Saturday, November 5, 2011

Ratchet bar / SUN 11-6-11 / Brightly colored lizards / Odyssey temptress / PJ-clad mansion owner / Musician who won 2011 Presidential Medal of Freedom

Constructor: Elizabeth C. Gorski

Relative difficulty: Challenging

THEME: "Baker's Dozen" — 12 different theme answers are kinds of cakes. They are clued in non-cake fashion, and are in the grid upside-down (Down answers that run upward) — hence the theme-revealing answer (the 13th theme answer in the "Baker's Dozen"): UPSIDEDOWN CAKES (47D: Pastry chef creations ... and a hint to 12 other answers in this puzzle)

Word of the Day: PAWL (75A: Ratchet bar) —
A hinged or pivoted device adapted to fit into a notch of a ratchet wheel to impart forward motion or prevent backward motion.

[Probably from Dutch pal, from Latin pālus, stake.]
• • •
I am on record (multiple times) proclaiming the genius of Liz Gorski. Easily one of my five favorite constructors. This may explain why I found this puzzle to be a crushing disappointment. The concept is brilliant, of course—this is what Liz does better than anyone else: dream up elaborate, creative, and mind-bending Sunday theme concepts. What I found distressing—and what, in the end, left me with one and nearly two errors—was an overwhelming amount of arcanity and fustiness in the fill. An avalanche of crosswordese, and not just the harmless stuff like ANS and INE. Nobody minds an AGHA here or a LAILA there. That's just the glue that holds otherwise fine creations together. It's just that this time someone got crazy with the glue gun and made a terrible mess. Here's the short list (in addition to the aforementioned tetrad of answers): TRE MMV ARNEL LTR LLDS NOI ERST BONA MOL SAR ENNE ETALII APRS INCOG ANIS STOA FUM ORRIS AGAMAS (?) NEVA LYSIN STR AYEN ALAR INRE ENE ESSO SSS. In the end, though, it's the EWA / PAWL and the ONEGA / GAGE crosses that take the bad fill fest from mere annoyance to full-scale train wreck. EWA and ONEGA (while I'm sure I've seen them in puzzles before, somewhere...) are obscure geographical answers (very Maleska-era stuff) and thus Require rock solid, common words in Every cross. Now, I'm going to fault myself for not knowing GAGE. I *guessed* GAGE, and was correct, so I lucked out. And yes, I'm sure I should know All the damn generals in every war. It's probably reasonable trivia. It's just ... it intersects *$#@ing ONEGA.

As solvers, we all compensate for our ignorance by relying on crosses. Some people, for instance, will not have known LARA Logan, but all her crosses are gettable, so ... who cares? You don't have to fret or complain about not knowing her. But GAGE / ONEGA is a dangerous cross. Definite Natick territory for some. Not for me, but for some. Where *I* got Naticked was EWA / PAWL. EWA is something I "know" Only because I have a reader from EWA Beach (it's not famous—if you haven't been to Hawaii and haven't solved a ton of crosswords, you don't know it ... it's not MAUI or OAHU or NENE, is what I'm saying). Sadly, I remembered it as EWO, and never ever having heard of a PAWL, there was No way I was getting out of that mistake. If I thought I was alone or in a tiny minority in muffing these crosses (well, one of them), I would just slap myself and move on. But there will be others who have the same experience (which I know, from experience). The times at the NYT site are terrible, which I'm betting is due not to the challenging quality of the theme (once you pick it up, it's not that tough), but to the same problem with short obscurities that I had. My particular problem areas were part of an overall over-reliance on short, odd, ugly, and/or obscure fill, which ended up overshadowing the loveliness of the theme.

Theme answers:
  • 1D: Not having quite enough money (TROHS) — short cake!
  • 110D: Bed cover (TEESH) —sheet cake!
  • 12D: The "mode" of "a la mode" (MAERC ECI) — ice cream cake!
  • 87D: Cause for bringing out candles (YADHTRIB) — birthday cake!
  • 3D: Schokolade (ETALOCOHCNAMREG) — German chocolate cake!
  • 15D: Canine shelter (DNUOP) — pound cake!
  • 103D: Coat of paint (REYAL) — layer cake!
  • 5D: Manna, according to the Bible (DOOFLEGNA) — angel food cake!
  • 84D: Girl's holiday party dress  fabric (TEVLEVDER) — red velvet cake!
  • 40D: Wooded area near the Rhine Valley (TSEROFKCALB) — Black Forest cake!
  • 50D: Squishy dish cleaner (EGNOPS) — sponge cake!
  • 61D: Word before republic or seat (ANANAB) — banana cake!       

The puzzle's theme is great because of the title — nice use of a baking phrase that also ties to the number of theme answers — and because of the amazing symmetry of the theme answers. Also, it's just dang clever. Took me a looong time to cop the theme, mostly because I was sure that TROHS (1D: Not having quite enough money) was a representation of "[Coming up] SHORT." See, it's the word SHORT, and instead of going Down, like it's supposed to, it's coming up. I didn't get to the theme revealer until something like half the grid was already filled in. I could see answers were running upwards, but I had No idea why. After I hit the revealer, things got a lot easier. But not easy enough, apparently.


  • 19A: Invader of 1066 (NORMAN) — the NORMAN Invasion comes up every time I teach Brit Lit I and I *still* balked at this clue the first time around. "Some random invader!? How should I know!?" Smooth.
  • 37A: "Odyssey" temptress (CIRCE) — This one I knew. Sometimes I actually recall the things I teach. We call those "good days."
  • 81A: PJ-clad mansion owner (HEF) — I like this clue. Shortened "PJ" cuing shortened "HEF."
  • 87A: Musician who won a 2011 Presidential Medal of Freedom (YO-YO MA) — he has this new album with a few other guys called "The Goat Rodeo Sessions"; it's pretty great:

  • 97A: Peak leaf-peeping time in Pennsylvania (MID-OCTOBER) — I really like this answer. Inventive, and seasonal!
  • 42D: Area known to the Chinese as Dongbei (MANCHURIA) — this reminds me: just received the latest edition (18th) of Oxford UP's stunning "Atlas of the World"; we were looking at the topographical maps of western China today. Dramatic rise to the Himalayas signified visually by a vivid and abrupt florescence of purple.
  • 76D: "___ loves believes the impossible": Elizabeth Barrett Browning ("WHOSO") — Argh. I had HE WHO. If the clue had been ["___ list to hunt, I know where is an hind": Wyatt], I'd have nailed it.
Signed, Rex Parker, King of CrossWorld

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