Me: These days, I usually experience anxiety before starting an NYT Sunday puzzle, because it too often feels like a slog. I enjoyed this one.
Jim Horne: I did, too. Straight over the plate theme, but the solve felt fun and entertaining the entire way through.
Me: Did you feel like the theme wasn't tight enough?
(Jim's head: Always looking for nits to pick, eh Jeff? Can't you just enjoy?)
Jim: It worked for me.
Me: But some of the examples were so loosely tied together. "Single quote" and "Just saying," for example. The former is a copyediting/punctuation term, and the latter is something people say.
(Jim's head: Who thinks like this? What's the point of such overanalysis? Who's going to care, as long as it's fun?)
Jim: (looking at fingernails during awkward Skype silence)
Me: I'm not sure how to even explain the concept. What's a concise way of telling readers what the theme is all about?
(Jim's head: It's obvious! It's … all related to talking. No, that's not quite it. All the theme clues are playing off commonly said expressions. Well, no, Jeff does have a point about "single quote," I suppose he is even more brilliant than he thinks he is, which is already quite a stratospheric level. No, wait! I think I have it! It's "every final word of the theme clues are synonyms for "something you say." Although, a "sentence" is more written than spoken. So that doesn't quite work. Huh.)
Jim: Ah, Jeff. It's one of those things that if you have to ask …
(Jeff's head: Think of something brilliant to say, dummy!)
Jeff: … … …
Jeff: … so … STILETTOED isn't part of the theme, then?
It's not a groundbreaking theme, but not every Sunday should be. Once Jim Horne's head finally figured out how the theme (mostly) worked, it felt a lot stronger. And Jim Peredo's gridwork was better than average for a Sunday NYT. A few good bonuses like BODY ODOR as a [Secret target] and EL DORADO as the Poe poem, and not many dabs of glue.
Straight over the plate is a good thing for many solvers.
Memorial puzzle! It made me grumpy when GRUMPY CAT passed away recently. Or wait, is today Garfield's birthday? I hate Mondays! What, it's Tuesday, you say? The only thing I hate more than Mondays are Tuesdays!
Why is catty crankiness so amusing? Sometimes the only thing that puts a smile on Catwad's face is making other people miserable, so I bet he smiled — a little — at today's theme. I know I did. Ah, schadenfreude.
At first, the loose-seeming collection of animal book / movie titles made me grouchy. Ah! (Animal) + (synonym for irritable) = a tight theme, indeed. ANGRY BIRDS was a huge hit, and if you haven't heard of it, it's two words that you can infer from the clue. Same with GRUMPY CAT, although who wouldn't love a mug like his?
The GROUCHY / LADYBUG gave me a long pause, though. I've checked out about 2,000 kids' books from our library, and this one didn't ring a bell. "The Very Hungry Caterpillar," yes. "Brown Bear," absolutely. Maybe "The Grouchy Ladybug" is to Eric Carle as "The Twits" is to Roald Dahl. Not every book by a superstar writer is going to stand the test of time. That said, it does work in the interest of a solid theme, so I'm okay with it.
One aspect of the puzzle that made me the opposite of grumpy was Jim Peredo's gridwork. Four excellent big corners, chock full of CABARET / OVULATE / DEMIGOD and AT ANY RATE / SIBERIA / TOUCANS? With just a bit of ERG and TEDS to hold it all together? Favorable trade-off, to say the least!
Although, the CARR / MANRAY borders on unfair for newbs. Especially given the unfamiliarity of GROUCHY / LADYBUG, I'd have asked for a revision there, looking for something less flashy but more oriented toward allowing a victorious solve.
Jim lives about an hour away from me, and with some crossword people coming into town this past weekend, it would have been perfect to get together. Two sick kids + a sick wife + a sick and exhausted Jeff = having to pass, which made me cantankerous. Nice to have a puzzle like today's to take away a little of the cat scratch fever.
I have a feeling some solvers will miss the trick here, so I highlighted the 16 critical letter pairs below. Think about it …
Okay, if you've never seen the old BATMAN TV show, it might not make sense. But as a lover of all things Batman (maybe the campy Adam West stuff a tiny bit less), that opening song from West's old TV show brings me back. Singing NA-NA-NA-NA / NA-NA-NA-NA / NA-NA-NA-NA / NA-NA-NA-NA / BATMAN! is awfully fun.
Along with the bonus BANG, BAM, POW, WHAM — visuals often popping up in the old show — there is so much entertainment packed into the grid.
With such high theme density, Jim does a great job with his grid. It says something that I didn't even notice all the NAs until I got to the revealer. Well, it did seem suspicious that NITA Naldi made an appearance in what looked to be an unconstrained section, and IONA / ANEG seemed indicative of something — Jim wouldn't normally let these kinds by in flexible sections, given his strong gridding skills. And A BEAR near I MIND … okay, maybe I did know something was going on by that point. But packing in 16 NAs along with the four long themers with pretty darn good smoothness = excellent work.
There was so much about this that I really wanted to give it the POW! (how appropriate, given POWerNAp!) But 1.) there was something jarring about the random rhythm of the NAs spread through the grid — even though I know it would be near impossible from a construction standpoint, l would have loved a more regular spacing — and 2.) there's another puzzle I just adored coming up this week.
GOD / BLESS / US / EVERY / ONE = the last words of A CHRISTMAS CAROL = an excellent way to put solvers into the holiday spirit. Very fun to get the bonus of TINY TIM, the speaker of the quote … as a (TIM) rebus! That's a ton of theme material.
I enjoyed finding those five hidden words. BLESS inside NO(BLESS)E is a good one — tough to hide that letter pattern. EVERY in TH(E VERY) IDEA too. PUSSY GALORE was hilarious to me as a kid, and I do still find it somewhat funny. But it felt somewhat out of place in such a Christmas-y puzzle.
I normally am not a big fan of circled letters / shaded letters puzzles unless the hidden words aren't obvious. Here, uncovering GOD BLESS US made it pretty clear what the last two words would be. Also, given that these are the last words of A CHRISTMAS CAROL, I really wanted GOD / BLESS / US / EVERY / ONE to be the last words of the five themers. I don't think that would have been possible, since what phrase ends in EVERY? Or BLESS? But how cool would that have been! Given the constraints, I like Jim's choice to "hide" the five words.
I really liked the single rebus square idea — getting TINY TIM worked in, with TIM as the "tiny" rebus square is a great idea. IT would have been spot-on perfect to have that TIM square at the very bottom corner, but that certainly would have made for a harder grid arrangement. The only thing I could think of is TINY (TIM) crossing VIC(TIM), but that would make for a bigger SE corner, much harder to fill. As it is, there's already a rough crossing in MONA / FRODO — I'm a big LotR fan, but for non-believers (infidels!), I could see how MENA/FREDO or MINA/FRIDO would seem equally likely.
Fun concept, with not that much gluey fill (I LEFT, MGMT, ECTO, etc.) given the high theme density. Nice, uplifting puzzle.
I recently got a very nice rejection from Will, commenting that he's starting to see too many "turning" puzzles. I can understand the point, as we just recently saw something akin to today's. But as with all theme types, I believe there's always a place for an example with a great implementation, a different twist, or a laugh-inducing bit. Today's hit the mark for me, FALLING BEHIND interpreted as "synonyms for BEHIND" running downward.
The execution is really strong. Turning themers are difficult to build around, and including four of them plus a central revealer makes things even tougher. Jim does well to quasi-segment his grid so that he can fill each of the four corners and two middle regions somewhat independently. Jim gives us some great long stuff in the NE and SW, using GODPARENTS, TIME COP, HEARING AID, DIORAMA in those important long slots.
Really, the only area I felt wasn't quite as smooth as I like was the PTERO / PEU region. Not surprising that it's smack dab at the "bend" within DONALD TRUMP; a highly constrained section.
A note about "cheater squares," those extra black squares that don't affect the number of words in a puzzle. Normally I'm fast and loose about using them, since they can really help a puzzle's fill sing. Too many of them can be visually unappealing, though. Here, I don't mind the blocks of three in the NE and SW. Completely fine on their own. But when you throw in the huge chunks of black in the west and east, it's too much for me. Personal taste, of course.
I can understand why Jim chose to use these big chunky masses, as separating BABY ALBUM and FALLING BEHIND and UNAMERICAN really helps to facilitate clean fill. For 75% of all constructors, I'd shrug and live with the unappealing visual aesthetics. But Jim's becoming experienced enough that I would have liked to see if he could fill the puzzle as cleanly and sparkly as he did, without using nearly so many cheaters. Challenge issued!
Very amusing puzzle. Perhaps I have seen too many turning puzzles recently, but I welcome ones like this, exemplifying the fun that this theme type can bring.
Sometimes a puzzle surprises me, and that's a very welcome occurrence after ten years of solving. Reading a title like "WELL, GOLLY," my mind immediately went to Ian's very recent puzzle and continued with 1.) it must be an add-a-sound puzzle with "GEE" likely involved 2.) I really hope it's something more complex than just adding the G sound. Given that I didn't actually uncover a themer all the way until I got to BEE GEE LINE, I prepped for the worst.
But wow, was I pleasantly surprised. Next themer up was OH DARJEELING, which made me laugh with its hilarious visual of a guy batting his eyelashes at looseleaf tea (I read between the lines of the clue). Another funny moment came when I got to GPS I LOVE YOU, and another with GENIE JERK REACTION. KANJI ARTIST felt a bit too much like a real thing, but the rest of the themers felt above average to strong on the humor scale; KITTY LITURGY not a ten only because of missed LOLcat potential.
The themers also had nice base phrases, from WEIRD AL to KNEE JERK REACTION to CON ARTIST. OH DARLING felt strained to me, like it was contrived to make a length for symmetry requirements, but six out of seven is quite good. And to have each of the G sounds be spelled differently was really well done. I especially liked the JI in KANJI and JEE in DARJEELING.
Jim did very well with his fill, well above par for Sunday debuts. It's audacious to attempt the difficult task of dropping down to 138 words, and to pull it off with not much glue is impressive. The lower word count allows longer fill like MAIL ORDER and NETIZENS crossing, as well as the cool DIAL A RIDE and regal WHITE GLOVES.
There were some bits I hitched on though, notably the area containing OPP and PROEMS and CONG. The first is minor, the second straight from the Weng/Maleska eras, and the third not only cluable in one way, [Viet ___], but bringing up bad memories for many. I would have either liked 1.) more work in that section by changing the curious but not interesting (to me) TETRAGRAM to something else, as there's a lot of flexibility there in the ?ET???R?? pattern, or 2.) splitting up TETRAGRAM at the A and reworking. (Can't say I like Jim's original grid any better, given I believe it would have AT YA at 70D crossing/duping LOVE YOU, and OODLE doesn't feel crossworthy even to this tech dork.)
The rest of the puzzle has fairly minor stuff (aside from LEAL, also straight from the Maleska era), things like ENUF, EUR, NIE, ETYM, spread out through the puzzle to be fairly unnoticeable. It would have been great to have the entire puzzle equally smooth, without that one section sticking out. Thumbs up to Will for reworking it, but I would very much have liked to see the efforts go even further, maybe kicking it back to Jim for a more in-depth fix.
Finally, I really liked many of Jim's new-to-the-NYT-xw entries, but BESTIE made me pause. I read a lot of middle grade and young adult lit for research, and I personally don't want this to open the floodgates to such similar vocabulary as ADORBS (adorable) and TOTES (totally). Feels beneath the NYT.
But all in all, a well executed theme, demonstrating that a simple concept can be pulled off with strong base phrases, humorous impact, and a range of clever sound changes. Since the solving audience is so wide and diverse, it's smart to aim some NYT Sunday puzzles to the straightforward side.
Jim does a fantastic job of themer selection today. There are many phrases that end with BEEN, THERE, DONE, and THAT, so I like that he picked four colloquial, catchy ones. HOW YOU BEEN, PUT ER THERE, NO HARM DONE, GIVE ME THAT! A strong quartet + good specificity = elegance.
I had to look up "Been there done that" AND "T-shirt" though. Perhaps I'm missing something — is this specific to T-shirts? I don't know that I've actually seen a T-shirt with that saying on it. It's quite possible that it's more a regional thing, as Jim has moved around a lot (currently in England — maybe it's a Brit thing?). In any case, I was a bit mystified when I hit T SHIRT. Sometimes I like when there is no revealer, but I doubt I would have figured out the hidden BEEN THERE DONE THAT without one. I tried to think of what might have worked better, but all I could come up with was HO HUM. Hmm. Hum.
The long fill entries present a perfect example of the trade-offs often seen in crosswords. Check out that NE corner, a beautiful little section with no glue and featuring UFOS, KARTS, SKINS (although I would much prefer not acknowledging the Redskins and their crazy lack of consideration to ethnic groups). However, UNABASHEDLY is a neutral word, neither great nor bad. Friendly letters though, which makes that NE possible, in part.
Then look at the SW corner. OCEAN BREEZE, such a lovely entry! I'd guess it got a check mark from Will (he gives strong entries checks, weak ones minuses in his evaluations). But that Z does present some problems — relatively few four-letter words end in Z. I'm perfectly fine with ECARD (the term, not getting them and having to quickly hit mute when the annoying music comes on), but the A LIE partial isn't great and EGADS feels not so great. EGAD I can buy, EGADS not as much.
Same goes for the north and south regions. I love OLD TOWN and HOO HAHS as fill, but ELKE + LOA + KWH + ENS makes for a bit of inelegance. Any one or two of those is fine, four of them not so much. Even though the north section is not as strong in terms of long fill (PER YEAR is a bit dry even for this finance guy), I appreciate the smoothness of the region.
All in all though, I really liked what Jim did here with the four theme phrases. Great selection of snazzy, colloquial phrases that all tie together.
ADDED NOTE: Jim tells me that "Been there, done that, got the T-shirt" is idiomatic. I've never heard of it before, but perhaps I'll start using it. Fun phrase.
Excellent Monday puzzle from Jim, who amazingly has only been constructing for about a year. Incredible progress from when he started (we collaborated on a LAT puzzle). Solid theme, fill accessible to a wide range of solvers, interesting cluing. Monday puzzles are so difficult to make, because it's nearly impossible to satisfy the experienced solver (who's likely to be bored) as well as the novice (who could be stumped by anything remotely esoteric or crosswordese-flavored). A very nice balance today.
Note the NW and SE corners. A 5x5 section of white space is usually difficult to fill cleanly, and Jim does an admirable job. It's not ideal to have a partial at 1-across because it doesn't make a very good first impression, but it's certainly acceptable. Typically a maximum of two partials are allowed in a puzzle, because partials (as well as abbreviations, pluralized names, etc.) aren't usually as elegant as real words. Aside from that small hiccup, Jim's fill is clean, even incorporating a V in the SE without making it feel forced.
A comment about "cheater squares", black squares which do not affect a puzzle's word count. Will doesn't like cheaters since their inclusion is a mark of inelegance, and I generally agree. But I think a pair of cheaters in the very NW and SE (making APAIN into PAIN, ALIST into LIST, EDENS into EDEN and TRESS into TRES) would be a net gain. Your mileage may vary.
Finally, I didn't notice that OAKLAND AS and HAPPY DAYS are part of the theme until Jim sent me his write-up. I was all set to make this my POW! until I realized I had completely missed two theme answers (I had originally written that they provided very nice long fill). It's certainly a construction feat to interlock theme answers (HAPPY DAYS intersecting MAYONNAISE, e.g.) but I would have liked all the theme answers to "pop" more strongly, perhaps by starring their clues or by running them all horizontally. Even having five themers (all oriented horizontally) instead of six could be a good solution, since I liked this puzzle very well even when I thought it only had four themers.