Regular readers of this blog know that I am a passionate cook and an enthusiastic gardener. Another interest of mine is games and puzzles of all sorts but especially crossword puzzles. I used to subscribe to the Sunday New York Times but I stopped the subscription when I realized (and I’m embarrassed by this) that I was only reading the magazine and doing the crossword. Then, I subscribed to the Atlanta Journal Constitution when I realized that it also runs the Times crossword on Sunday (the week after it runs in the Times). I stopped that subscription when I realized (and I’m embarrassed by this) that I was only reading the advice columns and doing the crossword. Now, I buy the omnibus collections of the NYT’s Sunday puzzles. There are loads of crossword puzzles available online but I like the heft of the books and the sense of satisfaction that I gain from solving the puzzles one by one. I also enjoy contemplating the ego boost I will receive should anyone ever ask about my preferred puzzle and method. I will reply that not only do I consider the New York Times to be the gold standard of crosswords but that I always solve the puzzle in ink. Surprisingly, no one has ever asked me the question!
Of course, the NYT publishes American style crosswords which contain fewer shaded squares than British, Japanese, or Swedish style puzzles. American puzzles also (though not always) have a theme and these are the puzzles that I like best. Show me a puzzle with a title such as “When In Rome?” or “Proverbial Conflicts” and I can’t wait to sit down with a cup of tea and a writing implement (pen, please!).
Are you interested in crosswords? If so, DCPL has plenty of material to keep you informed and entertained.
Cruciverbalism: a crossword fanatic’s guide to life in the grid by Stanley Newman with Mark Lasswell is an interesting look into the world of those who make the puzzles we enjoy (Newman is the crossword editor for Newsday) and also provides tips for solving puzzles and bits of history—such as the reasons that modern newspaper puzzles increase in difficulty as the week goes on. Thanks to this book, I have also discovered (much to my shock) that the Sunday NYT puzzle is not the most difficult of the week (that honor goes to Saturday’s puzzle), it’s just the biggest. A cruciverbalist, by the way, is someone who (according to Merriam-Webster) “is skillful in creating or solving crossword puzzles.”
If you have a bias toward the New York Times crossword, as I do, then you may find How to Conquer the New York Times Crossword Puzzle: tips, tricks and techniques to master America’s favorite puzzle by Amy Renaldo very helpful. Renaldo’s book includes actual puzzles to practice with—all arranged in order of difficulty—as well as common words, tips on how to read clues, and ways that puzzle constructors will try to trick you.
You’ll find more crossword lore and fascinating trivia in Michelle Arnot’s Four Letter Words: and other secrets of a crossword insider. Arnot is herself a crossword editor and constructor and her book is full of tips and information. Did you know that one of the most frequently repeated four-letter word answers that puzzles have used through many years is the name “Omar”? What has changed are the clues—from the 1940’s “general, Bradley” to the “actor, Epps” of today.
From Square One: a meditation, with digressions, on crosswords by Dean Olsher is as much a philosophical musing on the significance of the crossword puzzle as it is an exploration of the puzzle’s history. One of Oshler’s points is that crosswords represent a world free of uncertainty. Also, interesting to me is Oshler’s skepticism regarding the widely held belief that solving crossword puzzles can ward off Alzheimer’s. Is the compulsion to fill in empty space a mental disorder (as Oshler seems to suggest)? I don’t know but I don’t intend to give it up.
If fiction is your pleasure, and you like a “cozy” style mystery, then you might want to dip into Parnell Hall’s “Puzzle Lady” series. The books feature eccentric detective, Cora Felton, who is the public face of a syndicated crossword puzzle (her brainy niece, Sherry, is the actual author of the puzzles). You can start with the first book in the series, A Clue for the Puzzle Lady, or pick up the latest offering NYPD Puzzle, or land anywhere in between—DCPL has all fifteen books in the series.
Finally, for some unexpected fun, allow me to recommend the movie Wordplay. Released in 2006 and directed by Patrick Creadon, this documentary film focuses in its first half on Will Shortz who is the long-time editor of the New York Times crossword puzzle, Merl Reagan a well-known crossword constructor, and cast of solvers and buffs such as John Stewart and Bill Clinton. Stewart says (tongue-in-cheek, of course, but I can relate), “I am a Times puzzle fan. I will solve, in a hotel, a USA Today, but I don’t feel good about myself when I do it.” The second half of the movie focuses on the 2005 American Crossword Puzzle Tournament held in Stamford Connecticut (since the film’s release, the tournament location has moved to Brooklyn, New York). You might not think that a movie about the inner workings of, and the participants in, a crossword contest could be both suspenseful and fascinating. You would be wrong. The finalists, who include three veteran champs and a newbie, are interesting, at times lovable, people. My favorite is Tyler Hinman, the first time competitor, who wins the competition and, at the age of 20, becomes the youngest contestant in the competition’s history to do so. At the time, Hinman was an undergraduate at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (he currently works as a games developer in San Francisco) and he went on to win the title five consecutive times. One of my favorite moments in the film comes when someone asks Hinman, who has just won, what drew him to the competition in the first place. Hineman replies (and I’m paraphrasing here from memory), “I thought it would be a good way to meet girls.” This is a charming film, well worth your time, and highly recommended.
Do you like puzzles? What are your favorites?