13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on August 6, 2006
Although a great many people work the crosswords in their local newspaper, buy puzzle books and magazines, and spend hours scratching their heads over devilish clues and fiendish themes, almost no one gives much thought to the people who construct, edit, or publish crossword puzzles. In "Gridlock," Matt Gaffney, one of the fifteen or so people in the U.S. who can claim the designation of professional cruciverbalist (someone who actually earns a living creating crossword puzzles), presents a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at the crossword puzzle business.
This book is a veritable potpourri of facts, interviews, and anecdotes about crosswords. Gaffney interviews New York Times puzzle superstar Will Shortz, of course, but he also talks to New York Sun puzzle editor Peter Gordon and provides a humorous look at the Times/Sun crossword wars. He draws an interesting and touching portrait of reclusive constructor Henry Hook. He visits the offices of Penny Press, a large publisher of puzzle magazines. He discusses the marketing of original and reprint crossword collections, and describes the mind set needed to create and clue a specialty crossword for a niche market. He even takes the book to a personal level as he offers frank details about his own struggles, frustrations, and triumphs in getting his puzzles marketed.
There is ample information about the cardinal rules of crossword construction and about what makes a puzzle good enough to beat out the competition for publication in the New York Times. Although the reader gets to look over Gaffney's shoulder as he creates a puzzle, there is not enough information about the mysterious mechanics of filling a grid so that I would be able to successfully construct a puzzle myself. A chapter I find especially interesting is about the use of computers in crossword puzzle construction. Gaffney organizes a contest between man and machine. I think I will easily be able to tell the difference between a computer-generated grid and a human-generated one, but there are a few surprises in store.
Thanks to books like Gaffney's and to the documentary film "Wordplay," the crossword puzzle has finally been given a chance to bask in the limelight. "Gridlock" would be a welcome addition to every crossword lover's library.
10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on October 3, 2006
Gridlock, along with its recent predecessors in various media (Marc Romano's book, Crossworld, and the film Wordplay) opens up a world at once familiar and arcane. The familiar is the crossword puzzle, pastime of tens of millions (or maybe now fives of millions, what with sudoku's encroachments). The arcane is the world of top solvers and constructors who congregate every March at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament in Stamford, CT. I am a part of this world, having been in the Class B playoffs one year, and having done crosswords and other word and non-word puzzles for 50 years.
Puzzle mavens will find much that is new here--and much that is familiar. The new includes: (1) an attempt to determine how badly sudoku and other logic puzzles are undermining the more literate and humanistic discipline of word puzzles; (2) a peek at the judges' room at Stamford; (3) a visit to Penny Press publications; (4) a sad/funny description of his attempt, with Matt Jones, to market hip, alternative crossword puzzles; (5) in-depth discussion of grid construction. Not so new are the obligatory Will Shortz bio and house tour, and the run-through of the Stamford tournament (though not the same one covered in Crossworld and Wordplay).
There are many new insights, some quite funny. I agree with him that it is counterintuitive that so many crossword constructors are math-based, and that it would be difficult to imagine witty solving stories involving sudoku conquests. I can also personally vouch for the fact that solving giga-sized crosswords can produce lower back pain!
However, the big problem with the book is that he misses many opportunities for making his chosen topics more interesting and useful. His treatment of cryptic crosswords is cursory and not likely to gain many new converts. One could consume a thousand pages without exhausting this mega-faceted, international subject. A few well-crafted pages showing: some masterful clues by, say, Trip Payne; the difference between British and American cryptics; and the many types of variety cryptics would have been better. He unveils the news--astounding, if true--that Kappa Publications produces a magazine with crosswords more difficult than the New York Times',and then does not name it! Another extremely valuable bit of information overlooked is the link to other puzzling sites on the Stamford tournament's website, [...] His description of a visit to grandmaster Henry Hook makes no real attempt to describe the brilliance of his achievements, which would have necessitated delving into one or more of his many great books. Also, since at least 80% of the book is about members of the National Puzzlers' League, it would have been helpful to mention its existence, and that of the Enigma (its puzzle journal) and its annual convention. Finally, he does not do the in-depth analysis necessary to convince us that the New York Sun's crosswords are equal or superior to those in the Times.
Recommended for crossword aficionados who can't get enough. There is plenty of fresh information here, despite my cavils.
10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
Disclaimer: As in the case of the previous reviewer, I was contacted by the author and asked to review this book. I, too, had panned CROSSWORLD on Amazon and was hoping for something better out of GRID LOCK. Regrettably, this one is only marginally better in content and far worse in the quality of its writing (which perhaps demonstrates that an encyclopedic knowledge of obscure words and phrases is hardly a guarantee of ability to write well).
On the positive side, GRID LOCK provides a fascinating insider perspective on the business of crosswords, from their conception and construction to their marketing and final appearance in a public venue (daily newspaper, specialty magazine, puzzle book, or on the Internet). Matt Gaffney starts out with a clever tip of his hat to the travails of the business side of crosswords: on his commuter train trip to the annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament in Stamford (CT), he observes the up-and-coming Sudoku puzzle game soundly trouncing crosswords among his fellow passengers. He follows this with an introduction to Will Shortz, the much-lionized editor of the New York Times crossword, and a brief treatise on the dominant forces in the crossword book publishing business, Penny Press and Kappa Publishing. Later, Mr. Gaffney relates -- at rather too much length -- his personal story of establishing a paying career as a cruciverbal constructor, offers insight into the use of computers for puzzle construction, and walks us through the construction of a themed puzzle. Tossed in along the way are a throwaway chapter depicting a human-versus-computer showdown in crossword construction that falls embarrassingly short of the Kasparaov-versus-Big Blue chess battles, some orts (leftovers, scraps) about crosswords, and a peculiar closing story about the misanthropic constructor Henry Hook.
While some of GRID LOCK's chapters are indeed interesting, the whole is far less than the sum of its parts. The book lacks a unifying structure, wandering from topic to topic and cycling from solvers to constructors to personal stories to philosophical ruminations and back again to constructors. Like Marc Romano's CROSSWORLD, Mr. Gaffney apparently felt compelled to make GRID LOCK as much about himself as about the "mad geniuses" who create crossword puzzles. He too often falls into the trap of providing telling details that are simply irrelevant and self-references that come across as amateurish ("I've got the reflexes of a veldt-hardened wildebeest"). Perhaps this is simply a personality characteristic of individuals so thoroughly caught up in a loner's field.
On the negative side, Mr. Gaffney's biggest problem by far is his writing. GRID LOCK is presented in a highly (and annoyingly) colloquial style, full of chatty asides like "in case you're wondering,...", "Take my word for it,..." "You get the idea," "You heard right...", "You guessed it," and "Like I said..." Not only is the author unafraid of dropping in words like "futz," "honkin'," "schmo," "legit," "comps" (for computers), "spashes out" (beats me), and "ain't" alongside a collection of countrified quantifier words like "slew," "bunch," "ton," "tad," "oodles," and "passel," he gleefully stoops to lines such as "If this baby were messier..." and the extraordinarily ungracious, [...]. The book is replete with poor and incorrect punctuation, endless dozens of sentences starting with "And" and "But," and more uses of the weak emphasis words "really," "just," "even," "ever," "actually," and "generally" than I have seen in any book from a serious publishing house. Mr. Gaffney fails to appreciate the grammatical faux pas in such phrases as "more importantly" and "most amazingly," and he seems to feel that the word "is" can be formed as a contraction with every noun in the dictionary (as in, "My review's almost done"). He comes up with such "is" words as "crossword's" "grid's," and "puzzle's." He also proves he is not above the all-purpose "-wise" either, as in "qualitywise," "bookswise," and "moneywise."
In far too many cases, lazy and overly colloquial writing simply becomes poor writing. Three of my favorite examples: "...this isn't to say that there's nothing new out there at all," "It isn't fair, what is, though?" and, "It just seems such a waste for him to spend so much time alone when there's this community of people nearby whose world he's a superstar in." GRID LOCK reads as though no one bothered to edit it before committing it to publication. Perhaps I should say, "And most amazingly, GRID LOCK really just reads as though no one really even bothered to actually edit it at all before ever committing it to actual publication."
Beyond these problems, I have a few other complaints. First, never use concepts, mathematical or otherwise, that you don't understand. No such concept as "modulo zero" exists; since dividing by zero is impossible, the notion of a remainder after such division is mathematically absurd. If you mean zero, you can say "module one," since every number divides by one with a remainder of zero. Second, Penny Press and Kappa Publishing are stated as controlling 98% of the puzzle publishing market, yet one of Mr. Gaffney's more interesting marketing tales concerns the toilet-shaped puzzles produced by Sterling Publishing, a subsidiary of Barnes & Noble. Sterling appears to be a significant player in this business according to the author, so the numbers don't seem to add up. Third, after the author swears he would never use a crossword database, he tells us that he uses a software program called Crossword Compiler.
These are minor issues. My biggest problem is the book's hyperbolized subtitle: Crossword Puzzles and the Mad Geniuses Who Create Them. We barely meet any of these creators other than the author, Henry Hook, and Will Shortz, and no one in this field comes across as either "mad" (with the possible exception of puzzle editor Eugene Maleska) or "genius" (unless we allow a certain word-oriented savantness to count as genius). I would rather learn more about the twentyish puzzle-solving whiz Tyler Hinman (and his closest competitors - Ellen Ripstein, Trip Payne, Katherine Bryant, and Kiran Kedlaya) than Mssrs. Gaffney, Hook, or Shortz. I had hoped to learn more about the people in this world and what makes them tick, but GRID LOCK misses that promise just as CROSSWORLD unfortunately did. What a shame.
10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on July 8, 2006
In an age when the advent of computer-generated sudoku seem to be taking over, Matt Gaffney responds with this very eloquent and entertaining exploration of standard crosswords and how they are created.
Gaffney, an experienced puzzle constructor and editor, offers glimpses into the history of crosswords and their attributes, but the real strength of his book is its insight into the effort that constructors go in making gems for puzzlers.
He discusses the way that puzzle themes have evolved over time, the limits of themed and non-themed puzzles, challenges that constructors have posed themselves, and how new-wave constructors have pushed the boundaries of puzzles using technology to help them fill grids and using their twisted brains to find ever-more-intriguing clues.
This book is well written in a conversational style filled with humorous anecdotes and includes interviews with many editors and constructors.
Of most interest to me was a chapter in which four constructors are given partially completed grids and are asked to use their brains or computer assistance to generate "fills" that they think are best. The results are beautifully divergent, and the way that judges viewed them and rated them points out that the nature of "beauty" in crosswords is still a contested area.
Like Amende's "Crossword Obsession" and Romano's "Crossworld" this book focuses on a very small field, but the thoroughness and humor that suffuse it make it a strong addition.
This book will offer you insights into puzzles if you are a novice and will generate laughs of recognition and empathy if you are an expert or constructor. I recommend it.
7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on August 23, 2006
Disclaimer: the author emailed me based on my Amazon review of Crossworld and asked if he could send me a free copy of his book so I could review here. I thought his move courageous, since I panned Crossworld, and looked forward to something much better. Well, the book is loads better than Crossworld, but so is any bodice ripper that doesn't use the word "inexorably" more than twice.
The first chapter, about the inner workings of the tournament, taught me things I didn't know about the rules -- fascinating things! -- even though I've attended every year since 1992. There were errors in grammar and punctuation, but the quality of the content rendered them unimportant.
The second chapter, about Will Shortz, started off fine but left me groaning as the author was so starstruck by his time alone with Will that he felt it necessary to relate every second of his interview, including the process of meeting him on the train platform. This level of detail would be perfect in a blog, but is tiresome and inappropriate in a book.
If I were to continue this review much longer, I would have to review each chapter separately because of the larger problem plaguing the book: lack of professional editing. The copy editing is poor, with commas where semicolons should be, and spaces where hyphens should be. The tone is far too colloquial and bloglike. For example, in a list of supporting arguments on page 63, he begins a sentence with "plus" followed by a space instead of "also" followed by a comma. More importantly, though, there is no theme that carries the book forward. Any of these chapters could stand alone as an article, but there is nothing holding them together. Biographies are interspersed with chapters on aspects of crossword construction in no apparent order. Facts and rants are strewn about willy-nilly. The history of crosswords is thrown into a chapter near the end called "orts" along with a few paragraphs on crossword errata and a dismissive mention of cryptic crosswords.
The chapters on the puzzle tournament and on computer aids in construction were excellent. The one on how to construct was a bit dull. The interviews with Will Shortz and Henry Hook had their moments, but would be best presented in another context.
I would recommend this book to people who want to know more about the Stamford crossword tournament and how to market crosswords.
6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on July 24, 2006
I took some notes on "Gridlock" last night when the cleaning party came to a close (it was Spackle Sunday!), but I crashed out before typing them up. Here though, at long last, are a few observations of Matt Gaffney's charming new book.
The opening chapter follows the ACPT in Stamford, the very same ACPT that marked my induction into this wild and wonderful weekend. Matt gives a judges-eye view of the proceedings, and I feel like a fly on the wall as I read about the inner sanctum of others judges and editors. The themes are flying faster than a swift on crack, and I can't help but wonder what other bizarre bets P. Gordon has made throughout the years. The finale of this tourney may not have been a nail-biter like the one Creadon and Co. caught the year before, but it still held my interest firmly. I hadn't thought at all about judges like Matt who were waiting with the finalists and trying not to accidentally say anything about FINALEXAMs or Sophia LOREN.
The next couple of chapters deal with Mr. Shortz, Mr. Gordon, and their respective puzzles. Since I already knew most of what was written about Will, I was really intrigued to learn more about Peter. I didn't know he was responsible for the mildly tasteless "Sit and Solve" series, for example, or that he has a farting bulldog. Matt also visits Penny Press, where I learned even more about the cutthroat business of fun.
The book goes on to talk about the author's own rise through the industry and his bumps along the way. Those chapters really spoke to me, since I'm finding myself more and more drawn to the idea of going pro. I sold my 38th puzzle this morning, and my rate of acceptance is slowly going up, but I'm still glad for Matt's (literary) slap in the face. I don't think I'll quick my day job just yet. Yet.
"Gridlock" then turns its attention to a Man versus Machine construction smackdown. While interesting, I think it may have been more useful to readers to show a grid made entirely by hand and then one made by a computer with a crappy database on Autofill. This would have been a different way to go, but would really have honed in on the point that humans are still essential for building a great puzzle. Frank Longo and Peter Gordon may have amazing computers (or databases), but without their human ingenuity it's just a pile of microchips (or words).
The last chapters held my interest the least, from an over-the-shoulder view of a 15x15 to "mistake" letters from solvers about not being able to find GOUP in the dictionary (like that pesky ATOZ). My only nit in this section is how the author offers the advice that the title is the final task. Actually, I think that forming a solid title at the beginning can go a long way to help one find the best theme entries, and often times a tacked-on title feels exactly like that: tacked on.
Luckily, the book finishes on a high (if solemn) note: a chapter about Henry Hook. It's a glimpse into the life of a reclusive legend, but this legend does seem to be coming out of his shell (just a bit).
Great work on the book, Matt - I hope it sells as well as it reads!
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on August 11, 2006
This book was a fun read. I think the major difference between this book, and many other crossword books I've read, is that Matt Gaffney is an insider, and has unparalleled access to more interesting circles and events than past journalist/ authors. For example, in addition to giving us insight to a step by step process of constructing a crossword puzzle, he shares stories from behind the judges door during the Stamford Crossword competition. One of the most enjoyable passages I found involved what crossword editors do when they're drunk. You'd expect a discussion on the historical passage of crossword puzzles, but this book packs in a lot more interesting information.
The structure of the book is highly episodic, and while the chapters don't connect too much, they do take you to interesting places in the crosswords community. For example, there are discussions about crosswords vs. sudoku, man vs. machine in construction, and also one on the NY Times vs. NY Sun that was interesting. Gaffney takes a Supersize-Me approach and tries to test these various perspectives himself. As a solver and a constructor myself, I thought this book was highly unusual in that it is more than an introduction to the world, but really interviewed key players, from editors to constructors, that usual cursory glances elide over. For example, I knew a lot about the NY Sun and their editor, Peter Gordon, and this book really gave him the proper credit for he's done in the crossword world.
The book also has bouts of autobiographical narrative, where it is through Gaffney's own trials and tribulation through the crossword world that we see the inner mechanism of the industry. All in all, it's a fascinating and in-depth look, especially for those who are interested in the industry of making these grids.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on August 12, 2008
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
OK, OK, I admit it! I've been called a geek by the best of them. Even my family has indulged in a covert chuckle a time or two over my off-the-wall hobbies which include (aside from reviewing books for Amazon, of course) Sudoku and crosswords. I've even been known to take a crack at constructing a cryptic crossword from time to time. So you may well imagine my pleasure at coming across "Gridlock", an insider's look at what author Matt Gaffney describes as "the quirky subculture of America's crossword puzzles."
Sadly, the idea was considerably better than the execution. I think the problem rests with the fact that there just simply isn't enough interesting material to pad out an entire book on the topic. Gaffney touches on the difficulties of making a living in the field, the growth of the use of computers in the industry, the evolution of theme-oriented puzzles and the quality of the puzzles in a national publication such as The Sunday New York Times versus the weakness and repetitiveness of puzzles in some of the off-the-shelf magazines. He talks at some length about the attributes that both solvers and creators alike look for in a well-constructed grid. He talks about some of the personalities in the field and even goes so far as to give us a peek inside some of the conferences that puzzle creators attend.
But ,the bottom line is this ... even though I probably qualify for at least honourary membership in the geek's club, reading about them never really ultimately proved to be particularly compelling. Passably interesting, yes, but thrilling page-turning - sorry, no!
Recommended (if you're REALLY into crossword puzzles).
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on January 15, 2007
I found this book to be an entertaining and informative trip into the world of crossword puzzle constructors.
As a fan and solver myself, I think these constructors are blessed with some sort of supernatural powers that allow them to do these things (and whoever dreams up those rebus puzzles should win some kind of Nobel prize!). Gaffney seeks to humanize these folks and succeeds at letting the novice look at the man or woman behind the curtain.
Interjecting some personal data into the books never hurts - I found his struggles to get published early in his career and his efforts to build a base of clients to support himself professionally to be a bit inspiring, He is living his dream and worked hard to be able to do that.
On the heels of the 2006 movie "Wordplay" and other similar books I've read on the subject ("Crossworld", "The Crossword Obsession"), "Gridlock" is a good addition to my library and to that of any puzzling aficionado.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on October 9, 2013
Format: Kindle EditionVerified Purchase
This is a marvelous book, intertwining biography and crossword construction.
Now the ideal crossword revels in paradox, in the pun, in the word defined or used or linked up with others in an odd way. And Gaffney does an excellent job highlighting these paradoxes, these oxymorons, in the world too: where experts in the arcana of language don't go to college; where constructors whose work is enjoyed by millions of people cannot pay rent.
Gaffney throughout does a masterful job of quietly displaying this quiet world.
About half the book, I would say, is autobiographical; Gaffney's own somewhat tumultuous life fighting for himself in a strange world. The childhood reminisces, of the early crossword publications, of the strange uninterest of his teachers (who, one would think, would appreciate cruciverbalism), of the bizarre and unfair economy. Gaffney somewhow adapts to all this and finally finds a niche.
The other half comprises interviews or profiles of some famous crossword constructors, notably Will Shortz and Henry Hook. The Shortz bit is certainly fascinating, but the piece on Hook was one of the most moving profiles I have read in a while. At the same time it is a bit frustrating, how someone whose work has probably given people, quite literally, tens of millions of hours of pleasure is virtually destitute.
Of course, Gaffney has his own theories about the economics that allow this to happen: maybe cruciverbalists are disorganized; or have competition from do-it-yourselfers; or perhaps Hook was not as forward in marketing himself as Gaffney (Gaffney is somewhat too glib vis-a-vis Hook, in general, actually, but Hook still stands as the book's most interesting character).
Apart from the highlights of Shortz and Hook, there are a lot of extremely interesting side paths about computers, "hip" crosswords (a trend I disagree with, but recognize), and various characters at a crossword solving tournament. I found the stories about niche magazine crosswords, particularly one for "Tabby", a magazine about tabby cats, hilarious. There is just a lot that is fascinating here.
That said, I had some small complaints about the writing.
First of all, as is true in the vast majority of Kindle books, the Kindle transfer is poor. The transfer is still readable (which frankly puts it better than average) but there are several problems. There are occasionally extra spaces around punctuation marks (this is one of those enigmatic but characteristic Kindle typos), for example "Dave-- he's" on location 32 has a space after an em-dash; or "Longo 's database" at location 1294; or "switch- board.com" at 1803.
More seriously, referring to an answer HIDEKI IRABU, the text quotes someone saying "notice his first name starts with an l, and his last name starts with I". Somehow a lowercase l was substituted for an uppercase I, which makes that sentence difficult to read.
There is also a long block-quoted passage (from Merl Reagle's 1997 Philadephia Inquirer piece) which, at least on my iPad app, is not sufficiently indented or otherwise distinguished from the surrounding text, making it difficult to figure out what the quote is. The excerpt does, for what it's worth, look OK on my Kindle for Mac app though: whether the fault of the iPad app unreadability lies with the publisher or with Amazon, I cannot say.
Last but not least, the book ends, in my edition, with a footnote, apparently answering some clue many pages before. I don't even know what clue it is at this point.
I liked the writing, which was energetic and well-paced (certainly better than, say, the latest King abomination). One unfortunate editorial choice was a ridiculous explanation of what the word "jones'" means in the context of drug addiction, to explain some pun - some puns, if the reader doesn't get it, shouldn't be explained. It just was absurd to explain this for the 5% of readers who don't already know the word, and it makes the author look out of touch.
Enough cavils. Some nice quotes:
"without rules there can be no beauty"
(quoting Reagle, quoting Farrar) "Crosswords are an enternainment. Avoid things like death, disease, war and taxes - the subway solver gets enough of that in the rest of the paper." I frankly agree with Farrar (and Maleska) here. I think Shortz goes too far in allowing too many subjects into his puzzle. I mean, Shortz has many virtues, but this turning the crossword into some Showtime channel is not one of them.
"Bizet called music a fine art but a sad profession"...."The life of a starving artist is indeed romantic, but only to those who aren't actually living it."
"In the 1920s, world chess champion Jose Raoul Capablanca complained that chess was 'played out' ".
(recounting a Henry Hook story) "This place near my house had a sign up that said they sold 'Essential Oils.' I went over and looked and thought, 'nope, I don't need 'em!' ".
In sum, this was a charming book, at times quite funny, at times profoundly poignant.