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6 puzzles by Jeff Stillman
with Jeff Chen comments

Jeff Stillman
Tue 6/18/2019

Jeff Stillman drops the (MC) hammer today, adding MC to regular phrases to produce celeb-related kookiness. I lost the "guess the early-week theme" game today when I confidently entered BEING SPOCK for [Autobiography of a "Star Trek" doctor].

There's so many things wrong with that. Someone rip up my nerd card.

I often stay away from constructing "kooky result" themes, because Will and I have vastly different opinions on what's fun / funny. None of these felt particularly entertaining. They work, but this is not a theme I'm going to highlight to my gym friends.

(Oddly, most all of my climber friends do crosswords. I wonder if there's some curious climbing/crosswords link, like the well-established math/music connection.)

It's a shame that DANCING MCQUEEN got left on the cutting-room floor. Made me smile to think about ultra-macho Steve McQueen going on "Dancing with the Stars."

Personal reaction aside, kudos to Jeff for picking solid base phrases and doing the transformations consistently — all two-word phrases, and MC added to the start of the second word each time.

What stood out most was the long fill. The usual long down spots were already great, B VITAMINS / TAPAS BAR and CLIP CLOP / PIPE DREAM lovely. But then there were so many mid-length bonuses woven in. MARIAH. SUMATRA. SENECA. IM A MESS. Even HAYDEN — if you didn't know it (like me), it's not something you see every day. In a good way.

Heck, even some of the short stuff stood out in a good way, like YUCCA, AKITA, DONUT.

All in all, such careful consideration of each and every long or mid-length slot. Color me impressed with Jeff's worksmanship.

Tue 5/22/2018

Definitely check out the link Jim listed in his comment (below). That STAR rebus puzzle is stuck in my head, one of the cleverest of Sundays that got me hooked into the NY Times crossword.

I liked seeing the concept again, although the impact was lessened for me since I remember that STAR rebus puzzle so vividly. The perils of having a long memory! I bet most solvers won't have seen it, and will thus have a much bigger a-ha moment.

The BIG DIPPER is part of URSA MAJOR, the GREAT BEAR? Wha ... ? Huh. Apparently, it is! How is it that I never knew this? (Probably because I spent most of my childhood watching "Gilligan's Island." Fun fact, Mr. Howell's teddy bear was named Teddy.)

Jeff packs in a ton of thematic material, the NORTH STAR rounding things out. Now that one felt much more solid than URSA MAJOR. Yes, the BIG DIPPER seems to be a part of the GREAT BEAR, but that's more an incidental curiosity. I learned to find the NORTH STAR using the BIG DIPPER as a guide, linking them forever in my head.

I think I would have been happier with just BIG DIPPER and NORTH STAR, plus the visual. That would have also allowed for smoother fill, along with a more accurate representation of the BIG DIPPER. It looks kind of … skewed. Like it got shoved into a 15x15 box.

It may not seem so difficult to drop in seven extra letters to form the visual, but it's actually a (great) bear. So much flexibility taken away from that middle section, when you have to work around fixed letters! And if you shift a letter even one square, the visual starts to look all wonky. Not a surprise to get a bunch of odd entries in RONDEL, ORBIS, SERE, and a potentially lethal crossing in ESO BESO / ARABY. Oof.

A good concept even the second time around, and I understand the desire to toss in URSA MAJOR / GREAT BEAR to help bulk out the theme. It's a tough call — without them, some solvers might have considered the puzzle thin.

Wed 4/27/2016

Nice finds, five female authors who used male pen names. I knew ROBERT GALBRAITH (fantastic new series by Jo Rowling, AKA J.K. Rowling), ISAK DINESEN (since ISAK is such a crossword-friendly name), and GEORGE ELIOT ("Silas Marner" is a must-know!). ELLIS BELL was mystifying, but what a neat piece of trivia — I had no idea Emily Bronte wrote under a pen name!

Would you look at that — ELLIS BELL!

ANDY STACK was also mystifying. Even Google hitched, trying to tell me all about Andy Stack, the musician, much to my chagrin. Finally, I figured out that Ann Rule, the actual writer behind the True Detective stories, sounded familiar (although I later realized I was thinking about Anne Rice).

I can totally see publishers forcing women to take a male pen name, especially for certain genres. But it works the other way too. A friend of mine, Jason Nelson, landed a great four-book deal, but with a stipulation: he had to publish under the name J.C. Nelson. Apparently they've learned over the years that this type of fiction is much more likely to be bought by their heavily female-weighed audience if the author is also female (or at least isn't recognizably male). He had no hesitation about doing so, given that the publishing industry is incredibly challenging.

I wondered if I would do the same, assuming I ever get a book deal. (I've found that landing an agent was roughly five times as hard as getting a crossword published in the NYT, and landing a book deal has been much, much harder.) Wouldn't it feel odd, to pitch yourself as something you're not? And what would you do about book signings? Talk about the awkward stares.

Ultimately though, without a major publishing house throwing its marketing weight behind you, it can be nearly impossible to make it as an author. Sure, there are many anecdotes about self-published authors catching fire, but if Penguin Books came to me and offered me a book deal complete with sponsored tour, on the condition I had to wear a Lady Gaga wig? Heck, I'd put on a meat dress.

I enjoy a crossword puzzle that makes you think.

POW Tue 12/29/2015

★ I was so amused by this puzzle. Something so fun and chuckle-worthy about telling an airline to KEEP IT UP! Same goes for telling a charcoal salesman YOU'RE ON FIRE! Sure, some might be a little tortured to fit its "compliment receiver," but I loved the kookiness. Plus, I felt really good after solving this crossword. There's something to be said about a puzzle's positive theme imparting an uplifting feeling.

That doesn't look dangerous at all ...

I admit I hitched upon the first themer, wondering what fruit had anything to do with NOT BAD AT ALL (nothing). Thankfully, each subsequent themer worked great for me, and by the end of the puzzle, I knew this was POW! material.

Some of the themers are short (just seven letters), but packing six themers in is tough. Jeff did a really nice job of alternating his themers side to side and spacing them out, so he could lay out a skeleton that used a good amount of snazzy fill. TRAMPOLINE and BARREL ROLL would be sufficient, but working in LAMBADA / SPLASHY / OCTOPI / LOW RES made for even more of a bonus.

I also liked how Jeff introduced KWAME and CAM'RON to the Shortz era. Both names were mysteries to me, but I was still able to solve the puzzle since Jeff made all the crossings easy, setting me up for a win. That left me happy to go look these two up. I like old-school rap, so it was neat to read up on CAM'RON, who got a leg up with a nod from the Notorious B.I.G. himself.

I imagine some daily solvers will grouse about having to learn yet another rapper, but with super-fair crossings and interesting stories to be learned, I have no sympathy for the kvetchers.

The themers were a bit loose — seems like you could do this type of theme with dozens of compliments and their "recipients" — but I loved the kookiness as well as the STELLAR execution. It's one of my great pleasures to compliment people when they excel, so it makes me smile to give Jeff this POW! Super job (he said to the building fix-it person).

POW Wed 3/4/2015

★ By nature, crosswords targeting a particular subject area will delight a portion of solvers while leaving others shrugging their shoulders. Count me in the former category — BOND, SOLO, ROCKY, and AXEL (Foley) were huge parts of my childhood. Total delight.

The NYSE trading floor, back in the day

I especially liked the wordplay on BOND TRADERS, as it describes so perfectly the switching of Connery to Lazenby to Connery for the lead role. Plus, BOND TRADERS! I know there are very few actual traders on the floor of a stock/bond market flashing specialized hand signals, but the phrase still evokes a colorful image in my mind.

ROCKY START also gave me a smile, as plenty of people complain about the way Rocky I starts the series. My wife and I recently sat down to watch Rocky I (her first time, my nth), and her reaction at the end was (SPOLIER ALERT!):

"What the bleep?! Rocky doesn't win?" Or something to that effect.

TRIPLE AXEL was also apt, since there were three "Beverly Hills Cop" movies. It felt a little odd though, since people refer to BOND, SOLO, and ROCKY by those singular names, and AXEL isn't quite to that level.

Saving the best for last, Han SOLO. My childhood hero, a stereotype-breaking space cowboy, an olio of human greed, moxie, and honor that surprised even him. (FLYING SOLO would have made this perhaps my favorite puzzle in a while. Sigh, a man-boy can dream.)

As if that weren't enough, it's a rare puzzle where the fill catches my eye. CETOLOGY is such a cool, odd word that I wanted to study it (both whales and the word itself). It's usually hard to wow me with single-word entries, but getting DACTYLS, CHIANTI, LARIAT, SUBTITLE along with DEEP END and AL DENTE was a barrage of goodness.

Like some (many? most?) of my choices, not all will agree that this one was the NYT Puzzle of the Week. For those that disagree with my choice, I answer: 1.) there are indeed at least two other puzzles this week I seriously considered and 2.) hokey religions and and ancient weapons are no match for a good blaster at your side, kid.

Tue 1/28/2014

Debut! Nice phonetic sound change theme; I typically enjoy these more than the straightforward "add-a-letter" puzzles. Three of the themers I'm fully agreed with Will on, TWIST TAE-BO in particular gave me a chuckle. This type of theme can be awfully tricky because everyone's sense of humor is so different, so three out of four is pretty good.

STRUCK DUMBO was the only one which was a straight add-a-letter entry, so I didn't like it as much from that perspective. Plus, it seemed just kind of mean. Why not PLAYED DUMBO (Bilked a Disney elephant?) instead? I'm making myself laugh, thinking about Dumbo getting all red in the face as he selects the wrong shell every time with his trunk. This one? Are you sure? Nope! *trumpet in con man's face* Hilarious. Hilarious, I tell you!

*crickets chirping*

Ahem. Anyway, the "pinwheel" arrangement of themers often makes it difficult to incorporate good long fill, because your long fill can't be longer than the themers (otherwise solvers get mixed up as to what is theme and what is not). And especially for a debut, what a nice job Jeff does. Using eights and sevens to his advantage, PARAKEET with its fun clue, SPLIT UP, SCROLLS, INFRARED, and UNEARTH all add zing.

As for the shorter stuff, Jeff stuck with a 78-worder, the easiest of grids to fill. Not ambitious, but I'd take a clean debut than an overstretched one any day. And he obviously took care in his filling process, URGER and BAP being the only ones I questioned — pretty darn good. It's possible that some people will find BAP a super-common abbreviation, but yikes, it seems awfully fishy to me. And I bet URGER won't be heard outside the crossword world ... ever. Except for the inevitable emails I'll receive working that word in (sigh). Go ahead, you know you want to.

Anyway, very nice debut with just a few entries I didn't care for.

ADDED NOTE: Jon Markman, a trusty xwordinfo reader, suggested PUT A BOW ON IT as a revealer. Clever idea!