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Cross crosswords off your Christmas shopping list

Rex Parker suggests the must-have puzzles of the holiday season

So you’re heading home for the holidays and your holiday shopping is nowhere near finished, and what the hell are you going to get Uncle Stu or Aunt Yolanda anyway? They’re so hard to shop for and whenever you see them, all they ever have to say to you is, “I remember when you were just *this* tall” … but perhaps you vaguely remember seeing them with a book of crossword puzzles once. Or maybe you have a close relative, a mother or sister perhaps, who is a die-hard crossword solver — the everyday, only-in-pen type. Well, good news: There are some fantastic and relatively inexpensive options out there for all the puzzle solvers in your life, and I’m here to tell you what they are.

Illustration by Cari Snider / Assisant Design

First up is the most important and entertaining book written about crosswords in recent years (which I am totally *not* saying just because the author is my friend and his book mentions me). It’s Ben Tausig’s “The Curious History of the Crossword,” a comprehensive overview of the crossword puzzle’s history from 1913 to today (yes, that makes the crossword 100 years old this year; you counted correctly; congratulations!). This book is a rare feat — a work of serious scholarship that is also relaxed and funny. Readers get to see how far the crossword has come in terms of its look, its content, its design standards, etc. The book’s most noteworthy contribution to crossword history is its coverage of crossword puzzles in the Internet era. Technology has changed the way puzzles are constructed, disseminated and solved — many people now solve crosswords primarily, if not exclusively, on their phones, tablets or computers, for instance — and Tausig (a professional editor and crossword constructor himself) has a great understanding of the cultural and economic issues at stake in this new, increasingly digital crossword universe.

Perhaps the best thing you can do for the crossword solver in your life is turn him or her on to the wide, wonderful world of independent puzzles. Crosswords don’t just appear in the newspaper or that poorly trafficked area of the bookstore anymore. Solvers can now choose from a variety of puzzles that are delivered digitally, and then print those puzzles out as a PDF or solve them on screen using free software such as Across Lite. Gift-wise, I suggest getting the expert solver in your life a subscription to either Fireball Crosswords (edited by Peter Gordon) or the American Values Club crossword puzzle (formerly The Onion’s A.V. Club crossword and edited by Ben Tausig). Both subscriptions feature puzzles by the best puzzle-making talent around, and both have a remarkably contemporary focus (with clues drawing from modern slang, advertising and pop culture, as well as more traditional knowledge bases). Fireball is really an experts-only puzzle — seriously, those puzzles break my back on a routine basis. American Values Club is somewhat easier, but no less smart, fresh and modern. Their puzzles are typically knee-deep in pop culture. They recently featured a puzzle co-constructed by comedian Patton Oswalt. They are basically what’s happening now, crossword-wise.

Online subscriptions don’t fatten a stocking very well, though, so maybe you should also get some traditional crossword puzzle “books” (made of “paper”). If you want to go that route, I have a few suggestions:

  • “100 Years, 100 Crosswords” (edited by Peter Gordon) — all-new crosswords focusing on events from each year the crossword has been in existence. (Easy-Medium)
  • “Wide-Screen Crosswords” (by Patrick Blindauer) — crosswords for the movie buff, with 12×23 grids mimicking the aspect ratio of a movie screen. (Easy-Medium)
  • “Winner’s Circle Crosswords” (by Tyler Hinman) — easy modern puzzles from a five-time American Crossword Puzzle Tournament champion, with tips for how to improve your solving game. (Easy)
  • “Easy as ABC Crosswords” (by Doug Peterson) — easy doesn’t have to be boring; these are smooth puzzles by one of the best constructors around, perfect for the beginner or casual solver in your life. (Easy)
  • “Sex, Drugs & Rock ‘n’ Roll Crosswords” (by Brendan Emmett Quigley) — a collection from the guy with the hottest independent puzzle site on the web.
  • Any of the “Sit & Solve” brand puzzles from Puzzlewright press, but especially Ian Livengood’s “Sit & Solve Sports Crosswords” and anything by Patrick Berry. (Easy)
  • “For the Birds Crosswords” (by Andrew Ries) — there are lots of niche crossword books out there; this one actually happens to be good. (Easy-Medium)

Either of the Fireball Crosswords book collections — choose from “Blazingly Hard Fireball Crosswords” or “Sizzlingly Hard Fireball Crosswords” — and remember that those titles are not lying.

Lastly, why not use this gift-giving season to donate to charity *and* get a nice gift for someone you love (or sort of like, or happen to be related to)? Last year, I created the collection “American Red Crosswords” in the wake of Superstorm Sandy, as a way to encourage donations to the (wait for it…) American Red Cross. If you go to americanredcrosswords.blogspot.com, you can follow a link to make a donation to the Red Cross’ disaster relief fund (give what you can — suggested donation is $20). Then you can download a collection of 24 puzzles made especially for this collection, expertly edited by Patrick Blindauer and introduced by New York Times crossword puzzle editor Will Shortz. If you’re crafty, you could print out the puzzles and make them into a nice little book for someone. Give to charity. Stuff a stocking. It’s win-win.

Michael Sharp, aka Rex Parker, is the author of the blog “Rex Parker Does the NYT Crossword Puzzle” and an English professor at Binghamton University.