Thursday, July 29, 2010

Grace Under Pressure by Julie Hyzy

I nabbed this book when it came in at the library simply on the basis of the beautiful cover art.  Well, maybe the fact that I've read Julie Hyzy's White House series and know she writes fun, inviting cozies had something to do with it, but you gotta admit, the cover is gorgeous (even more so in reality - the colors aren't as vivid in the picture).

I've been a cozy mystery fan for years, but recently I've found myself drawn more to the fast-paced, thriller type mystery.  I am easily bored with stories that contain too much extraneous information.  (Oh really, Tami?  We would never have guessed that from reading your reviews.)  No, seriously!  Perhaps it's my age and the fact that time is seeming more finite than twenty years ago, but let's just cut to the chase.

However, the appeal of a cozy comes from locations that make you want to return and characters that become friends, and you just don't get that in a thriller.  I want to visit Pickax City from The Cat Who series.  I want to spend a weekend at the PennDutch Inn with Tamar Myer's Magdalena Yoder.  I want to meet Bernie Rhodenbarr for drinks, though he would probably spend the evening insisting his creater, Lawrence Block, doesn't write cozies.  I want to shop at Carolyn Hart's Death on Demand bookstore.  I have distinct images of all these people and places from time spent with them and their stories.  Marshfield Manor is now on my reading itinerary.  I want to go back.

Everyone wants a piece of millionaire Bennett Marshfield, owner of Marshfield Manor.  The elderly, reclusive heir trusts no one but his aged curator, Abe.  But when Abe is killed in a case of mistaken identity, the tide changes.  Grace Wheaton, whose lifelong dream has been to work at the manor, steps up to the challenge of assuming Abe's job.  But now some of the letters arriving for Bennett have taken a nasty turn, demanding millions - or else.  When a stalker shows up at the manor, she and handsome groundskeeper, Jack Embers, must protect their dear old Marshfield. (from book jacket)

The plot of this book isn't particulary noteworthy.  Typical to the genre, there are pacing issues and, in a book rich with detail, one of the major clues is bafflingly sketchy, but most cozy mystery fans will agree that it's all about the characters. In the first book of this new series, Ms Hyzy has created a setting and cast that will bring me back.

The Wedding Girl by Madeleine Wickham

I have put off writing this review for a couple weeks, which is never a good idea for me.  I couldn't quite decide what to say about it, so I procrastinated and now, what with my fading memory, I'm even less sure.  I have enjoyed all the Madeleine Wickham books I've read previously, but this one just didn't trip my trigger, or float my boat, or whatever other cute saying you want to use - it was bland.

The Wedding Girl is Milly Havill.  Milly agrees to marry her friend, Allan, so that he can stay in England with his gay partner.  Ten years later, believing herself to be divorced, she plans to marry Simon Pinnacle, son of a multi-millionaire.  It's a good idea with a lot of promise, but it turns into an I Love Lucy episode.  When the proposed wedding photographer recognizes Milly from her first wedding, she goes into Lucy mode to silence him before he reveals her secret.  But why is it a secret anyway?  I was never a Lucy fan because her predicaments always seemed so contrived.  Just tell the truth, ask for what you want, act like a reasonable adult and none of these preposterous situations would ever happen. 

Then we have Rupert - Allan's partner - who believes he's gay, then he's not, then maybe he is, or maybe not.  I'm not doubting that this could happen, but in this story he seemed to be debating a shoe style rather than a major lifestyle choice  - another story element that just didn't ring true.

This book was vanilla ice cream - enjoyable, but with some hot fudge it could have been so much better!

Friday, July 23, 2010

Toddlers, Teens and Empty Nests

Our days of being full-time parents are dwindling.  Mitch plans to return to FHSU on August 16th so that he has some time to job hunt before classes start.  Amanda will also be heading to school - her first year at KSU - a week early to participate in sorority rush.  We are down to twenty-two days of having them both at home.  Some moments I'm weepy, especially when I encounter something that reminds me of their toddler and grade-school years, and some moments I'm pondering how much extra we would have to pay to send them now!  Below are some fun quotes and proverbs that cover both of those extremes in raising teenagers.

Little children, headache; big children, heartache. ~Italian Proverb

Small children disturb your sleep, big children your life. ~Yiddish Proverb

If you want to recapture your youth, just cut off his allowance. ~Al Bernstein

The best way to keep children at home is to make the home atmosphere pleasant, and let the air out of the tires. ~Dorothy Parker

Never lend your car to anyone to whom you have given birth. ~Erma Bombeck

Few things are more satisfying than seeing your children have teenagers of their own. ~Doug Larson

Mother Nature is providential. She gives us twelve years to develop a love for our children before turning them into teenagers. ~William Galvin

When mothers talk about the depression of the empty nest, they're not mourning the passing of all those wet towels on the floor, or the music that numbs your teeth, or even the bottle of capless shampoo dribbling down the shower drain. They're upset because they've gone from supervisor of a child's life to a spectator. It's like being the vice president of the United States.  - Erma Bombeck
Now....on to the next stage.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Toy Story 3: Movie Review

To celebrate our 28th wedding anniversary, we saw Toy Story 3 at the local theater.  We considered borrowing some toddlers so no one would know we were going to an animated picture alone, but then realized we would have to spend more time watching them than the show.  So we marched in, unapologetic, got our usual large combo (2 large drinks and one large tub of popcorn - hold the butter - for $7), two packages of peanut M&M's (for the appropriate sweet to salty ratio) and took our seats. 

When the original Toy Story came out in 1995, our children were 5 and 3.  Some friends were visiting us in Nebraska for Thanksgiving weekend, so we all went to the theater together, then went to Burger King and got the kids Toy Story figurines in their Happy Meals. I remember how amazed I was at the reality of the computer animation process.  Toy Story on video became part of the rotation of movies we watched over and over at home.  By the time the second installment came out, the kids were 9 and 7, and we had moved back to Kansas.  Again, we took the kids and some friends to the theater, but I think we enjoyed it as much as they did.  Naturally, with these fun memories attached to the first two films, we couldn't allow the release of number three without the theater experience. We actually tried to get the kids to join us and make it another family outing, but at 19 and 18, they just weren't as excited as they used to be.

In this show, Andy has grown up and is leaving for college - an appropriate story line at our house.  His mother asks him to sort the detritus of his childhood into boxes and trash bags to be sent to three destinations:  stored in the attic, donated to a day care, or trashed.  Andy intends to store all the familiar characters in the attic, with the exception of Woody who is destined for his college dorm room, but the bags are mixed up and they all end up at the day care, under the control of Lotso, the tyrant Teddy bear who rules the playroom.  The rest of the story covers their escape and perilous trek to return to Andy's house. 

At the most climactic moment, the movie came to a grinding halt.  The spool on which the movie was wound had broken somehow and would require that the entire film be removed, the spool repaired and then the film rewound - a process that would take up to two hours.  We were given free tickets to return the next night and watch the whole thing again.  After 24 suspenseful hours, we finally got to see if the toys completed their dangerous journey or if they fell victim to Lotso and the dump ground incinerator.

As always, the movie is filled with clever dialog and some pop-culture references that will mean more to the parents than to the kids.  And of course the animation is even more amazing than it was fifteen years ago. Naturally, once we learn the fate of Buzz, Mr. & Mrs. Potatoe Head, Hamm, and all our other toy friends, it comes time for Andy to head off to college.  Don't tell my kids, but I actually cried.  Maybe it was the toy's memories of Andy's childhood, maybe it was that my own nest will be empty in three weeks, or maybe I'm just a sentimental sap, but it was the perfect ending. 

The Scent of Rain and Lightning by Nancy Pickard

"...this was Rose, Kansas, after all.  Only the year before, a pencil tornado had dropped down and killed three people only a few miles from her hometown...In the winter, there were ice storms, in the summer, there were grass fires...Or, [people] died just when you least expected them to.  A person could, for instance, belong to a nice family living an ordinary life in a small town in the middle of nowhere, and on some innocent Saturday night, violent men could drop in like those tornadoes and turn those nice people into the dead stars of a Truman Capote book.  Such things happen."   When I read that paragraph on the first page, I was hooked!

There is a subtle connection between this story and In Cold Blood, the true story of the Clutter family who were murdered in their home in Holcomb, Kansas.  The book is set in fictional Rose, Kansas, located 350 miles west of Kansas City (Holcomb is about 380 miles west of KC) and revolves around the murder of two members of an influential and respected family.  This tale brings out an aspect of the Clutter case I had never considered - what happens to the family members who were left behind?  In this case, it's Jody, daughter of the murder victims, who is turned into somewhat of a sideshow attraction for the town.  She grows up in the spotlight of her parents' deaths and, although the townspeople have good intentions, she can't escape that smalltown celebrity status.  She is always thought of as the girl who's parents were murdered and that event shapes her life and her relationships.

Now, after more than 20 years, the man convicted of the killings is being released from jail and returning to the small town.  Through the reactions of the community and her family, Jody gleans details of the crime that she has never known, and begins to question the story she has grown up believing and the guilt of the man she has always hated.  Through a series of flashbacks, we finally learn the whole story of what happened that tragic night. 

Ms. Pickard's writing is phenomenal - the perfect mix of psychological drama, mystery and romance.  She captures the essence of a small Kansas town where major crimes are rare, and the impact on those who, by no choice of their own, are caught in the middle of the biggest thing that ever happened there - both the victims' family and the convict's family.  The cast of characters is large, but they are so well defined that you'll feel part of the clan by the time you're through. 

In spite of the shadows of the Clutter family that hover over this story, it is anything but predictable.  Take away all the emotional and intellectual angles and underneath is a clever, engrossing mystery plot.  Other authors are hoping that you don't read their novel next after finishing this one, because few will measure up.

I was lucky to meet and lunch with Ms. Pickard during her stop at our library on her promotional tour when her previous book, The Virgin of Small Plains, was chosen as the Kansas Reads book of the year for 2009.   I loved hearing her talk about how she writes and her recent turn to setting her books in Kansas.  You can see a short interview with her on Barnes and Noble that will give you an idea of how fascinating she is. 

The Scent of Rain and Lightning gets my highest recommendation.  It's a "Must Read".

Friday, July 16, 2010

2010 Challenges: How's it going so far?

Way back in January, we signed up for four challenges.  Rather, I signed up for four challenges and said "Hey Dave, we're doing four challenges."  I'm pretty sure he grunted agreement.  Now, here we are in the latter half of July and I've barely given them a thought, much less kept a checklist.  There have been a couple books we chose specifically for challenges, but for the most part I'm just reviewing what we've read in 2010 to see if any of it will qualify.  Here's how we stand:

Take Another Chance Challenge - Sponsored by Jenners at Find Your Next Book Here

We signed up at the "moderate" level, or six of the twelve challenges, and agreed that we would do this together - my books, Dave's books, and read together books.  So far we have completed three:

#1 Read Your Doppleganger - For this challenge we read Deeper Than the Dead by Tami Hoag.  You gotta just love an author who spells her first name so creatively. We read this one together

#5 Title Word Count - Our random number was 2, so our selection was House Rules by Jodi Picoult.  This wasn't really up Dave's alley, so I read this one alone.

#7 Break a Prejudice - I tried out a graphic novel, which was a BIG prejudice for me and actually enjoyed Ethel and Ernest by Raymond Briggs.  Again, I read this one alone, but I did read funny parts aloud to Dave, whether he was listening or not.

Opposites Attract Challenge - Sponsored by Jen at Jen's Book Talk.  So far we have read three pairs of opposites.  I'll admit that these have been chance pairings, and the Sizzling/Cold thing may be stretching it, but I promise to make more deliberate match-ups in the future.

Dead - Deeper Than the Dead by Tami Hoag
Living - Night of the Living Deed by E.J. Copperman

Death - Death by Darjeeling by Laura Childs
Survival - Survival of Rural America by Richard E. Wood

SizzlingSizzling Sixteen by Janet Evanovich
Cold - In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

The other two challenges on our list are the Marple-Poirot-Holmes Challenge sponsored by Kals @ At Pemberley, and the Reagan Arthur Book Challenge sponsored by Kathy at Bermuda Onion  and Julie at Booking Mama.  Ok, we gotta come straight out and say that so far this is an epic fail (that's the cool new phrase I learned from my kids.  Hip, aren't I?)  Honestly, I pretty much forgot I signed up, so we've made no progress at all.  Our apologies to the lovely ladies who sponsored these.  We will really try to do better in the second half.

We also started our own Read Together Challenge to encourage everyone to read with a partner - child, spouse, friend.  We set our goal at twelve, one book per month, and we're doing fairly well.  So far we have read six, but July has slipped by without much together time, so we need to get back on pace.  If you would like to join us, just leave us a comment about what you're reading and with whom.  How are you keeping up with your 2010 assignments?

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Ethel & Ernest by Raymond Briggs

Usually, when someone mentions graphic novels I turn into the Wicked Librarian of the West and grumble on about how they are not "real" books, they are the Cliff Notes of pleasure reading, yada, yada...  When Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys came out in graphic novel form, you probably heard my tirade in whatever part of the world you live.  How DARE they convert classics into "funny papers"!  So look who's recommending a graphic novel now. 

I'm putting all the blame for this embarrassment on Margot at Joyfully Retired.  (If you aren't reading her blog, you really should.  Especially if you are nearing retirement, thinking of retirement, dreaming of retirement... Her photos and blogging about her travels and what she reads along the way will make you want to hurry it along.)  If she could try something new at this stage of life, I figured I could, too.  And I'm glad I did.

Ethel and Ernest is the true story of the author's parents and their life in England.  This is the perfect tale to be told in a graphic novel because the illustrations add all the detail without adding pages of descriptive text that could become boring.  And the illustrations themselves are a joy.  Beautiful colors and details truly bring the story to life.

The story begins with the couple's engagement in 1928 and follows their married life through purchasing a home, World War II, raising a child, retirement, to their deaths in 1971.  The depiction of their life during the war was especially fascinating to me.  Stories of that era from the U.S. involve many of the same situations, but not the daily up-close threats that they experienced. 

I was surprised by the amount of emotion displayed in such a brief book and with so few words:  the excitement of getting married; disbelief at the purchase of their first home; joy at the birth of their child; fear during the war years; the mix of relief and longing from sending their son to a safer location; shock at the death and destruction; joy and heartache of raising a child and watching him choose his own path; intimacy of a life-long companionship; sadness of aging and illness; and finally, grief - all told through intricate pictures and sparse words.

As in any life, there's also humor along the way.  When Ernest brings home their first refrigerator, Ethel reacts with disbelief.  When Ernest explains that they can now have ice and ice cream, she exclaims, "Ice in our drinks!  Whatever next!"  When he later comes home with a bigger surprise, their first car, she refuses to get in because she's not dressed properly and her hair isn't done.  Having two kids of college age, I got a kick out of their worries over Raymonds choice of art as a career - "He'll grow out of it and get a proper job." - and Ethel's constant concern about his 60's hairstyle - "He'll never get a proper job with hair like that." 

I can't promise that I'll be searching for more graphic novels, but perhaps I'll temper my opinion and give them another chance. 

This book fulfills entry #7 of the Take Another Chance Challenge - Break a Prejudice.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The Search by Nora Roberts

To most people, Fiona Bristow seems to have an idyllic life — a quaint house on an island off Seattle’s coast, a thriving dog-training school, and a challenging volunteer job performing canine search and rescue. Not to mention her three intensely loyal Labs. But Fiona got to this point by surviving a nightmare.  Several years ago, she was the only survivor of a serial killer — a madman who stalked and abducted young women, strangled them, and left them buried with a red scarf on their bodies. As authorities were closing in on the Red Scarf Killer, he shot and killed Fiona’s cop fiancĂ© and his K-9 partner.  On Orcas Island, Fiona has found the peace and solitude she needed to rebuild her life. Yet all that changes on the day Simon Doyle barrels up her drive, desperate for her help.

This story combines several things I love - thrillers, romance and dogs - but I have to agree with the Publisher's Weekly review:  The serial killer plot is very familiar and without much to distinguish it, but the romance is finely done.  Not that the thriller portion is bad, but even from the jacket synopsis above, most anyone can guess that the serial killer will come back to search for the one that got away, so no great surprise there. The blood and gore level is kept reasonably low, although there were a couple sections written from the killer's perspective that I chose to skim.

Romance stories tend to be formulaic by necessity, because if they didn't get together and live happily ever after it wouldn't be very romantic, would it?  However, Fiona and Simon's relationship is slightly atypical.  Their personalities don't mesh and it's fun to watch them try to fit their lives together.  I am partial to stories written with as much or more attention paid to dialog as action, and this book delivers witty, thoughtful conversations. Even though you assume Fiona and Simon will end up together, the path isn't what you would expect and they come across as more realistic than most.

The part I liked the most was the dogs.  We are dog lovers - especially big dogs.  This story is full of helpful training tips that I'm trying to use on our two misbehaving canines (and Fiona assures us that you actually CAN teach an old dog new tricks).  The relationship between Fiona and her three dogs, Newman, Bogart, and Peck - named after famous leading men - is charming.  Anyone who has ever owned a dog/friend will understand the connection that is almost psychic.  Our Husky-mix senses when I am ill and will lay on my feet to keep them warm - something she would never do any other time.  They are instinctively protective and, at the same time, instinctively loving.  A Springer Spaniel we had when the children were young allowed babies to learn to stand by hanging onto her floppy years and pulling themselves up.  She endured without complaint or nip.  Fiona's dogs are far better trained than mine have any hopes of being, but their relationship is almost a romance of it's own - loving, loyal, vigilant, sympathetic - and will appeal to any dog lover.   

By mid-way through this story, I was sure I could predict the ending, unfortunately I was wrong.  I think my plot would have been more suspenseful, as I felt Ms. Roberts' ending was a little mild for the long buildup (480+ pages), but there's probably a reason she's a bestselling author and I'm not.  Altogether a pleasing read.  I would recommend this for fans of romance, fans of mild thrillers and definitely for fans of Man's Best Friend.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Dangerous by Diana Palmer & A Pet Peeve

Tall, lean and headstrong, FBI agent Kilraven lives by his own rules. And one of those rules includes keeping his hands off Jacobsville's resident sweetheart, Winnie Sinclair, no matter the temptation. Shy and innocent, Winnie couldn't handle a man like him—a merciless man with a haunted past. And this small town may hold not only the woman he fights to resist, but the answers to a cold case that is very personal to Kilraven….

It only takes the first few lines of the jacket synopsis to tell you that this is standard Harlequin fare - not that that's a bad thing.  I enjoyed the story, predictable as it may have been, but there were a few spots where I had trouble.  First off, it quickly became obvious that this book is built on characters previously introduced, although I'm not sure when/where.  There was so much background information thrown in randomly and characters who I was expected to recognize that it was a bit disconcerting.  I was still able to follow the plot without access to all that info, but it left me feeling a bit out of the loop.

My second trouble spot was the naivete of the characters.  I seriously appreciate characters with morals and an author who refuses to write about pre-marital sex flippantly or as though it is standard practice.  However, I found Winnie to be innocent to the point of impossibility, so it was hard to swallow that she could be a seasoned 911 dispatcher or would jump head-long into a murder investigation and false marriage.  Even though Killraven is described as "merciless" he was anything but.  Perhaps he was willing to bend some rules to catch a killer, but certainly not to the point of being cut-throat, as the synopsis suggests.

My final rough spot applies not only to this book but, more and more frequently, to all new releases:  The use of Spell Check rather than human proofreading.  I realize running a quick computer check is much more cost efficient than paying someone to actually read the manuscript, but computers only look for words that are in their programmed vocabulary.  They can't tell the difference between "then" and "than" for instance, but it makes considerable difference in the meaning of the sentence, as does a misplaced comma.  Yes, I was able to understand what Ms. Palmer meant, but for some reason it annoys me coming from an established publisher.

After all those bumps in the road, you would probably guess that I didn't care for the trip, but you would be wrong.  In spite of all that, it was still an enjoyable, relaxing read.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Gourmet Meals in Crappy Little Kitchens by Jennifer Schaertl

The minute I spied the title of this book in a library catalog, I had to have it.  While I may be far from a gourmet, I love to cook/bake and I have one of the world's top ten crappiest little kitchens.  Imagine a box approximately 8'x10' with a tacky lowered ceiling and glaring flourescent lighting.  Now add the usual kitchen appliances - stove, dishwasher, fridge and sink - plus a few cabinets, one measly window and three doors (to dining room, to back porch, to basement).  What is left in the center is a 4x6 space with three spans of countertop - 18" to the left of the sink for dirty dishes, 18" to the right of the sink for coffee pot and cappacino machine, and the granddaddy of them all - 42" of wide open space which is not only home to my gorgeous purple mixer, a bowl of whatever fruit is waiting to ripen and any leftover baked goods that might be hanging around, but also operates as my work space for chopping, measuring, mixing, rolling, cutting, and any other chores required to prepare a meal.  While the cabinets and tile floor are relatively new, the appliances are younger than our children, and I've tried to add some personality with cute curtains and knick-knacks, it still adds up to one Crappy Little Kitchen.

Ms. Schaertl contends that "Crappy Little Kitchens rock, and if you give your Crappy Little Kitchen (CLK for short) half a chance, you'll be in complete agreement."  And sincer her first kitchen was a teeny sink, stove and motel-room-size fridge lined up against a wall, maybe she knows of whence she speaks.  "Whatever your kitchen situation - whether you have a miniscule space, ancient appliances, or a dismal appearance (or all three!) - you can still work wonders and create gourmet meals."  What follows these opening lines of encouragement are instructional sections on cooking in a CLK:  CLK Basics - "the must-haves (of pans and utensils) that will give you the most bang for your buck", and the best storage ideas; CLK Saboteurs - "unnecessary items stashed in every nook and cranny of your cramped space"; The CLK Pantry - hints for shopping and storing the necessary staples in the right quantities. 

And then, of course, are the recipes - easy to follow instructions, colorful photographs, and quirky names intermixed with handy tips and ideas.  I can't wait to try Great Guacamole, Batman!, BYOM (Bring Your Own Margarita) Mushroom Tamales, or Sweet Cheese Cranberry Purses, among many others.  You'll become an instant gourmet, even if you don't have a Crappy Little Kitchen.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Night of the Living Deed by E. J. Copperman

Newly divorced Alison Kerby wants a second chance for herself and her nine-year-old daughter. She's returned to her hometown on the Jersey Shore to transform a Victorian fixer-upper into a charming-and profitable-guest house. One small problem: the house is haunted, and the two ghosts insist Alison must find out who killed them. (from book cover)

In keeping with our recent harvest theme, this cozy mystery is "out-standing in it's field".  Ok, I know, bad pun!  But, it truly is a step above the average formulaic cozy.  The ghosts, in this case, have only been deceased for two years so the murder the heroine is trying to solve is relatively recent - a fun twist on the usual historic angle.  Also, these ghosts are a hoot!  Still adjusting to their deceased status and the physical restrictions this implies, they sometimes aid in the investigation and sometimes hamper it.

More importantly, to me anyway, Ms. Copperman avoids my pet peeve of many mystery authors (Regular followers of our blog may skip to the next paragraph and avoid a repeat of my ranting.) which is the assumption that the reader is stupid, or at least a bit on the slow side, and can't follow the clues for themselves.  I become impatient when the author stops the progress of the story to point out all the clues and theories I may not have been smart enough to recognize on my own, and I tend to skim rather than read.  This story kept the action moving forward while still giving me all the necessary clues to solve the case.  If I missed one along the way, the ending just came as more of a surprise and allowed me that head slapping moment of "Oh, I should have thought of that." 

Besides the ghosts, the supporting cast - mother, daughter, best friend, best friend's husband - are all comical and interesting enough to make me want to come back for the next installment of the Haunted Guesthouse Mysteries.  I sure hope Ms. Copperman writes fast.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Harvest Wrap Up

The majority of the wheat is out of the field, the pace is slowing a bit and everyone is beyond ready for a day off.  In that spirit, I'm wrapping up my harvest posts with a few random pictures.  Hope you enjoyed your glimpse into my life as "the elevator guy's wife".  If you have any questions, just ask - here or on twitter (@mrschupa) - and we'll do our best to answer.  We now return you to our regularly scheduled book blog...

Custom Cutting Crews: Cultural Diversity on a Combine

Like elephants in a circus parade, lines of cumbersome tractor/trailer rigs hauling farm equipment make their way from deep in the heart of Texas, across the plains and into Canada, harvesting the wheat fields as they go.    These caravans set out to the southernmost fields in late spring and work their way north - following the summer heat as it tracks northward and ripens the wheat - and return back home in the fall. 

These modern nomads travel with their own living quarters, so RV parks and lots that usually sit empty become villages for a few weeks, then everything returns to it's place on the trucks and the caravan heads to the next stop to repeat the entire process.  Farmers will re-hire the same crew each year, if they're good at what they do, so some of the wanderers are familiar faces each summer.

Not all farmers hire crews to cut their wheat.  The ones who do say it is because hiring it done is more cost efficient than purchasing and maintaining combines and trucks and hiring help to run them.  Custom  crews can definitely be more time efficient, putting three, four or more combines into a field at once, and since time is of the essence when you're battling Mother Nature, this can be a huge benefit. If you  asked those who cut their own crop, they would likely tell you that custom cutters are too expensive and they can do it more reasonably on their own.  Only a few will admit that, regardless of cost, they just enjoy the hands-on experience of harvest.

The most interesting part of the crews that come to town are the people themselves.  This is five months of hard work and long hours, but the pay is good, so it's an attractive summer job, especially for young men.  Crews in our area this year started from Canada, Missouri, Oklahoma, Minnesota and a variety of other places, and an international group is not uncommon.  We met folks from all over Canada, the Netherlands, and South Africa.  When asked why they sign up for this job, most gave two answers:  1. to see the United States, and 2. for the money.  At today's exchange rate, each American dollar earned equals 7.74 African Rand, so these men can possibly earn as much or more in five months on an American harvest crew as they would in a year at home.  For some, a work visa for the harvest season is the first step in an anticipated permanent move to the States. 

Pictured here is our daughter and Koos, a harvester from South Africa.  Working at the elevator, Dave and the kids saw these men on a daily basis, and they sometimes hung out after work hours, trading stories about their cultures and generally having a good time. As a result, our kids have a little wider view of the world, and are fluent in Afrikaans swear words.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Elevator Operation 101: Ground Piles

Todays lesson in operating an elevator is about piling grain on the ground.  Even with three facilities with a combined storage capacity of 3.9 million bushels, there will be more wheat produced in the county than the elevators can hold, so the only option (other than turning away business) is to dump it on the ground. This is obviously not an ideal storage plan, as rain and heat will eventually cause spoilage, but for the short term it keeps the grain coming in. 

Grain piles are created by large augers powered by the PTO (power take-off) on a tractor.  If you've never seen a grain auger, picture the threaded portion of a screw - but much larger - inside a metal tube. When the threads turn, they push the grain through the tube and out the other end.

The trucks empty into a portable hopper - either a "swing-away hopper" (like the red one in the picture) rolled under the truck or a "portable pit" (blue) which has ramps that allow the truck to drive across it.  The hopper feeds the grain into a large auger which lifts it up and drops it onto a pile. 
You start with a small pile and end with a h-u-g-e pile like this:

Because it takes longer to empty a truck into an auger than into the elevator, Dave has piles going in five different locations to try to keep traffic moving.  Naturally this calls for five tractors, five portable pits and five augers - which means fifteen times the breakdowns and repairs.  It certainly keeps everyone moving to keep all that equipment running during sixteen hour days. 

When harvest is complete and the grain is sold, the process will be reversed, all the wheat will be picked up, loaded into trucks or trains and shipped.  But that's a lesson for another day.