THURSDAY PUZZLE — Some solvers enjoy grid “decorations” (black square art, circled squares, or connect-the-dots themes that create a visual at the end of the solve) and some don’t.
That’s OK. Personally, I think these embellishments add to the experience, sometimes turning a relatively straightforward puzzle into a luxurious head scratcher. You say “to-mah-to” and would rather have every crossword be an excruciating test of language skills, where all the words go in only two, and that bears repeating, two directions: Across and Down. As God intended it.
I hear you, I really do. Given the polar opposite nature of our opinions, however, only one of us can be happy at a time, and it looks as though today is my day. The Thursday puzzles usually are, what with all of the great things they bring us. Your day may be tomorrow, or the next. That’s the nice thing about having a daily puzzle. If you’re not into this one, there’s always another one to follow. But I hope you’re into this one, because it’s a lot of fun.
Blake Slonecker returns with his second New York Times Crossword, and the circled squares indicate that something is up. I would use a more piscine idiom, but that would be a spoiler, and you know how I hate those in the intro. (I would run if I were you. —Ed.)
Table of Contents
1A. One of my favorite Broadway shows is “The Book of Mormon,” but I never really understood how the FROG fit into the second half of the play. I mean, I understood its role, but why a FROG? Why not a giraffe? Now I get it. The FROG was a symbol of fertility in ancient Egypt. I will leave it to you to make the connection. Or Google it.
5A. TIL (Today I Learned) of the existence of the “salmon ladder,” which enables salmon to jump up a series of steps in a DAM so that they may spawn. And not, as I previously thought, a ladder made of actual salmon.
19A. The entry HIDEOUS has not been seen in the New York Times Crossword since 1968, but you cannot deny that it is a good crossword word. Look at all those vowels!
23A. I also learned that another word for CAT PEOPLE (people who love cats) is “Ailurophile.”
25A. Ah, if only someone had told me that there was an elegant, rolls-right-off-the-tongue word for the LABOR phase of giving birth to a baby like “accouchement.” Maybe it wouldn’t have hurt so much. Just kidding. It still would have been horrifying.
29A. Is INSTA replacing the word “photo,” like asking for a Kleenex instead of a tissue? I don’t think so. I rarely hear anyone say “Take my INSTA.” I’ve heard of people referring to their Instagram accounts as their INSTAs. As always, your mileage and photos may vary.
44A. I loved this clue, specifically because I had to read it over and over in order to get it. When I had my “aha!” moment, it was like a smack in the head. “Chase vehicle, once, in brief?” sounds like the word “chase” is being used as a verb, but even then, something feels off. It turns out that this clue is referring to the comedian Chevy Chase, and the vehicle is a TV show, not a car. His onetime vehicle, in brief, is “S.N.L.” (Hi, kids! Mr. Chase was in the original 1975 cast.)
52A. It’s hard to clue the entry PERM without making this joke, but “Waves to a hairdresser?” refers to the permanent waves a stylist puts in your hair.
64A. “Snapper?” is a fun misdirection for CAMERA, with which you can snap an INSTA. See how I brought that full circle? This is why I make the medium-sized bucks.
37D. I was rooting for a Moscow Mule for the “drink that might be served with a metal cup,” but there weren’t enough letters. I will happily take a MILKSHAKE instead.
Mr. Slonecker says in his notes below that the arrangement of black squares was meant to resemble a fish, and that makes sense, because this is a puzzle about fishing. That pyramid of black squares at the bottom of this mirror symmetry grid is supposed to be the tail of the fish, and I can see that.
Now for the tricky part. As I’ve said in the past, by the time we get to Thursday, it’s reasonable to expect that the theme of the puzzle may not constrain itself to the long Across entries. Mr. Slonecker’s theme is visual, and the four groups of circled squares are a hint as to what lies ahead of us. We’re just going to have to cast our lines and go fishing for it.
The constructor has provided us with hooks, and it looks as though he has not only cast them for us, but he has also helped us catch a bunch of fish.
I caught (sorry) onto this because, while I have substantial holes in my knowledge base, I do know that the ancient “Vedic religious text” is the UPANISHAD. Don’t ask me to explain that. It took me two hours to remember the “fire extinguisher” the other day, but my brain is extremely eager to offer up the UPANISHAD.
Anyway, there weren’t enough slots for the full name, but I did notice that I ran out of space right in the middle of the four circled squares. Could that be a continuation of the entry? It is! UPANISH — which is what fits in the slot for 38D — continues through the “hook” shape made by the circled squares.
Why does it do that? The answer lies in the hook. The four letters, when read from the “fishing line” to the end of the hook spell SHAD, a type of fish.
Mr. Slonecker hides his revealer (of sorts) well, at 1D and 11D. The answers are FISH and HOOK, which, when put together, make FISH HOOK.
Now you cast your reel and hook the other three fish.
I truly admire constructors who can bend entries to their will. Not only do they have to come up with the theme, but they have to fit things where they don’t necessarily fit. And then they have to find just the right place for those extra letters, after which they have to fill around it. Oh, and it has to fill well.
But to notice the fact that four fish, each of which has a four-letter name, are found at the ends of four common phrases — that’s what really elevates this theme and makes it elegant. I’m not much for fishing (your mileage may vary), but I really liked this puzzle.
Last summer, I read a lot about the history of treaty-protected fishing rights on the Indigenous Columbia Plateau. In particular, I am interested in ongoing efforts by Northwest tribes (led by the Nez Percé) to remove four dams on the lower Snake River, as well as the long history of litigation and activism by the Yakama Nation to maintain their right to fish in “all usual and accustomed places,” an important phrase from their 1855 treaty. Fish were on my mind, and it is usually only a small jump from whatever is occupying my mind to whatever puzzles I’m working on.
The core idea and theme entries for this puzzle came quickly, and I love constructing puzzles that break rules about how theme entries fit into grids. To visually approximate the activity of fishing, I wanted the fish hooks to appear at the end of down entries. This led me to use left-right symmetry, a first for me. I also tried to organize the blocks to appear fishlike in the grid, with the triangle at the bottom passing for a tail. But my daughters assured me that what I insisted looked like a fish actually looked like … something other than a fish.
My favorite personal connection to this puzzle’s theme: My face once had a close encounter with some fish hooks when I was a kid. I was fishing on the Imnaha River in northeast Oregon, and I thought it would be fun to “fly fish” with a Rapala lure, which had a pair of triple hooks. It whizzed past my right ear a time or two before three of the hooks caught me across the face. It hurt, which was bad enough. But the truly scary part was my grandpa pulling out his Leatherman tool to remove the hooks! His improv surgery worked — and I learned some sort of life lesson, I imagine.
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