Well, this took long enough: I took off during the holidays, but I can tell you that in 2022 I logged 1,788 puzzle solves, plus 85 Atlantic minis, plus 179 New York Times puzzles on my dedicated sheet for that, which means I can put an exact number on the number of grids I solved in 2022, and that number is
Wow! And that number doesn't count most mini puzzles, cryptics and variety puzzles, test solves, or grids I edited! That is a lot of puzzles! I don't have an easy way to add up the amount of time I spent solving grids this year, which is fortunate because I don't want to think about how much of my precious and finite time on this earth was spent disambiguating between AS AM I and SO DO I.
But let's shout out some of the cool puzzles from December of 2022. This will be a relatively short post, owing to the week or two where I didn't solve anything. But the seven grids I shouted out here are all worth your time, I think.
Dec. 1: Fishy Fishy Dish (themeless) (Henry Josephson, The Chicago Maroon)
I've personally never made a grid with a triple stack of 15s in the center. I've certainly TWO triple stacks of 15s. (Although, I guess you could
argue that Themeless 15
on this site comes close, with its 12-letter spanners at the top and bottom.) Either way - you can bet your ass I've never
made a puzzle with THREE triple stacks of 15s. They're just too
technically demanding, and even when an expert like Liz Gorski takes a stab at it, you end up with the "payoff" of a gazillion four-letter down entries
like OMER and ASTA.
So imagine my surprise when I found a genuinely fantastic stacks-on-stacks-on-stacks grid in, of all places, UChicago's student newspaper! Henry Josephson manages to stick eight 15s in a single grid, the weakest of which is solid and the majority of which are super awesome: I mean, any one of GAS STATION SUSHI, THE GREAT RED SPOT, or SPEAK TO A MANAGER would be a killer themeless seed, but this puzzle has all three of them, and crossing SEXIEST MAN ALIVE, no less. And the puzzle neatly sidesteps its OMER-ASTA problem by cluing its gluier fill in ways that are both easy *and* fun, e.g. [Leave no ___ unstoned (spoonerism birds might dislike)] for TERN. Now that's impressive.
The Crossword: Thursday, December 1, 2022 (Patrick Berry, New Yorker)
Hey, have you guys heard of this Patrick Berry guy? I think he's going places...
I mention this grid not because it is (of course) extremely cleanly filled, even by Berry standards, no because it's super-duper easy while still being quite fun - no, I think it's a grid that might lend itself to being swiped by new constructors looking to make a themeless that's smooth to fill while still looking fairly ambitious, what with its four spanners.
Dec. 2: Have It Both Ways (Paul Coulter, Universal)
Have you ever noticed that in the phrase "take part," if you reverse the word "part" then you get "trap," which is a synonym of "take" ? I didn't, but Paul Coulter did, and instead of e-mailing Will Shortz with a great idea for an NPR weekend puzzle, he decided to come up with four more phrases with the same quality. It's impressive to find so many theme entries with such an exacting set of requirements, and all the more impressive that even with five themers this puzzle can get an exciting bonus-laden northeast corner in which CLUCKS crosses IRKSOME and BUCKAROO.
Dec. 3: Casino Royale (Bryant White, Spyscape)
Once again, Bryant White and Spyscape produce an aggressively on-theme grid that really takes advantage of the freedom offered by Amuselabs' applet. Atypical grid size, colored squares, circled letters... but despite all the disparate grid elements there's a surprising level of restraint here, especially given the Vegas theming and panoply of retro pop culture references.
And of course, the impressive theme density here doesn't negatively impact the squeaky-clean fill here at all, plus you've also got great clues like [Misbehaving child in "The Simpsons"?] not for BART but for IMP, and [Side by side?] for AREA (which in this case is literally flanked by themers, making the pun even funnier).
Dec. 10: The Full Spectrum (Elise Corbin, Cruciverbology)
This grid has a rather interesting conceit, one that I'd almost certainly never have figured out on my own. So, like most of Elise's puzzles, this one has a scientific conceit: it's about the frequencies and wavelengths of various types of radiation, all of which have been clued as their frequency in hertz, and which steadily get longer and longer in terms of wavelength as you go south through the grid. What makes this odd is that the entries in the grid ALSO get longer the further down you go in the grid - there are 12 consecutive 3-letter across entries at the top of the grid, and 7-heavy corners at its bottom. I have zero clue if this actually makes for a more fun execution of this theme, nor if I'd ever had understood that aspect of the puzzle without the solution image helpfully explaining it. But it's an interesting experiment, for sure.
Dec. 11: Fringe Film Festival (Evan Birnholz, Washington Post)
I feature a Birnholz grid literally every month here, and every month it's objectively correct to do so - I don't know how Evan does it but he consistently makes a brilliant, dense, layered theme at Sunday size once a week. Anyway, this puzzle has a pretty simple conceit - twelve films with short titles have to be entered outside of the grid for the entries crossing them to make sense. What makes this grid not merely a 21x21 puzzle with theme content along the borders is that all the entries in the grid make sense even without the "fringe films" - e.g., TRON crosses TRAP, ROLE, OPALS, and NESTERS, but RAP, OLE, PALS, and ESTERS are all common crossword entries. And then what makes this grid elegant is that the fringe films... wait for it... spell something out. Namely, THE OUTSIDERS. Mic drop!
The really crazy thing is, if I made a puzzle this good I would retire, but Evan somehow does a puzzle of this quality fifty times a year. Unbelievable.
Dec. 30: America's Finest Crossword Puzzle (Will Eisenberg & Alex Boisvert, Crossword Nexus)
You know, I sometimes wake up and think, "I am so grateful that I get to have the role I have at the crossword that used to run in the back of The Onion." Even as a lot of the satirical landmarks of the '00s have either gone corny (Stephen Colbert's fall from his self-titled silent-T Report to... whatever the hell Tooning Out the News is) or, um, batshit (seriously, is Dave Chappelle okay? what the hell happened there?) the Onion remains really funny to this day. Anyway, this grid is all Onion headline fill-in-the-blanks, anchored by the spanners WOOOOOOO BEARS and AAAAAAGH BEARS. This means the puzzle also serves as a helpful crash course on the last quarter-dumb-century of American life and news pseudo-events - remember Teresa Heinz? Remember the Mueller Report? Etc. And yes, the AREA clue IS an "area man" headline.
(P.S.: I note for your themeless seeding convenience that DRUGS WIN DRUG WAR is a 15.)
A Couple Internet Rabbit Holes I Fell Into Via Post-Puzzle-Solve Googling:
- I'm a big fan of the late Nora Ephron's deadeye satirical skills, and have just discovered one of her final works in that genre: a piece in the New Yorker spoofing Stieg Larsson's Millennium trilogy, titled The Girl Who Fixed the Umlaut.
- Speaking of turgid crime fiction, Eugene Francois Vidocq's life story would sound like the premise of a B-tier USA Network drama, if not for the part where it's 100% true and 200+ years old: a thief and con man living a life of petty crime before and after the French Revolution, Vidocq decided to go legit and used his criminal contacts to become a narc par excellence, later founding France's national police ,as well as the world's first detective agency, as well as maybe the entire discipline of forensic science?!? Oh, and he was also the basis for both Jean Valjean and Inspector Javert. Wowzers! Oh, and his name ends in a Q, which means I am definitely putting his name in a puzzle at some point.
- Among the many, many Mexican dishes I have never had is birria, a delicious-sounding stew made from goat meat and allegedly originating from Jalisco. I thought it might be coincidence that the word birria is Spanish for, er, I guess the translation is "crap" or "garbage" or something in that vein. Turns out it isn't; apparently the conquistadores had too many goats, whose meat they considered inedible, so they offloaded the goats onto the natives (who promptly made delicious food out of 'em). Ironically enough, given the contents of birria, the word "birria" is ultimately derived from the Latin for "boar."
- Have you ever wondered what printer toner is and how it differs from ink? I sure have, but I only bothered looking it up this month. Apparently toner isn't a type of ink; it is instead made of plastics that have been ground into a fine powder, which is then applied to a heated sheet of paper during printing by, um, something something lasers, something something magnets. (This is the point where I decided I had better things to do with my life than spend fifteen minutes on the HP website.)
- One of the first and most influential Western fantasy novels is H. Rider Haggard's She: A History of Adventure, generally cited as a direct influence on the likes of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, and yet I suspect that like me, many of you have never heard of it. There is a reason for that: Haggard served as a government official in Pretoria during the late 1800s (under the aegis of Henry Bulwer, whose uncle Edward has his own infamous literary pedigree), and She is, by all accounts, a pretty naked endorsement of colonialism and white rule in Africa. The novel's antiheroine/antagonist is the title character, Ayesha a.k.a. She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed, a 2,000-year-old sorceress who brags about her pure Arab blood or whatever, who is generally regarded more as an allegory for late-Victorian-era anxiety over women's rights than a character in her own right. Ayesha would appear in three more novels, which existed in a shared universe with the serials starring Haggard's more famous hero, Allan Quatermain.
- A slightly less influential British novelist was Louise Rennison, whose career started with a comedy show called "Stevie Wonder Touched My Face" and kept improving title-wise when she became a YA author, starting with the book Angus, Thongs, and Full Frontal Snogging (1999) and escalating from there. Seriously, look at these titles. She's like Chuck Tingle, if Chuck Tingle books were read by millions of teen girls instead of [THIS SPACE INTENTIONALLY LEFT BLANK BECAUSE NO ONE HAS EVER READ OR ENJOYED A CHUCK TINGLE BOOK, HE IS WESLEY WILLIS FOR TERMINALLY ONLINE GAYS]. Tragically her 2016 death means we will never get to see how she tops the title of the final Georgia Nicolson novel, Are These My Basoomas I See Before Me?
- Unicorns are real! Or were real, anyway: specifically, the Siberian unicorn was a prehistoric species of rhino that weighed four tons and probably evolved into the modern unicorn mythologically (and in reality, because unicorns are real and I love them).
- The 1970s Oakland A's were a baseball powerhouse, with the likes of Reggie Jackson, Catfish Hunter, and the aptly-named Rollie Fingers as the core of one the most dominant teams in MLB history, and the only non-Yankees team to win the World Series three years in a row. But they're best known for ushering in the most important development of the '70s - they brought pornstaches to baseball. Reggie Jackson showed up to spring training in 1972 with a mustache, and in an attempt to get the iconoclastic Jackson to shave it off, team owner Charles Finley had several other A's grow facial hair. Whoops - by June of that year literally every member of the Oakland A's had a 'stache, and on Father's Day the A's ran a promotion where if you had a mustache, you got into the game for free. Here is a picture of Rollie Fingers after being traded to the Brewers, predicting hipster fashion by a quarter-century:
...and that's it! I'll have the January post shortly. Love y'all.