Why should Will Nediger have all the fun with these end-of-month roundups? I solved 225 puzzles in January - about 70/30 mainstream/indies (although that "mainstream" count includes things like Vox and Vulture so it's really more like 50/50) - and I had many, many thoughts about them. So much so that I think these roundups are going to replace the first Thursday puzzle of each month. Most of these thoughts will go under a "read more," but let's take a minute to appreciate my favorite above the fold:
My Favorite Puzzle Of January 2022 was... 2 x 22 by Brendan Emmett Quigley! Let's take ten while you solve it. (I will be fairly liberal in spoiling puzzle themes and clues here - consider this your warning.)
You're back? Good. So, rebus puzzles are fun, but they usually don't play well with online interfaces. This puzzle hits on a fairly elegant solution for that: have the CHI rebii in the grid represented by the letter X. (I admit that until I sat down to write this grid out, I didn't realize that the "22" in the title is referring to chi being the 22nd letter of the Greek alphabet.)
Now, having the letter X sub in for other letters/bigrams/words is pretty well-trod ground: just this month there was the 1/18 Universal by David Alan van Houten, and I'd be remiss if I didn't mention Matthew Stock's NYT debut from Jan. 7 of last year. What makes this grid awesome is, first of all, the sheer quantity of theme content: the puzzle's five themers, with their 10 [CHI]s, make up over 30% of this grid's squares (57/187 - yes, I counted). And these are pretty great themers too: who could hate [CHI]CKEN [CHI]MICHANGAS and PIT[CHI]NG MA[CHI]NE? But what really makes this grid shine - and I know this is not a common opinion - is just how much cross-referencing is going on here. Four of the Xs going down in this grid are keyed to other entries in the grid, which goes a long way in making stuff like TEX/MEX and TO A/HUGE EXTENT cool, and they make everything in the grid feel super connected. And despite the 11 Xs here, Brendan still makes room for Ben GAZZARA in the grid! Just a masterclass in grid architecture.
More highlights (and nadirs) under the cut...
Other Puzzles of Note
(again, I will be spoiling these! do not read beyond the first line of each paragraph unless you want to be SPOILED!! links will appear for the indies)
♻ Jan. 1: Switching Sides (Will Nediger, Vox)
I mention this grid because, first of all, I've tried coming up with more themers along this pattern and it's not as easy as it looks to come up with entries as clean as SALEM MALES or as funny as BARDIC CARDI B (!!); but even if you do come up with a set like that, it takes a real talent to put them into a grid with stacked nine-letter bonus entries like NONBINARY and SACK DRESS, not to mention, in a very Nedigerian touch, a 15-letter bonus entry in DELAYED REACTION. The only sour spot is that there's a typo in the SPICE EPICS clue (referencing the Jason Momoa film Dunc), but hey, I've made far more embarrassing errors on this blog.
⭐ Jan. 1: Saturday 1/1/22 (Adrian Johnson, LA Times)
Adrian Johnson is one of the seven constructors who'll be making grids for Lil AVC X alongside such luminaries as Kelsey "crosstina aquafina" Dixon and Shannon "Norah Sharpe" Rapp, and I'm thrilled to see it, because his work in mainstream outlets has been consistently great. Look no further than this New Year's Day themeless, which stretches the grid into a 16x15 to make room for six stacked 12-letter entries (including TATTOO ARTIST cleverly clued as [Permanent marker?]). Fill like ASHCAKE and BIG PAPI and HOT TAKE scattered throughout makes sure the solver never gets bored, and while the LAT is prone to including some gunky three-letter fill of the ilk that's been phased out of most mainstream puzzles, you wouldn't know it from this grid's squeaky cleanness.
🦘 Jan. 7: Friday 1/7/22 (Christina Iverson and Jeff Chen, LA Times)
You can tell when a puzzle is under-relying on a wordlist and which list it is(n't); such is the case for this Iverson/Chen joint, the construction of which kind of blows my mind a little. Ten across entries in this puzzle completely ignore the letters in down entries containing the circled letters EMMA, SLY, SHARON, and MATT, because each starred entry in this grid SKIPS STONES. Cute conceit that vexed the hell out of me and then fell right into place. The NE and SW are effectively untouched by theme content which frees those segments up to contain fun fill like HIPSTER and YOOHOO and OCTOPI. Solid work.
⭐ Jan. 7: The (Friday) Crossword (Patrick Berry, The New Yorker)
This one rankled some people because of, among other things, the presence of RICK PERRY in the grid. YMMV but, clued in reference to the single greatest piece of cringe comedy of the Obama-era, I found Perry's presence to be a highlight here. What's surprising about this grid is that it's a quintessential Patrick Berry grid with two 8x4 stacks in the corners, and yet this was mostly pretty breezy. I freely admit I had absolutely zero idea how the hell you parse TY-D-BOL, but that's fine.
⭐ Jan. 7: Freestyle 677 (Tim Croce, Club 72)
Something was in the water on the seventh, apparently, or I was feeling especially generous that day. In any case, this Croce was his best in a good while, eschewing his typical 12/15/12 layout for a more standard (but still super high quality) pair of stacks in the NW and SE corners. KURT ANGLE and XZIBIT make cameo appearances, which is always a bonus, but what really stood out to me solving this grid is that Croce maintains a balance very rare in puzzles (particularly for male constructors) where the puzzle is risque but also fairly progressive in terms of gender representation. Consider a stack where ADULT MOVIE sits atop WORKING DAD (clued as [One picking up the kids from day care, maybe]), or - and I cannot believe I'm singling out this word as a highlight - [What many do at Chippendales shows] for OGLE. God bless you, Tim.
🐋 Jan. 8: Splash Zone (Sean Yamada-Hunter, Across the Pond)
Just wanted to highlight a bit of fun grid art from Sean here. I don't really pay that much attention to basketball for a variety of justified and principled reasons which definitely have nothing to do with how in middle school we had to play basketball in gym class and I was the only person in the entire class who couldn't make a basket no matter how close she got to the basket and everyone felt pity for my general ineptness and I heard all sorts of comments like "why is Quiara so bad at basketball when she's so freakishly tall." Anyway, this grid is just really pretty to look at.
🎳 Jan. 10: Monday 1/10/22 (Daniel Bodily, LA Times)
This one is a bit trickier than you usually get on a Monday, but not really: the themers are all STRIKE ZONEs, e.g. a THUNDERSTORM and a BOWLING ALLEY. I'm mostly putting this here because I really, really wish we got more Monday themes like this rather than "tee hee, all the first words of these phrases can go after this other word" themes. Also, there's a touch of scrabbliness between the revealer and the themer KARATE DOJO, and it was a pleasant surprise to see bonus entries in rows 2 and 14 for once.
♻ Jan. 11: Round and Round (Will Nediger, Bewilderingly)
Have you heard of this Will Nediger guy? He makes good puzzles, I've heard. This grid's conceit is very cute - an INFINITE LOOP and and INFINITY POOL are at its center, depending how you look at it - but I'm more interested in the typically Nedigerian fun cluing angles, including [:O O] for MOUTH and the very meta [Dress that you might have learned about from last week's puzzle] for AO DAI - yes, I did in fact learn about the AO DAI from the prior Bewilderingly jawn, so I appreciated being rewarded for my loyalty. Also cool: a reference to a Pulp Fiction actress who isn't UMA Thurman. (N.b. for any constructors looking to make a triple stack: MARIA DE MEDEIROS is 15 letters.)
⭐ Jan. 11: A Wee Little Puzzle (Kate Chin Park & Brian Thomas, Kate Schmate Crosswords)
Kate's themelesses are inevitably a cornucopia of incredible clues, and this is no exception. Brian Thomas's presence here really got her to up her game, because the best three clues in this grid are in a three-way tie for the best clue of 2022. And incredibly, all three of these individually brilliant clues are connected, and they're somehow tied to the shape of the black squares in the grid!?!? I won't say more, because I suspect some of you are completely ignoring my ample warning about spoilers and just reading all these blurbs. Fuck you, guy who's ignoring my ample warning and spoiling these indie grids for yourself. Do this puzzle.
⭐ Jan. 20: Ooh! (Brendan Emmett Quigley, WSJ)
BEQ gets another shout-out here, now for something more mainstream (not that "2 x 22" couldn't have run in a mainstream outlet, honestly). The theme entries here are all two word phrases where each word has a doubled O (so like, GOOGLE BOOKS and FOOTLOOSE), which wouldn't be so impressive except 1) they interlock, 2) there's no dupes between the themers, and 3) there are eight of them. Go ahead, try and think of eight different themers for this. Even with a wordlist it's hard. The grid is perfectly clean, too. Wonderful all around.
👫 Jan. 24: Duet Freestyle (Brooke Husic & Will Nediger, Bewilderingly)
That byline speaks for itself, doesn't it? This one made me excited because it contains THE BOY IS MINE, which reminded me of an early QVXword - the first 15x15 themeless on the site! - inspired by Brandy and Monica's Verzuz episode. I also want to state for the record that I deeply, deeply admire Brooke's commitment to shoehorning Egyptian Rat Screw into as many puzzles as possible.
🍕 Jan. 25: Tuesday, 1/25/22 (Juliana Tringali Golden, Vox)
I've spent a lot of time trying to get puzzles with [ZZ] rebus squares, and they're much harder to do than you might think - which makes me happy to report that this little 9x9 puzzle is a beaut that gets four such squares in a symmetrical arrangement and works a NAP into the center, no less. Good on Juliana.
🟩 Jan. 25: Wordle Has It (Matt Jones, Jonesin')
The summer we got basic cable, back when I was in middle school, there were exactly two things I watched. One was endless reruns of Spongebob Squarepants in the afternoons, so I could understand what the hell my peers were talking about 24/7. But during dinner hours, we changed the channel to the Game Show Network to watch Lingo, a cool show where people had six tries to guess a five-letter word - a show which I was obsessed with and tried to get everyone in my immediate family and/or friend group to watch! (Given that the Venn diagram between "my friend group" and "my immediate family" was essentially a circle between the ages of 11 and 15, this was not very hard.)
Suffice it to say this January's Wordle bubble has been quite the deja vu. Basically every crossword constructor tried their damnedest to make a hybridized "crosswordle," with mostly underwhelming/interchangeable results. Leave it to Matt Jones to take a completely different tack. He's ostensibly built this grid around a pinwheel arrangement of puns (e.g. the inundation of wordle results on social media is a SQUARE WAVE) but what this puzzle really does is use the premise of "what is the worst possible first guess in Wordle?" as an excuse to engage in some truly demented scrabblefucking. "Wordle Has It" is to scrabblefucking what Hannibal was to corpse disassembly. This is the first (and last) time you will ever get delight from seeing XYLYL in a grid.
⭐ Jan. 25: Tuesday 1/25/22 (David Poole, LA Times)
I was kind of impressed by this theme despite not being much of a car person, which should be a ringing endorsement. I particularly enjoyed the northeast part of this grid, which has JEEP curling in on itself (the puzzle has six BOXCARS - 2x2 squares of circled letters spelling out car names) to get DJED crossing J-POP in the corner. Has J-POP been in another mainstream puzzle? I don't think so. Is that a debut for a mainstream outlet? No idea. Anyway, it's a nice change from the samey way early week puzzles tend to arrange their themers, instead giving you a nice long... er... ligament of 7+ letter entries running across rows 6 thru 10.
⭐ Jan. 26: Back and Forth (Karen Stock & Matthew Stock, Universal)
I always smile seeing Matthew and his mom share a byline. This is a pretty simple but still lovely theme: it's a quartet of oscillators (UNDECIDED VOTERS, CHURCH BELLS, etc) - or, as the puzzle would have it, four SWING SETS. What makes this grid shine is its construction: with a 9/11/15/11/9 themeset like this it would be trivial to align the themers horizontally in a rotationally symmetrical grid. Instead, they've opted to put UNDECIDED VOTERS in the third row, and use mirror symmetry to have the other four themers going vertically. It's a sort of avant-garde arrangement but the grid is more beautiful for their doing so.
😠 Jan. 26: A Fifth of Beethoven (George Jasper, WSJ)
Sigh. No offense meant to George Jasper, who turned in a pretty solid grid with at least one fun theme entry in CROCODILE ROCK, but the actual theme content here is so light - it's really, *really* not hard to find five words with the circled letters EMP ERO RCO NCE RTO - that I can't really see why this was published. Especially given that there's been no shortage of superior puzzles based on this exact composition - David Kahn's NYT puzzle from 2020 had the nice flourish of putting G-G-G-(EFLAT) / F-F-F-D into the grid! What does this grid have going for it? And also, why are there so many fucking Emperor Concerto puzzles!? Can you imagine a world where every six months, like clockwork, a major crossword outlet published, e.g., a "Giant Steps" tribute puzzle? Or like, Trane period. Or any jazz guy, or anyone black, really, or any musical piece written after the '70s. (The 1770s, even.)
At least I was reminded of Walter Murphy's "A Fifth of Beethoven," a pretty good novelty track of some personal resonance (since, as you know, I grew up about five blocks away from where they filmed the iconic opening scene of Saturday Night Fever). Although, and I mean Mr. Murphy no shade when I say this, it's not even close to the best novelty arrangement of Beethoven's 5th catering to the tastes of a multiethnic New York dance scene. No, that would be "El Quinto de Beethoven," the title-ish track on salsa pianist and arranger Markolito Dimond's second (and final) LP. Check it out (as well as his debut, 1971's Brujeria, a stone cold salsa classic).
P.S.: Here is a trivia question for you: Walter Murphy's "A Fifth of Beethoven" was recently used as the theme song for the television series Mrs. America, but Walter Murphy's most famous contribution to TV is writing the extremely famous theme tune to what TV show currently in its 20th season? The answer is not Buffy the Vampire Slayer, although Murphy did write the (bad) incidental music for that show's (charmingly bad) first season; the Buffy theme song is by the rock group Nerf Herder, whose frontman Parry Gripp went on to write such classic tunes as "Do You Like Waffles?" and "It's Raining Tacos." Sound off in the comments.
⭐ Jan. 26: Themeless #55 (Stella Zawistowski, Tough as Nails)
A great puzzle from Stella Z? No surprise there, I suppose. But despite her reputation for tough puzzles, this grid felt like a warm embrace, starting with a nice gimme clue for DIMS, and then the hat trick of [Donezo], [Klinefeld shopper], and [1993 Salt-n-Pepa/En Vogue collab]. The glue here (SEE A, I EAT) is very visible but also disposed of with total ease - all the better to make room for everything from Jamaican patois to Ryan Gosling memes to French cooking to "It's Raining Men" to RuPaul to... etc etc. It's a rundown of everything cool about Stella's taste that gets left out of the mainstream, because the white male boomers who run most of the major crossword outlets don't care about any of this stuff.
😠 Jan. 27: Thursday, 1/27/22 (Bruce Venzke, LA Times)
Hoo boy, now, this one got my goat. Geddit? How pleased I was to see a nice modern clue like [#1] for GOAT - what a nice straight definition, especially in an outlet that sometimes feels moored in the quality standards of yesteryear. How naive I was, because not even two clues later we get [#2] as a clue for GOAD, because - deep sigh - it's a fucking word ladder. There's just so much to dislike here. First of all, as we've established, all of these theme clues (and there are eight of them: GOAT, GOAD, LOAD, LORD, LARD, HARD, HERD, and HERO) have no clues, just numbers. But let's ignore that for a second and realize that this grid is predicated on GOAT and HERO being opposites. Which they aren't - not in the past decade, they haven't been. I mean, even pre-2010 a goat was first and foremost a ruminant, with "goat" as short for "scapegoat" being a tertiary definition at best - but now, GOAT is pretty firmly wedged in the mainstream as short for "Greatest Of All Time," to the point where even Jeopardy! viewers are familiar with the term, and know that GOAT is synonymous with #1 - which again, I stress, is the literal clue for GOAT in this puzzle. So GOAT to HERO doesn't work at all.
If only there was some other four-letter word which would fill in the blank in a highly idiomatic phrase taking the form "___ to hero" ?? ... eh, I got nothing. The chances of such a word existing are close to nil. With apologies to Mr. Venzke, whose puzzles I usually love, I think he should have elected to nix this puzzle of an ilk that should have gone extinct back in the noughties.
🕺 Jan. 30: Touring Productions (Ella Dershowitz, Universal Sunday)
This theme is peak Ella Dershowitz - four musicals are going on the road, literally (e.g. the word GREASE is situated on top of the word AVENUE). It's a pretty impressive construction, given that the nice thing about 21x puzzles is that you can space out a large number of themers, but this construction forces four themers to abut one another in a way that should result in suboptimal fill and doesn't!
🤐 Jan. 31: Well-Kept Secrets (Rose Sloan & Shannon Rapp, Bewilderingly)
There have been plenty of novelty grids that have no vowels other than the letter E; there have been plenty of novelty grids that have every vowel except the letter E. It is rare that these grids are genuinely enjoyable in their own right beyond the "oh, that's cute" they elicit. But this grid manages to be both of those novelty grids simultaneously, and have a great rationale for it.
✌ Jan. 31: The (Monday) Crossword (Kameron Austin Collins, The New Yorker)
Do I like this grid for the inclusion of LIL JON, or clues like [Rolls out some fall decor?] for TPS? Yes - but mostly, I like this grid for the funny phrases made by the stacks here. I want to have an EGALITARIAN TICKLE FIGHT. You've heard of crossword band names, but are you ready for crossword smut drabbles!?!? EYECUP, SALIVATE. "KNOB?" "MINI."
Other Clues of Note:
from crosstina aquafina: [Greetings from the Tower of Babel!] GIBBERISH
from David Poole in the LAT: [Solo for Ford] and [Solo for Fleming] ROLE/ARIA
from Brian Thomas: [Where to put the finishing touch?] G-SPOT
from the aforementioned Kate/Brian collab: [#1 art piece] and [Get going] *and* [See one's way out?] PISS CHRIST; POTTY TRAIN; POPEMOBILE
from Zaneb Akbar, an angle I've always wanted to use: [___ ibn maryam (aka jesus)] ISA
from Ryan McCarty: [Prospective union member] BRIDE-TO-BE
from crosstina again, an angle I've seen before and always love: [this is what it sounds like when doves cry] COO
from Tim Croce: [More than an OK boomer] TNT
from Erik Agard: [Clock-puncher who might receive a promotion and resign within the same day] CHESSMASTER
from Patrick Blindauer: [Sick and tired of everything and everyone so go away! (slams door)] ESPN
from Tim Croce again: [Uh... what's that sound?] SCHWA
from Brooke Husic: [:08 min ___] ABS - I love that this one is totally straight but the accuracy of the orthography here throws you off of the obvious answer
from Matt Jones: [Diesel in an automotive vehicle?] VIN
from that aforementioned Sharpe/Sloan jawn: [Doing shots?] SEX SCENES
This Month I Learned:
(As of late I've been writing down unfamiliar subject matter I run across in puzzles, which I think has been a very good use of my time: sure, yes, sometimes you just learn the names of random athletes or podcast hosts or whatever, but sometimes you learn some truly fascinating facts.)
Edward de Vere, poet/dramatist/earl, is the foremost of the many names put forward by anti-Stratfordians as the true author of Shakespeare's oeuvre (a theory, imo, rooted in a fairly classist idea that someone of Willy Shakes' humble parentage would be unable to write great art); the whole NASA-gave-horny-dolphins-LSD thing that everyone "knows" from Cracked articles et al is actually way less lurid and way more charming than you'd expect, and also had the involvement of Jeff Bridges and Carl Sagan; The Washington Senators' MOE Berg was not merely a second-rate baseball player of the '30s but an OSS spy and a quiz show whiz who spoke fluent Japanese; SITAR literally means "three (si) strings (tar)"; Paul ANKA did an entire album's worth of Nelson Riddle-style big band arrangements of '80s/'90s rock hits (including Bon Jovi's "It's My Life," which quotes from his "My Way," and Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit"); Rachel ROY was married to Roc-a-Fella co-founder Damon Dash and may or may not be the "Becky with the good hair" who may or may not have had the "affair" with Roc-a-Fella co-founder Jay-Z memorialized on Beyonce's Lemonade; NAACP president ROY Wilkins worked with the FBI to try and tank Paul Robeson's career in the '50s; MANTA rays pass the "mirror test" (the first fish to do so), putting them in the same "possibly sentient" category as dolphins, elephants, and magpies; Jibbitz are enamel plugs which go in the holes in CROCs - and, on a related note, what do Crocs and saltines have in common? (answer: they all have 13 holes - an angle I used when cluing SALTINE in a guest puzzle I did for Tim Croce's blog, you will remember); No Longer at EASE (which I have not read) is Chinua Achebe's sequel to Things Fall Apart (which I only pretended to read in high school - god knows why) about Obi Okonkwo (new OBI angle), lawyer grandson of the prior book's protagonist; the Pueblo Zuni do SANDpaintings much like the Navajo/Dine (who deliberately induce errors into sandpaintings made for public consumption); Athens and Dublin are both in OHIO - just like Brooklyn; speaking of Ohio, Calvin and Hobbes creator Bill Watterson is from Chagrin Falls, OH...
... SIA was briefly in Jamiroquai as one of Jay Kay's backup singers; Big Al the ALLOSAURUS died from a stubbed toe (which promptly got infected) in what is now Wyoming, to paleontologists' delight; Hawaiaan-born Samoan-American Tua Tagovailoa of the Miami Dolphins is not Hawaiian-born Samoan-American Manti Te'o of the San Diego Chargers and also catfishing victimhood (and, apparently, because one in every six Samoans is LDS, Mormonism); Magdalena Andersson is Sweden's first female Prime Minister as of 2021; "BANH MI" is literally Vietnamese for "bread"; Japanese director Takashi ITO makes many avant-garde films, including the infamous 1980 short Spacy, a film which IMDb user raymondo1960 notes was shown at a film festival to which "one viewer brought their toddler, who immediately began to wail uncontrollably at the vertiginous display" (so, very much not a baby movie - I recommend it!); MR REE! The Fireside Detective Game is a vintage board game of the '30s/'40s which, when you look at it, was clearly ripped off by Clue(do); Leopold von AUER was a violin teacher to the stars, if your definition of "stars" includes Jasha Heifetz and theremin prodigy Clara Rockmore and violinist Efrem Zimbalist (father of Efrem Zimbalist Jr., who played DO COCK... sorry, Doc Ock... on the '90s Spider-Man cartoon); Patricia Bath was the INVENTOR of laser cataract surgery, among other things!; Broadway actress MERLE Dandridge played both Mimi in RENT and Marlene in The Last of Us, which explains this incredible video (spoilers for a decade-old video game, I guess); the use of BOLAS by gauchos to hunt rheas was something they picked up from various indigenous American groups; THOR Heyerdahl's famous Kon-Tiki voyage advanced an ultimately wrong theory about the peopling of Polynesia (but not as wrong a theory as the idea that the Maori et al were actually Caucasians!); ANN Radcliffe was the first gothic fiction writer, beloved in her time but mostly (and unfairly!) known now for being childhood friends with Charles Darwin's mom; SHAHZIA SIKANDER is an artist who I was nominally familiar with because she used to have a piece on display at Brooklyn College's library, whose work allegedly (per her website) "takes classical Indo-Persian miniature painting as its point of departure, and inflects it with contemporary South Asian, American, Feminist and Muslim perspectives," like in the piece below...
... the TSAVO lions of Kenya ate humans, allegedly due to their bad teeth; ACELA is a portmanteau of "acceleration" and "excellence," which, OK, I guess; ANDRES Segovia taught Charo how to play guitar (although Charo did not to my knowledge star on a TV show with Efrem Zimbalist Jr.); the Tutsi of Rwanda were also known as the WATUSI and lent their name to a dance craze of the '60s; Gerry SPENCE's clients during his undefeated career as a defense attorney include Karen Silkwood, Randy Weaver, and Imelda Marcos, and he also ""defended"" Lee Harvey Oswald in a mock trial; what do the first African-American chair of the RNC and the bassist for the Bangles have in common? well, they're both named Michael STEELE; there were six Step Up movies for some ungodly reason; NAURU has no official capital, is smaller than every other country except Vatican City, and is riiight on the Equator; 2004 self-help book mega-hit HE'S Just Not That Into You was written by two writers on Sex and the City (note to self: write screenplay called "Sex and the Vatican City"); Journey's current lead singer is a Pinoy named ARNEL Piseda; a big tourist attraction in Peru, in spite of (or because of) its name, is Lake 69; you know Hans Holbein's The Ambassadors, that painting with the stretchy skull which is stretched out really really far? well apparently that stretchy skull is an example of "anamorphosis" (as is an Ames room - you'll know it when you see it); DJ AM from Crazy Town (yes, ugh, the "you're my butterfly sugar baby" group) survived a plane crash with blink-182's Travis Barker, only to die a year later of an overdose, and apparently was good enough friends with baby movie director Jon Favreau that Iron Man 2 is dedicated to him? CALL OF DUTY: GHOSTS is not a very good video game but you do get to play as a dog; Sierra Leone's capital, Freetown, was built as a mecca for freed American slaves; fashion designer EMILIO Pucci is equally associated with op-art-inspired patterned dresses and NASA, creating the first one-piece ski suit, the emblem for Apollo 15, and the dress Marilyn Monroe was buried in; FDR's first veep, John NANCE Garner, called the vice presidency "not worth a bucket of warm piss"; and finally, most embarrassingly, that "paint me like one of your French girls" line is apparently a quote from the film Titanic.
Deep breaths, Q.
😈 In the Fill From Hell Department: Billy Bratton's LA Times Saturday themeless from the 22nd is a pretty good grid, full of fun entries, but I did a spit-take when I saw the entry AOLER. The combination of vowels and consonants (I refuse to call AOLER a "word") apparently has showed up pretty steadily in Newsday and the LAT over the past couple years, but usually pegged as a '90s thing or in reference to the "you've got mail" alert. Here it is just clued as [Many a surfer] ... which makes me wonder what percentage of crossword editors at the dailies use AOL relative to the population at large. (It's 33%. And yes, the LA Times' Rich Norris is counted among that 33%.)
🖼 In the Blursed Image Department: Thuck (thank/fuck) you, Frisco17, for making me look at this image of ANGELA Merkel showing off her Christian Democratic Union Minecraft server. I hope Olaf Scholz is able to pick up where she left off in her quest to upload the Bundestag into the metaverse. (Someone, I am sure, will post the actual context for this image in the comments, to which I say: for the love of God, please do not do that.)
🐍 In the SSSHAME Department: Mike Shenk used the entry SSS in the Jan. 21 WSJ contest crossword. The crossword itself was quite good, with a cute mechanic for figuring out the meta; SSS, however, is never good, and thus we SSSHAME him. SSSHAME!!!
🎵 In the Music To Solve Crosswords To Department: a clue in Will Nediger's aforementioned "Switching Sides" puzzle turned me on to the tunes of AMADOU and Mariam, a duo from Mali who met at a school for the blind in Bamako and started a long career in music. They broke into the Western mainstream with the 2005 album Dimanche a Bamako (produced by Manu Chao, who features on a couple of the songs here.)
🤯 In the "BOOM! POW! ON T! Crosswords Aren't For White Men Anymore" Department: The New York Times Games Dept. announced some sort of "Diverse Constructor Fellowship" which, like every single thing the New York Times Games Dept. has announced in the past year-plus, was rolled out in the most maddeningly vague way possible; this has resulted in several outlets writing about the NYT's attempts to fix its diversity problems.
Polygon got there first, with a fairly inoffensive article that nonetheless manages to flatten basically all non-NYT crosswords into a single paragraph:
There are other options if you’re a constructor interested in more
community support, or a crossword puzzler looking for more options.
There’s The Inkubator, which supports “cis women, trans women, & woman-aligned constructors,” and Queer Qrosswords, which has a pack of two puzzles that center LGBTQ+ people and benefit LGBTQ+ charities.
Yes, I guess there are other options if you want options, such as the wonderful puzzles in Queer Qrosswords (all two of them). B minus. Kotaku fares somewhat better in their article about the NYTXW, in which the author actually bothered to talk to several notable crossworlders. (I count six: Shortz himself, Rebecca Neistat of Crosssnerds, Ben Tausig, Hayley Gold, Rex Parker, and Patrick Berry). Credit where it's due: it's rare to see a post on these sorts of sites that leans on so many actual first-person sources. That isn't to say the piece is very good, though. A lot of the more gratuitous errors from when the piece went live - e.g., repeatedly and memeably referring to the NYT's second puzzle editor as "Will Wang" - have been edited out, but it's still littered with carelessly constructed, comma-light paragraphs like this:
For most of the history of crosswords, “All the constructors were men pretty much men,” said Tausig. He ensures that half of the constructors he publishes are women or non-binary. More diversity means that “Puzzles deal with different material now,” he said, including fewer sexist terms like “hag” and clues about director Ava Duvernay.
I assume what our author is trying to say here is that "hag" is on its way out of the puzzle, and AVA DuVernay is on her way in? In the words of Kotaku's copy editor, "whatever." (Just kidding - Kotaku doesn't have a copy editor.) Less pedantically, though, it's odd how conciliatory this piece is towards Will Shortz, even as it cites sources that strain his characterization in the piece as "the nicest guy in the world" - e.g., immediately after mentioning Beanergate, noted Shortz anti-stan Michael "Rex Parker" Sharp is quoted... acknowledging Shortz' role in saving the NYTXW from its Maleska-era stank? Granted, "it can be two things," but this article doesn't make any attempt to synthesize Shortz-as-innovator and Shortz-as-rarefied-circles-guy - I'm not sure it even recognizes the incongruity between the two. A for effort; C plus for execution.
Also absent from both these articles: any mention of Erik Agard, which is good, the USAT is not the be-all-end-all of diversity in puzzledom, etc. etc... but also any mention of the Crossword Puzzle Collaboration Directory, which is a much more baffling omission!
👛 In the Get Your Bag Department: Congratulations to Crosscord user powerlanguage, who recently sold a puzzle to the New York Times.
The aforementioned Stella Zawistowski is joined by Malaika Handa in creating a new dailyish crossword for Vulture. Vulture is part of New York magazine, which is owned by Vox, and it's definitely taking the same tack as the Vox puzzle - it's 10 by 10 rather than 9 by 9, and there's no Saturday 15x15 puzzle to cap off the week, but you can tell the approach is the same. The puzzle is on the whole pretty good, although the need to have a pop culture hook for literally everything in these grids tends to result in so-tenuous-they-loop-back-into-brilliant clues like [Cont. where Fleabag is set] for EUR. In any case, it is definitely helping to alleviate the symptoms of 7xwords withdrawal.
Also, speaking of remarkably talented women who started making crosswords in 2020 (other than me), I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that friend of the blog Mollie Cowger was hired by The New Yorker to join their puzzles team. Go Mollie!
Wow, this piece went much longer than I thought it would. So now I turn it over to you. What were your favorite puzzles, clues, TIL moments, etc. of January?
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