Wordplay, The CROSSWORD COLUMN
All is bright with this Johan Vass puzzle, under a tree or at the kitchen table.
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SATURDAY PUZZLE — There is a lot to celebrate in this final Saturday grid of 2021, as long as you’re up for a bit of a challenge. Its symmetry is unusual: a mirror, along a vertical axis. Its word count is low: 61, which would indicate a difficult puzzle with a lot of long entries. And there are 10 debuts that range from the melodious to the ridiculous.
This is Johan Vass’s sophomore effort for The Times, after an excellent, intricate Sunday debut in April. Let’s hope for more like this in the new year.
To me, the 15-letter name of a 6-foot-5 W.N.B.A. star makes for a wonderfully lyrical debut. (Names like this, I imagine, are plums for constructors.) On the other end of the spectrum of new words is OWW, which you might have thought was EWW, a frequent entry. (Why have there been more than 20 EWWs and AWWs but no OWWs before now?) I thought it was EWW because I thought that 1A was a “phone app” instead of a PHOTO APP (which meant I had “Ness” instead of TESS Holliday and should have known better, because this model has been a clue a few times). As far as other misdirections, I waffled between ESP and LSD and assumed that a “man” would be engraved on an ancient tusk. (Maybe, but a MAP is far more fascinating.)
15A/18A. This is a really lovely combo once you see it; despite the fact that the directions are vague, I think it’s a more accessible clue pair than we often have on a weekend. You might need some crosses to realize that “Fly far, far away?” at 18A refers to an insect and not a vacation — the TSETSE fly, of sub-Saharan Africa. At 16A, “TSE” solves to the poet T.S. ELIOT.
31A. After noting all those EWWS and AWWS and OWWs, I should mention this OOH entry, OOH I’M SCARED, which is making its debut.
50A. First, think of fashion rather than athletics (or kangaroos). As an adult, I’ve come to think of a “jumper” in the British sense, as a sweater or sweatshirt. But in American fashion the name applies to a SLEEVELESS DRESS that usually goes over a separate top.
7D. Upon solving this, I thought: Shouldn’t a PLASTIC BAG be a former “Checkout choice” by now? I haven’t kept up on the legislation (or the controversy over banning single-use plastics).
12D. Here’s some new pop culture talent — it’s the first time in the puzzle for Dulcé SLOAN, who is funny on “The Daily Show” and who doesn’t like the cold in New York City. We got our first taste this week — just a cool breeze, really — but I’m with her, although it’s unsettling to see ROSES blooming in Queens in December.
31D. Another fun debut, a little bit cryptic; you have to translate “No way!” to a short expression, and then spell out OH EM GEE.
So nice to be back with my second puzzle — and on Christmas, of all days, to boot! I guess with a little bit of imagination, the grid is maybe sort of shaped like a Christmas tree. Personally, I mostly see an old telephone. It’s not really intended to look like anything in particular, though. The wacky grid design is actually purely incidental. It started out simply as an attempt to build a triple stack of 15s. Once I had that in place and was trying to figure out where to go from there, I soon realized that I could build that little arch around the central crossing entries and use left-right symmetry rather than rotational, which is really nice since it gave me the freedom to play around with the placement of black squares in the upper half of the grid until the very end of the construction process, rather than having a fixed layout that I needed to adhere to. I’m especially pleased that the one layout that actually did end up working for the upper part is the one that perfectly matches the big stair-step chunks of black squares in the lower half, which I think certainly added a bit of elegance to the puzzle.
Hope everyone’s having a wonderful Christmas. It truly makes me happy that something I made gets to be a part of the holiday for so many people.
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