Humblebrag, of a Sort – The New York Times

SATURDAY PUZZLE — This is John Westwig’s second Saturday puzzle in a row for The Times. His crossword has all the hallmarks of a great themeless grid: intimidating single-word clues that send me back to my days of vocabulary tests, wordplay that requires a second (or third) take, and interesting trivia that at first appears more obscure than it is. Even so, the solve manages to not be too frustrating; it is also fresh without being trendy, mainly because of reasonable crosses throughout.

13A. This is a debut, and a rubric that I’ve never heard before in baseball lore. The “Famous game-saving 1954 World Series play by Willie Mays” is THE CATCH, an incredible, career-defining play in the history of the World Series. (The success of THE CATCH also depended on Mays’s ensuing throw, which is just as impressive.)

20A. “Raise people’s spirits?” is a pun that’s as perfect as a crystal, and yet I went afoul trying to figure out the answer. With crossing entries giving me the first few letters, I thought it could be “hold up a bar,” which is mildly clever but also shy a letter and a bark up the wrong tree. The right answer is sublimely better: HOLD A SÉANCE. Let those souls soar!

26A. Both of the pop music references in this puzzle are debuts. This one was my first entry, but it might be a little niche. “____ Cherry, singer with the 1988 hit ‘Buffalo Stance,’” is NENEH. That song was a huge success (its video is quintessentially 1980s), and despite being a bit of a one-hit wonder, she’s still making music.

36A. Such a tease here: “This clue’s answer might contain more than seven letters,” for an entry that is exactly seven letters long. When can a seven-letter entry have more than seven letters, though? When it’s a MAILBAG. (Yes, I had “mailbox,” at first.)

5D. Nothing like a quotation I’ve never seen by a luminary I’ve never heard of to make me remember what day it is. “The beginning and end of all music,” per Max Reger, is fortunately someone very famous: BACH. Max Reger (1873-1916) was a German composer and has been in the Times crossword puzzle three times as an entry, although not recently. His works for organ are considered to be greatly influenced by J.S. Bach.

14D. I love the double meaning in this centerpiece clue! “Game where it always counts” is HIDE AND GO SEEK, whose rules require a seeker, known as “it,” to count to 100 or so while everyone else scatters and tries to avoid being found.

17D. This is the other music debut. The “Eminem track with the Guinness World Record for ‘most words in a hit single’” is RAP GOD. That number? 1,560 words in a song that’s a hair over six minutes long, or about 4.28 words per second.

39D/40D. Mr. Westwig cites his cozy northwest corner in his notes. Agreed, but I think a pairing in the opposing southeast corner is dazzling. The first clue is “Average American, allusively” — amazing alliteration. The answer is PEORIAN, a reference to a Vaudeville-era concern about an act’s potential: “Will it play in Peoria?” Next comes a “Press secretary’s asset, informally”; the answer is PR SAVVY, which juxtaposes really well with PEORIAN in both pronunciation and meaning. Think of the PR SAVVY that PEORIA still has, a century after the Illinois city became a testing ground for popularity.

I had seeded this puzzle with SYNONYM on the bottom row, for which I had a stockpile of annoying clues: “Checks for ticks?” was my favorite. As it often goes, other constraints forced my hand, and I changed that entry to another member of the “-onym” suffix family. (Still interesting, in my book, but not so amenable to a tricky clue.)

I like to think that 1-, 2- and 3-Down tell a nice story of relaxation. With colder and rainier weather upon us in the Pacific Northwest, I’ll be sipping on a hot chai. Pleonasms be damned!

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