Sunday, October 26, 2014

Aah or Ahh? I never know.

"Also Included" is the title of this week's Premier Crossword by Frank Longo and it didn't take long to see that the long theme answers are all common phrases with "AND" inserted to create newly imagined phrases clued, of course, with a "?" to indicate the wackiness of the results. So strictly speaking, "also" isn't literally included as the title suggests but a reasonable synonym takes its place, so close enough - creative license and all that. With the grid all filled in we find these altered expressions populating the long answers:

23a - STRANDING QUARTETS (Leaving chamber groups high and dry?)
33a - FAUX PANDAS (Black-and-white stuffed animals?)
49a - LANDED BY EXAMPLE (Showed the ideal way to touch down?)
67a - THIS WON'T HURT A BANDIT ("No roving robbers will be harmed by what I'm doing"?)
84a - RUNNING MANDATES (Official orders telling folks to jog?)
99a - BANDED HEAD (Noggin with a sweat absorber around it?)
115a-BETTER THAN EVANDER (Superior to boxer Holyfield?)

Once I picked up the conceit I found the theme to be very helpful in filling in the grid because the core phrases were mostly easy to figure out and the words formed by inserting "and" were apparent from the cluing so it turned into a fairly easy exercise to fill them in. I suppose Evander Holyfield might cause some grief for some solvers but "better than ever" is is a common expression and there are only so many places "and" can reasonably be added, or if all else fails the crosswords will point the way. My clear favorite long answer is "this won't hurt a bandit", both for the cleverness of the clue and the fact that the core phrase is more often than not an outright lie - when someone says it in all likelihood whatever they're doing is going to hurt. Seven theme answers is about the minimum for Frank's grids, I think, but obviously sometimes you need to go for quality over quantity.

Regular readers (Hi, Mom!) know that I frequently grouse about the multitude of pop-culture answers that are NEEDFUL (71d - Required) to complete the puzzle, so today I'd like to remark on the dearth of such references in the grid - CELEBS (48d 0- A-list folks) are not totally absent (Hi, R&B singer India.ARIE) but they are few and far between so kudos to the constructor on that count.

I made a couple of mis-steps which are apparent from a glance at my completed grid. I could have avoided the SErGE/SEDGE (30a - Grasslike swamp plant) calamity if I hadn't resisted defining SCROD as "Young cod" (3d) which I think is technically wrong, or at least incomplete. We in New England use the term to apply to any whitefish that's been split and boned for consumption, and although "young cod" could certainly be included in the definition it is not limited to that. My complaint would be resolved with "e.g." in the clue, but I think it's at least misleading as written. For what it's worth the term for "young cod" seems to be "codling". On the other hand TERESe/TERESA (19d - Nun of Avila) and newEST/LATEST (96d - Most recent) are all on me - I really need to wait for the crosswords to guide me before I put my ignorance on display.

There's not much else to say about the puzzle, but I won't let that stop me:

- The constructor's favorite novelist makes her weekly appearance with "Grafton's Q IS for Quarry" (24d)

- HORN-MAD (70d) means exactly what the clue says it means but it's not a phrase that's used often, I think (nothing wrong with that, though).

- Strictly speaking, T-MEN (69d) are specifically Treasury agents; Federal agents in general are more often called G-MEN. We retired Revenuers are picky about these things.

- I spelled ANORAK (18d - Parka) correctly, proving that I can learn from my earlier mistakes.

- FILMIER? (33d - More gauzy)

- NANU - NANU (68d - Half of a "Mork & Mindy" farewell) 'til next week.

Here's a timely update to the Kinks hit LOLA (52d) to send you on your way.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

I give it an A MINUS

The Premier Crossword by Frank Longo this week is titled "Celebrities of the Past". Puzzles with a theme involving proper names often give me fits because I am not especially well-versed in pop-culture icons, but happily many of the celebrities in the grid today were at least familiar names without a rapper, hip-hop artist or modern sitcom actress among them so I managed to soldier through.

I didn't have enough crosswords in place to let me see the first two long answers so the theme remained a mystery to me until I arrived at 31 across, "Took the "Alphabet Series" novelist to court?", and the whole conceit became totally transparent. Frank has assembled a cast of a dozen(!) more or less famous persons whose first names can be re-imagined as verbs, which then have "ED" added to make them past tense, with "?-style" clues to define the newly created phrase:

23a - PIERCED BRONSON (Gave a shot for a James Bond actor?)
29a - JOSHED GROBAN  (Teased a classical/pop singer?)
31a - SUED GRAFTON  (see above)
38a - ROBBED LOWE (Stole from a "West-Wing" co-star?)
52a - BILLED O'REILLY (Sent an invoice to a Fox News Channel host?)
62a - MARKED TWAIN (Tattooed Tom Sawyer's creator?)
79a - GRACED KELLY (Honored the wife of Rainier III with one's presence?)
86a - WOLFED BLITZER (Devoured a CNN reporter?)
99a - MIKED TYSON (Prepared a boxing champion for an on-air interview?)
108a-NICKED NOLTE (Slightly cut the star of "Affliction"?)
110a-ROCKED HUDSON (Gently moved a "Pillow Talk" co-star back and forth?)
120a-RUSHED LIMBAUGH (Hurried a radio talk show host?)

I remarked in this space recently that Sue Grafton is a constructor's best friend because her book titles provide convenient fill when they need a three-letter word ending in _IS, which happens with some frequency, so it was nice to see her full name appear in the grid as kind of a "thank you" gesture. Even if you've never read any of her books (as I haven't) her name is a household name to anyone who does crosswords regularly (as I do) so she served as a "reveal" to the theme (for me, anyway).

As to the other theme answers, they are a diverse group from a number of different fields of interest, so good on that. The only one that gave me any difficulty, in fact I needed all of the crosswords to produce his name, was Josh Groban but I see now that he's quite famous in current music circles and may be familiar to younger solvers, but my tastes run to "oldies" so I hadn't heard of him. I don't watch Fox News Channel or listen to talk radio either, but it's pretty hard to avoid mention, never favorable, of the two blow-hards associated with those media so they were both easy enough to see just from the clues. I'm sure there are many other names that could be considered for the theme, but finding 6 relatively well-known pairs to insert into a symmetrical grid couldn't have been easy, so high marks on that score.

It seems to me that when a theme relies on proper names the constructor should go to great lengths to avoid as far as possible using more in the short fill, so I was dismayed to count at least 14 instances in the grid today, but again they were pretty much devoid of the sorts I consider as personal nemeses as mention above so none of them gave me a great deal of trouble. In fact, the only place I struggled at all was in the upper-right corner, where the unknown (to me) theme answer appeared. I finally pieced it together with the down answers because ROMANO (22a - Sharp cheese) and ARMANI (26a - Versace competitor) didn't exactly spring to mind. It took a while to figure out that "Spitballs, e.g." was AMMO (15d) and I wanted the "Sicilian city" to be EtNA (17d) for way too long. Seeing DOIN as the solution for "Totally ruin" (18d) took some time, too, so all-in-all that corner put up quite a fight - not that there's anything wrong with that.

Let's see, what else can I spot in the grid that seems comment-worthy:

- We have a couple of gastronomic entries starting off with LIPASE (1d - Enzyme in fat breakdown), which makes me wonder if that's required when one consumes OLESTRA (39d - Faux fat)? Inquiring minds want to know.

- The Spanish language provides ORO (gold), OSO (bear) and today's OJO(S) (25d - Spanish for "eyes" - all handy words for constructors I would say.

- If EELER has to appear in the puzzle, "Conger hunter" (47a) is a great clue.

- BITSY (71a - Wee) looks like it's desperately crying out for "Itsy" to join it but apparently it can stand alone.

- My hat is off to anyone who dropped in AKIHITO (64d - Japan's emperor) without all of the crosswords. His name is in the news enough that it should be recognizable but I somehow manage to avoid absorbing unfamiliar names in the news.

- When I said my musical taste runs to "oldies" I didn't mean "early 20th century" so "Mighty LAK' a Rose" (old song) (88d) sent me to wiki to learn this: ""Mighty Lak' a Rose" is a 1901 song with lyrics by Frank Lebby Stanton and music by Ethelbert Nevin.
The lyrics are written in an approximation of an African-American accent; such "dialect songs" were common in the era. The title thus means "Mighty (very much) like a rose"; this assessment is addressed by a mother (or perhaps an observer) to her newborn son. The dialect has been modified by some singers, such as Frank Sinatra. Audiences of various cultures and backgrounds have been able to identify with the narrator, the mother, and the child."
- "Fill in the blank" partial phrases abound with the likes of "TRY TO see it my way" (65a), "DON'T I know it!" (77a), "Either you do it OR I will!" (87d) and "...for the life OF ME" all bringing a first-person feel to the grid. Even the requisite random Roman numeral continues the ego-centric trend with CIII (112d - Cato's 103) - it's enough to make one as "Cross as A BEAR" (5d)!
- Frank offers a tip o' the hat to gentlemen's clubs where one can enjoy a snifter of COGNAC (24d - Fine brandy) with a STOGIE (105d - Smelly cigar) - some of my friends would call that a BLAST (103a - Fun party).
- IRIS (53d) - Eye piece?) and ERIS (73a - Dwarf planet beyond Pluto) are separated by only one letter, and in the grid they are separated by only one black square - is that good or bad, I wonder?
- I saved my favorite answer for last because MAMBO is clued as "Rhumba's kin" (49d) and that let's me sign off with this favorite video clip - enjoy, and see you next week!

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Trapped like A RAT!

This week the Premier Crossword by Frank Longo reverts to riddle mode with a puzzle titled "The Nationalist and The Newborn". When the theme revolves around a riddle there's nothing to do but work through the clues and see what develops as the long theme answers aren't going to provide much help, at least at first. I went down a couple of rabbit holes as I worked through the grid but I eventually got it all straightened out to wind up staring at this groan-inducing riddle/answer set:

67a - AS HE WAS

(Wait for it...)


And that's all I have to add to the discussion of the theme.

As for the non-theme fill, as I said I took a few of wrong turns, all my own fault. I learned early-on that I don't know how to spell ANORAKS (4d - Arctic parkas) as I wanted the second "a" to be an "e", but google doesn't even offer that as a variant spelling so I can't use that as an excuse. On the other hand I think I was more than justified in wanting "Boisterous, loud laugh" (5d) to be HAr HAr, which I think is at least as good as HAW HAW - the fact that my wrong letters both crossed parts of the riddle didn't help matters, so it took quite a bit of head scratching to sort out. "Situated in the middle" (49d) was obviously CENTRal, until it wasn't, and once again a crossing riddle part was no help. It took CYANIDE (87a - Poison in many murder mysteries) to set me on the path to CENTRIC.
And who wouldn't think "Deviating off course" (101d) is errING, right? Wrong, and I as a life-long sailor should have had YAWING as my first instinct; again, my mistake masked part of the riddle for a while. What can I say? - I have a tendency to guess wrong sometimes, but I managed to get it all fixed but it wasn't pretty.

As usual there were a couple of entries or juxtapositions that caught my fancy (or irritated me, as the case may be):

- Sue Grafton is back in the grid with "Grafton's EIS for Evidence" (63a); Frank could have avoided that particular bit of overused cluing with any number of alternate citations - my personal preference would be for a reference to the international airport in the British Virgin Islands that uses those particular letters as its IATA airport code (really, I looked it up  on the internet) but maybe a more useful way would be a reference to the solid state of water in Berlin?

- I really liked KISS (110d - Hug go-with) crossing NECKING (109a - Making out). I suppose if I wanted to torture the point I could add TANGOS (98d - Dances with dipping) and WIGGLE (99d - Squirm) to the picture as part of the foreplay. Oh wait, PETE'S WICKED (66d - Ale brand until 2011) is also involved, and there's a SATIN bridal gown (92d) that she probably insisted on before consenting to the ENTER (104d - Go in) phase, no doubt so he wouldn't just up and LEAVE (105d - Go out) right after. Damn, that's the story line for a tawdry romance novel, or at least a country song, right there.

- I just now got the joke at 112d, Firm cheese > BOSS; "firm" = "company" - get it?  I admit I was totally misdirected by the earlier entry, Soft cheese > BRIE (96a). Well played, Frank Longo.

- CLYDE (18d - Bonnie's pal) reminds me of this, with which I will leave you for this week - Y'all come back, now!

Sunday, October 5, 2014

I finished without a single ERRATUM

The Premier Crossword by Frank Longo is titled "Circular Thinking", which I found to be less than helpful when it came to figuring out the theme of the puzzle. Even after I had several of the long theme answers in place I couldn't see a common feature that somehow unified them in terms of "circular thinking" or any other way for that matter. It was only when I came upon and solved the final long answer, which Frank Longo had helpfully inserted for dense solvers like me, that I finally understood: THINGS WITH RINGS (126a - Theme of this puzzle). So there's no convoluted mind game involved after all, it's a list of items each of which has a different type of ring:

23a - LOOSE-LEAF BINDER (Its sheets have holes in them)
37a - OLYMPIC FLAG (It's raised in some opening ceremonies)
42a - KEY CHAINS (They may be attached to fobs)
63a - TELEPHONES (Mobiles, e.g.)
71a - GYMNASTICS SCHOOLS (Learning centers with many mats)
83a - CIRCUS TENT (Big top)
103a-TREE TRUNK (Stump, e.g.)
107a-JEWELRY SHOP (Bling seller)

That's a pretty good list, I think, and I especially like how each one has a unique kind of ring associated with it. So while the theme eluded me as I was solving I liked it a lot once it was revealed by the constructor. Others probably saw it much sooner, but I was too busy focusing on my own "circular thinking" to notice the obvious (that happens to me often).

As to the non-theme fill it seems to me that Frank jacked the difficulty level up a notch over his usual fare, as I found myself constantly back-tracking to fill in answers that I had left blank when I first encountered them which I don't usually have to do. There were even a couple of entries that left me uncertain they were correct after I wrote them in. DIPLOID (8a - Having two of each chromosome) was particularly problematic because the word was totally unfamiliar to me, and two of the crosses could plausibly have been different: IN BALANCE (9D - Maintaining equilibrium) might have been "on balance", and PHIS (10d - Letters after upsilons) might have been "chis" (I never claimed to know the whole Greek alphabet). The other entry that caused me some mild anguish was ASCUS (22a - Fungal spore sac), mostly because I was not 100% certain of ESPERANTO (16d - Language devised in 1887). Likewise, MAGOG (94a - Revelation nation) was also a total unknown for me, but at least all of the crosswords were solid. None of this is by way of complaint as I enjoy a challenging puzzle, but it definitely provided a different solving experience than I am used to when I do a Premier Crossword.

Other entries that caught my attention for a variety of reasons:

- POO (66d) is a word I don't think I've encountered in a puzzle before, for obvious reasons, but Frank managed to come up with a clue that renders it suitable for the puzzles page in a family newspaper: "Jack-a-___" (hybrid dog).
- "Old dog star" (52d) had me thinking celestial body and then it turned out to be none other than LASSIE - nice misdirection.
-"Ground, as grinders" (97d) had me totally flummoxed until the crosswords made GNASHED inevitable.
- "Wee miss" (39d) is YOUNG GIRL while "Little boys" (98a) are LADS - that's a nice pairing, I think.
- It's Sunday, so my first thought on seeing "Part of AFL" (38d) had me thinking football but I couldn't see how any part of American Football Leagues was going to fit into 5 squares. Good thing for me I've also heard of the American Federation of LABOR.
- I had the first three letters of THWART (103d - Impede) in place and thought I had a mistake but it turns out there really is a word the begins with THW.
- "The "SI" of WYSIWYG" (117a) is pretty cryptic unless you are familiar with the phrase "what you SEE IS what you get".
- EROICA (105d - Beethoven symphony nickname) and Mozart's "Eine KLEINE Nachtmusik" (106d) add a touch of class to the grid.
- MONACO (69a - European country) is never in the news - I wonder why that is? Come to think of it SWEden (99d - Eur. country) keeps a pretty low profile, too. They must be doing something right.
- "A" IS for Alibi" (119a) is the first entry in the "alphabet series" of books by Sue Grafton (I think she's up to "W" is for Wasted). Her titles are very helpful to crossword constructors.
- GYN (101d - Ob-__(delivery doc)) crossing ENT (114a - Doc treating tinnitus) is a strange combination of medical specialties, it seems.
- Have you taken the ALS (33d - Gore and Green) Ice Bucket Challenge yet? Me neither.
- I'll be a MENSCH (54d - Kind, decent person) and quit now.

Here's your puzzle-inspired musical clip for this week: