Is There An Echo In Here?

New York Times, Aug. 15

This puzzle was not exactly hard, and even fun for a little while. Then it threw me for a loop with a handful of cultural references that completely, embarrassingly baffled me — including two theme answers that I solved without understanding what they meant.

This week’s theme tweaks common phrases by doubling the final word (echo!) to create a clever homophone. So a “Reservation at a Johannesburg restaurant?” isn’t a table for two but a TABLE FOR TUTU, as in Archbishop Desmond (16 Down); “Landlord’s ultimatum?” is RENT OR BYE BYE (60 Down); “Majorcan affirmation?” is the MEDITERRANEAN SI SI (43 Across); “Registering a poodle?” is LICENSING FIFI (67 Across); “Guy holding a Hostess snack cake?” is THE MAN WITH THE HOHO (92 Across); “Words of caution from Rodolfo?” are DON’T TREAD ON MIMI (113 Across); and an “Underachiever’s motto” is MAY IT EVER BE SO-SO (23 Across).

Those last three mystified me. I solved the HoHo one (even though I was a Ding Dong fan myself) but had no idea what it referenced; after looking it up, I now know “The Man with the Hoe” is a poem based on a painting by Jean-Francois Millet. The same thing happened with Rodolfo and Mimi. I solved it because I knew the “Don’t Tread on Me” reference, but the names made sense to me only because they both sounded European. Turns out they’re from “La Boheme.” (I’ve been to one opera in my life, and it wasn’t that one. I think it was “The Marriage of Figaro.”)

But MAY IT EVER BE SO-SO stopped me cold. I didn’t recognize the original phrase (“May it ever be so”), so getting to _ _ Y _ _ EVER BE SO-SO didn’t help. The crossing clues were equally baffling: “Writer of the short story ‘The Overcoat'” (1 Across); “Vladimir Nabokov novel” (27 Across); and “Hersey novel setting” (19 Across). Geez, I thought I was well read. (And since when is a “Group of whales” a GAM (1 Down)? I wrongly put down POD.)

So I caved and looked them up. I suppose if I had read past the introduction of “The Namesake” I might have gotten GOGOL, “The Overcoat” author. (I did read far enough to know the main character is named for Gogol.) The only Hersey novel I know is set in Hiroshima, which didn’t exactly fit. The answer was ADANO, as in “A Bell for Adano.” Similarly, the only Nabokov novel I know is “Lolita,” which didn’t fit the P_ _ N that I had entered. Though it was tempting to enter PORN, turns out the title is PNIN. That seems like something I should have come across in a puzzle by now, and yet it was completely unfamiliar.

Blast from the Past Dept.: “V.J.’s employer” is MTV (6 Down). It stands for video jockey, because when I was in junior high school, they actually played music videos. Not so much today.

Hawkeye and Asterisks Dept.: “Sitcom with three stars” (6 Across) was the extremely clever MASH, as in M*A*S*H.

Just Double-Checking Dept.: I thought someone erred on 58 Down (“Where the driver is driving Miss Daisy”) when the answer turned out to be MOBILE; I was positive Miss Daisy lived in Atlanta. Turns out we were both right. Hoke drives her to Mobile for a party, which I had forgotten about.

Movie of the Week Dept.: The Times got major props for including an “Avatar” clue in the puzzle last winter. This week, they shun baseball Hall of Famer Ty for “Inception” hero Dom (101 Across) to get the answer COBB.

Questions or comments? Tweet me @crosswordkathy.

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