
      • "LORD JIM" (98D: *1925 Percy Marmont film)
      Word of the Day: PETREL (8D: Migratory seabird)
      Any of numerous black, gray, or white sea birds of the order Procellariiformes.

      [Perhaps alteration of earlier pitteral (perhaps influenced by Saint PETER walking on the water, from the fact that the bird flies so close to the water as to appear to be walking on it).]

      Read more:
      • • •

      I have a hard time imagining this being accepted if the constructor weren't a longtime NYT crossword writer. No way a newbie gets a puzzle like this published ("Hi, my name's Milos Forman, and I want to write a puzzle about the director of the same name, with his name and a bunch of his movies in it, in honor of his upcoming 83rd birthday … hello? Hello?"). It's just too straightforward, too arbitrary. The only charm it has is the winky constructor credit ("A Namesake of 119-Across"). Otherwise, it's just a guy born 125 years ago (that's a thing we're commemorating now?), and a bunch of films he directed, and The End. No gimmick. No twist. No nothing. "Here are some movie titles … that's all." I don't get it. The one thing I am grateful to this puzzle for is teaching me who the hell this guy is. So weird that I've never even heard of the director of two of the most famous movies ever made, but there you go—I couldn't have named the director of "GONE WITH THE WIND" *or* "THE WIZARD OF OZ" before today. So, for the trivia, I am thankful. For the puzzle, much, much less so. To the constructor's credit, he at least seems aware that the whole endeavor is pretty SOLIPSISTic (60A: Self-absorbed sort).

      The puzzle is by no means bad. It's incredibly adequate. I didn't wince much, if at all, that I can remember. So the fill is solid—maybe even better than average for the NYT. I did not know that a swashbuckler "strutted" (65D: Swashbuckles, say => STRUTS). That is interesting. I thought the only mandatory criterion was swordsmanship, but apparently there is a fancy, confident walk that goes with it. Awesome. Nice contemporary clue on ELSA, which is a sentence I don't think I've ever written (102A: Snow queen in Disney's "Frozen"). Thought clue on STUDENT ID was very clever (83D: Means of access to a cafeteria, maybe). STUDENT ID is much better than my initial answer: STUDY HALL (?). Really wish POP OUT had gotten a baseball clue. Other than that, I have no real strong feelings or remarkable things to say about the fill in this grid. It's fine.

      Puzzle of the Week this week was pretty tough. I was all set to give it to last Sunday's Washington Post Puzzler, a lovely themeless by Trip Payne (2/16). But then Patrick Berry's Friday NYT themeless (2/21) came along and suddenly made this decision really hard. OMG, I haven't even done today's Newsday Stumper (2/22), and it's a Doug Peterson! Hang on … oh, man, that's good too. But looking at them all alongside one another, I just can't deny the Berry. Too smooth, too strong.

      Reminder for upstate NY'ers / Northern PA'ers: This Saturday, Mar. 1, is the Finger Lakes Crossword Competition in Ithaca, NY (to benefit the literacy programs of Tompkins Learning Partners). Enter as an individual or bring a team of 4 (!). Registration form here. I'll be there in some semi-official capacity.  Registration info here.

      Good day.
        Signed, Rex Parker, King of CrossWorld


        Game stew / SAT 2-22-14 / First drink ever ordered by James Bond / Punk rocker Armstrong with 2012 Grammy / High line in Middle East / Composer of opera Rusalka / Obama's favorite character on Wire

        Saturday, February 22, 2014

        Constructor: Evan Birnholz

        Relative difficulty: Easy

        THEME: none

        Word of the Day: SALMI (53D: Game stew) —
        A highly spiced dish consisting of roasted game birds minced and stewed in wine.

        [French salmis, short for salmigondis, salmagundi. See salmagundi.]

        Read more:
        • • •

        Simple and enjoyable. No bleeping clue what a SALMI is, but everything else was fairly well within my ken. This is a very clean 72-worder, and has many lovely longer answers—four banks of 9-stacks and then two 10s across the middle, all of them solid. All of them. Nice work. The real trick is to make sure the short crosses on your longer stacks aren't dreck, and  here (with the exception of the slightly wobbly AREAR / SALMI section in the SE), the crosses hold up pretty well. The only issue I had today was the easiness. Clues didn't seem to have any teeth, and I was genuinely surprised at how easy many of the answers were to get without any crosses. Take 1D—where I started: [Vaulted areas]. In five letters, my first thought, and any constant solver's first thought, is going to be APSES. Just did a clue search of "vaulted" at the database, and (unsurprisingly, to me) a huge percentage  (21 of 26, to be precise) of those clues were for APSE/S (21/22 where "vaulted" was used adjectivally). Certain clue words just trigger certain answers because of how commonly they're used, and the "vaulted"-APSE/S connection is a strong one. This same clue word trigger happened at 19A: Coastal fish consumers (ERNS). "Coastal" = ERN/S. [Coastal raptors] is the clue I would write for ERNS if I had just two seconds to write one, i.e. it's the hackneyed clue. So 19A was transparent. SEE TO and CRANE followed very quickly and that whole NW corner just didn't last that long.

        Because I moved fairly quickly today, there weren't that many notable struggles. My favorite mistake was PEA at 46A: Split second? My reasoning was that peas are "split," of course, and … well, my brain somehow decided "second" could refer to a course at a meal. Like, maybe you have salad (first) and then (split PEA) soup, second? Anyway, it worked great until the field goal clue came up. -IDAR- (at 37D: Like some missed field goals) made no sense, and once I got to WIDAR- I knew the "A" was wrong. It had to be WIDE RIGHT. But ... "PEE!?! How is that even … oh, it's the second letter in the word 'split'. Ah. Cleeeever." Thought it was "Good LAWD A'mighty!" (which still seems reasonable) at first. Had ABAFT for AREAR (52D: In the back). Had RESOD until the very end at 48D: Plant in subsequent seasons (RESOW). Only a final grid scan revealed the mistake—I had no memory of seeing DRED Scott in the puzzle … and that's because I hadn't. The clue was 66A: Tied and the answer was DREW.

        Today's constructor, Mr. Birnholz, asked me just yesterday to test-solve his latest independent puzzle—a metapuzzle contest—now up at his puzzle website, "Devil Cross." I see now that it was probably a ploy to get me to plug said puzzle today, when he knew I'd be talking about his work. So I toyed with the idea of thwarting him and not mentioning his metapuzzle at all. But then that seemed petty. Plus, his puzzle is very, very clever. So you should probably do it.

        See you tomorrow.
          Signed, Rex Parker, King of CrossWorld


          Spiral-shaped particle accelerators / FRI 2-21-14 / Queen's Chapel designer Jones / 1998 purchaser of Netscape / 18th-century Hapsburg monarch Maria

          Friday, February 21, 2014

          Constructor: Patrick Berry

          Relative difficulty: Easy-Medium

          THEME: none

          Word of the Day: Maria THERESA (13D: 18th-century Hapsburg monarch Maria ___) —
          Maria Theresa Walburga Amalia Christina (GermanMaria Theresia; 13 May 1717 – 29 November 1780) was the only female ruler of the Habsburg dominions and the last of the House of Habsburg. She was the sovereign of Austria,HungaryCroatiaBohemiaMantuaMilanLodomeria and Galicia, the Austrian Netherlands and Parma. By marriage, she was Duchess of LorraineGrand Duchess of Tuscany and Holy Roman EmpressShe started her 40-year reign when her father, Emperor Charles VI, died in October 1740. Charles VI paved the way for her accession with the Pragmatic Sanction of 1713 and spent his entire reign securing it. Upon the death of her father,Saxony, Prussia, Bavaria, and France all repudiated the sanction they had recognised during his lifetime. Prussia proceeded to invade the affluent Habsburg province of Silesia, sparking a nine-year conflict known as the War of the Austrian Succession. Maria Theresa would later unsuccessfully try to reconquer Silesia during the Seven Years' War.
          Maria Theresa and her husband, Francis I, Holy Roman Emperor, had sixteen children, including Queen Marie Antoinette of France, Queen Maria Carolina of Naples, Duchess Maria Amalia of Parma and two Holy Roman Emperors,Joseph II and Leopold II. (wikipedia)
          • • •

          I think there are three "bad" answers in this puzzle. Three: PENH, HE'D, and, let's say, DEARTHS, which seems weird in the plural. Nah, I can't even ding that one, really. So, two. Two "bad" answers. There are also quite a few plurals (or otherwise S-ending words), so maybe that's a fault? I am trying hard to find this puzzle's weaknesses, and it's really, really hard. The difference between the average Patrick Berry puzzle and the average (non-Berry) NYT puzzle is astronomical. For a variety of reasons (which I'll get into another time), there has been a talent drain from the NYT submission pool over the past few years. A lot of great constructors are going the independent route, or they work almost exclusively for another outfit, or they're submitting their best work to Fireball (which is better edited and pays more). So it's delightful to see a puzzle like this in the NYT—pure, glorious, professional work. Nobody handles great expanses of white space more smoothly than Berry. The clues show a good deal of thought, care, and humor. They bounce. They feel like they were written just for this puzzle (as opposed to being pulled out of some musty clue hoard). I dearly wish we saw this caliber of work more often.

          The triple slant-stack through the middle is wonderful. GO BIG OR GO HOME is a great central answer that reads like a boast, or a challenge—"Come on, constructors. Try to top this." One of the main reasons I love Berry's puzzles is that I feel rewarded for pushing through difficulty. Today's puzzle wa not especially hard, but I found myself floundering a bit in the NE, north of OBSCURA. The main issue was [Stamp act?]. I had got it down to CLOG- but that's it. That seemed like an impossible opening letter sequence for an answer that long, so I started second-guessing some of those crosses, but they were all air tight. The I put the "D" in from DIE and got CLOGD- and after about 1 second of "That can't be right" the dime dropped: CLOG DANCE! Such a great clue for that answer. When I struggle and the answers come up crap, I get cranky. When I struggle and they come up gold, I'm amazed, and grateful.

          Hardest part for me was getting off the ground, as I totally second-guessed the OED- start to 20A: Like some unhealthy relationships (OEDIPAL). Wrote in TRIOS and RENEE and liked all the results except OE-. Then ABIDE gave me OED- and I thought "nope, something's wrong." But everything checked out, so I plowed forward, and … oh, I remember the main problem: I had written in an "S" at the end of 4D: Holiday travelers?, giving me OEDS- (clearly impossible). Eventually got MAGS for the "travelers" and thought, and thought, and thought about how that could be correct. And then MAGI popped into my head. Toughness through clever cluing = my favorite kind of toughness.

          Thanks, Patrick Berry. I do have one large complaint, though, and that's that your Crossword Puzzle Challenges for Dummies book is out of print. I doubt a better "For Dummies" book has ever been written, and without its being readily available, I have no go-to recommendation for "books about constructing." So my questions is "what the hell?" I'll take my answer off air.

          Signed, Rex Parker, King of CrossWorld


          Gossipy Barrett / THU 2-20-14 / Big mailer to over-50 crowd / Flooey lead-in / Golf Channel co-founder to fans / Polish-born musician who was awarded Presidential Medal of Freedom

          Thursday, February 20, 2014

          Constructor: Zhouqin Burnikel and Don Gagliardo

          Relative difficulty: Easy

          THEME: WOODROW (37A: First nam of a former president … or, read another way, what each of the circled lines is) — four "circled lines," each of which contains three words that can follow "Wood" in a common phrase/word:
          • CHIP STOCK PILE
          • CARVER WORK BIN
          • MAN WIND CUTTER
          • LAND CRAFT SHED

          Word of the Day: Arthur RUBINSTEIN (28D: Polish-born musician who was awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom) —
          Arthur RubinsteinKBE (January 28, 1887 – December 20, 1982) was a Polish-American classical pianist. He received international acclaim for his performances of the music written by a variety of composers and many regard him as the greatest Chopin interpreter of his time. He was described by The New York Times as one of the greatest pianists of the twentieth century. He played in public for eight decades. (wikipedia)
          • • •

          This makes for an interesting visual gimmick, but not for an interesting solve. None of the theme answers are interesting. They're just plain words. So the grid has nothing going for it, from a solving perspective. Once you get WOODROW, then you know that the circled words follow "Wood," and then the end. "I DON'T BUY IT!" is a fine phrase—and the latter half of it was one of the few areas where I had to work to get the answer—but the grid is pretty dull otherwise.

          Not much else to say. Blew through this in under 5. Main issue was remembering who the hell RUBINSTEIN was. The fact of someone's winning a Presidential Medal of Freedom is largely meaningless, from a solver's standpoint. It's not as if people keep track of such winners. It's a damn long list. Do you know who Russell Train was? Me either. He won one. Not diminishing him—seems like he did really important work. Just saying that winning this medal is not a significant datum from a solving perspective. [D.C.-born dancer who was awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom] = CHITA RIVERA. See what I mean. Anyway, I completely forgot there was such a person as RUBINSTEIN, and so with RUBIN in place, I tried to stick RUBÉN BLADES in there. Yes, that really happened. Yes, BLADES is from Panama, his name's spelled RUBÉN (not RUBIN), *and* his name doesn't fit in the grid. And yet...

          The end.

          Signed, Rex Parker, King of CrossWorld


          Singer Hendryx / WED 2-19-14 / Vermont winter destination / Archipelago constituent / Hungry hungry game creatures / Object of ancient Egyptian veneration

          Wednesday, February 19, 2014

          Constructor: Michael Dewey

          Relative difficulty: Medium

          THEME: Drill sergeant commands, reclued — things a drill sergeant might give, with an added three-part "response to a military command" (SIR / YES / SIR)

          • FORWARD MARCH (20A: Overly bold member of the "Little Women" family?)
          • COMPANY HALT (29A: Result of bankruptcy?)
          • PRESENT ARMS (44A: What blood donors do?)
          • READY, AIM, FIRE (51A: Motivational words for a boss at layoff time?) — not sure what AIM is doing here. Is that the boss's name? "Ready, Aim? FIRE!"

          Word of the Day: Hungry Hungry HIPPOS (34A: "Hungry hungry" game creatures) —
          Hungry Hungry Hippos is a tabletop game made for young children, produced by Hasbro, under the brand of its subsidiary, Milton Bradley. The idea for the game was published in 1967 by toy inventor Fred Kroll and it was introduced in 1978. The purpose of the game is for each player to collect as many marbles as possible with his or her 'hippo' (a toy hippo model). The game is marketed under the "Elefun and Friends" banner, along with Elefun and Gator Golf. (wikipedia)

          • • •

          This seems competently made, though I found it quite boring. I like the idea of recluing the themers as "?" clues (cute), and the "SIR,  / YES / SIR!" bonus was a nice touch, but there's nothing terribly interesting about the theme answers themselves (kind of monotonous) and there is nothing interesting about the puzzle outside the theme (except maybe DIPHTHONG, a great word). Lots of dull fill—stuff most people aren't really going to notice because they've come to accept it as normal. In today's NYT, dull fill is the stuff you tolerate in order to enjoy the juicy thematic center. What's another OMOO, OTOE, ERE, TEHEE, ESME, etc.? We're largely inured to this parade of crosswordese. So there's really nothing out-of-the-ordinary about the fill here. It's right where the NYT's standards are. Would've been great if you could've avoided NONA, which is highly avoidable proper noun crosswordese, and DIAG., which is just ugly, but honestly there's nothing egregious here.

          Yes, SIR gets repeated, but that's part of the theme phrase, so it can hardly be considered a fault/flaw. I always have trouble spelling SAGET, in that I can't decide on the final vowel: A or E. SAGAT always looks very right, but that may just the influence of ZAGAT talking. Didn't have much trouble otherwise, except in the N., where I didn't register the capital "Y" on "Yodels" in 14A: Relatives of Yodels (HO-HOS) and so kept trying to think of other kinds of alpine wails (unsuccessfully).

          See you tomorrow.
            Signed, Rex Parker, King of CrossWorld


            2002 Denzel Washington drama / TUE 2-18-14 / Yiddish author Aleichem / Rule ending in 1947 / James Patterson sleuth Cross / Composer Novello /

            Tuesday, February 18, 2014

            Constructor: David Steinberg

            Relative difficulty: Medium-Challenging

            THEME: ATOZ — Puzzle note: "The answers to the 13 starred clues follow an unusual two-way progression from 1- to 73-Across. Can you figure out what it is?"

            Answer: first letters of the answers to the starred clues progress in alphabetical order going out (first half of the alphabet), last letters of the answers progress in alphabetical order heading back (second half of the alphabet. That is, first letters are A-M (ATOZ to MEAN), last letters (headed backwards) are N-Z (MEAN to ATOZ).

            Theme answers:
            • ATOZ
            • BBOY
            • CHATTERBOX
            • DONOW
            • EXGOV
            • FONDU
            • HIKES
            • ICIER
            • JOHNQ
            • KARATECHOP
            • LENO
            • MEAN
            Word of the Day: "JOHN Q" (60A: *2002 Denzel Washington drama) —
            John Q is a 2002 American drama film directed by Nick Cassavetes. The film follows John Quincy Archibald (Denzel Washington), a father and husband whose son is diagnosed with an enlarged heart and then finds out he cannot receive a transplant because HMO insurance will not cover it; therefore, he decides to take a hospital full of patients hostage until the hospital puts his son's name on the recipient's list.
            The film also stars Robert DuvallAnne HecheJames WoodsRay Liotta and Eddie Griffin, among others. The film was shot in TorontoHamilton, Ontario, and Canmore, Alberta, although the story takes place in Chicago.
            • • •

            My problem with stunt puzzles isn't that they are stunt puzzles, per se. It's ouch ouch ouch ouch ouch ouch. This one was almost physically painful to solve, so bad was the fill. I could see that some kind of alphabetic progression was happening, but all I could think was "what in the World is making the fill be this bad? Like, comically, over-the-top bad." Then I finished, and looked, and had my answer. This must've been very difficult to pull off. Starts with E ends in V? Good luck. Starts with J and ends in Q? Ha ha ha ha, OK! And yet somehow not only did the constructor find answer to fit the pattern, he got them to fit into the grid symmetrically. EXGOV is a stretch (31A: *Sarah Palin or Arnold Schwarzenegger, informally), but I'll give him that one. So conceptually, the theme is impressive. And if "execution" pertained simply to finding and arranging theme answers, then he nailed that as well. But as I've said, the fill was horrendous. Half the grid at least is suboptimal to laughable, esp. for a Tuesday puzzle. ONERS QUIN NISI ENORM — that's just the tip. Don't you want people to enjoy the solve *and* admire the stunt? I just don't understand (clearly).

            I just googled "FONDU"—"Did you mean 'fondue'?" Well, yes, before solving this puzzle, that is what I would've meant, but I don't know any more. "The Mysterious Mr. QUIN" is … what??? A short story collection, it seems; I don't think this is widely known outside Christie-fan circles. That cross with "JOHN Q" would be utterly laughable—pure Natick—if the theme didn't (in some fashion) give it away. I like XDIN but only if I imagine it as Bizarro ODIN. I will say that GARMENT DISTRICT, CHATTERBOX and KARATE CHOP are all lovely, and GOES SOFT and ZYGOTE go a long way toward salving the wound caused by NOBETAMANGENL etc. There is no question that this is an impressive construction—when looked at after the fact. But it was largely an unpleasant solving experience. Fill standards should never be set to Bare Minimum, no matter how strong the thematic justification.
              Signed, Rex Parker, King of CrossWorld


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