REVIEW: The Cactus League

To baseball fans, MLB’s annual spring training is almost romantic. After a long winter without baseball, spring training finally marks the sport’s return.

Emily Nemens’ novel The Cactus League digs into the darker side, the hopefulness of baseball’s spring training replaced by a cast of characters all struggling in their own way.

The book reads less as one overarching story and more as a series of interconnected character studies. Each chapter focuses on one person connected with the Los Angeles Lions baseball team during its spring season in Scottsdale, Arizona. Each story stands on its own but focuses on a central thread: how the divorce of star player Jason Goodyear happened. Goodyear’s fall from grace is revealed bit by bit from the perspectives of those around him before finally telling it from his perspective.

The Cactus League is a baseball novel that clearly understands baseball. The game scenes are realistic, and more importantly, the book has a good grasp on baseball’s social scene. Many who have a connection to baseball are part of the story — the aging batting coach, the high-powered agent, the rookie fresh out of college, the “cleat-chaser,” the baseball wives. Each character has a vice and all are somewhat unlikeable, yet their individual arcs were compelling enough to keep me reading.

I was able to figure out (for the most part) what was going on with Goodyear halfway through the novel. It was unclear if that was the intention or not and the heavy-handed foreshadowing did detract a bit from the intrigue. That said, the character development for the other characters was strong enough to stand on its own.

Overall, The Cactus League was a good read that transported me back to the spring training we missed out on this year. I love character-driven stories so it was really interesting to get inside the heads of a wide variety of characters. At the same time, I wished some of the explorations had been deeper. While the idea of class and what it means to be rich, poor or somewhere in between was observed at length, many of the characters also had preconceived notions about race and gender that I felt were left unexplored. Some of the characters were racist or sexist or problematic in other ways. I didn’t have a problem with that in itself — people in general are often racist or sexist and that shouldn’t magically change in a book — but given the depth with which class was explored, I wanted to see more in the other areas as well.

While most of the book felt only loosely connected, the ending to The Cactus League was the payoff. It brought together many of the characters from the earlier stories and showed how in the cactus league, everyone’s lives were affected by the others and everyone had a different piece of the story. Not every character had their arc resolved, but the ending was a provocative conclusion to the main spine of the story.

REVIEW: Beartown

Content warning: The book discussed centers around an instance of rape.

There are books that you read, then forget. And there are books that stay with you.

Beartown is one of the latter. This beautifully written book follows several residents of a hockey-crazed Swedish small town. It’s the kind of town that’s been ravaged by big businesses swooping into nearby towns. “You can’t live in this town,” they say. “You can only survive it.”

The town’s only source of pride is its hockey teams, which have faded in relevance over the years — except this year, when the junior team is good enough to make the semifinals thanks to a team built around a star player, Kevin, and a supporting cast that complements him well. But then Kevin rapes the GM’s daughter after the semifinal, and everyone in town is affected.

Beartown’s catalytic event doesn’t happen until nearly halfway through the 400-page book. This made it a bit hard to get into at first — but it was well worth it at the end, when the painstaking development of all the book’s main characters made it nearly impossible to put the book down. Every character is nuanced, and author Fredrik Backman wrote them in such a way that nearly every action is understandable, even if clearly not justified.

Backman’s writing is lyrical and full of ruminations on the meaning of hockey, family, life and loyalty. The natural flow of the writing is even more impressive considering the book is a translation from its original Swedish. Beartown also distinguishes itself from most sports books in that Backman clearly knows and loves hockey. The descriptions of the games read like they were written by a sports writer, and Backman also clearly understands the meaning of sports — and the way they can both bring people together and tear them apart.

Some books that deal with sexual misconduct come off as preachy; others are too dismissive. Beartown was neither. Backman handled the subject with empathy for the victim while also exploring the actions of those around her, both good and bad, and the forces pushing them to act certain ways. Hockey is the backdrop to all of this; in a place where the hockey team is one of the few sources of hope in Beartown and the junior team’s coaches have always stressed that the team comes before all else. That makes the fallout particularly devastating. In a town where hockey is everything, its citizens are forced to grapple with the dark side of both the game and human nature itself.

I love sports. But I’ve also seen the ways the same culture that makes them so appealing can also turn toxic, the way sports are sometimes used as an excuse to enable the horrific. In that way, Beartown was both timely and realistic. The events of Beartown are fictional, but they feel like they could happen — have happened — in so many different places.

The ending of Beartown was unpredictable and affecting. (I’ll admit I cried.) Few things in the book are as simple as they seem, and that extends to the ending. Beartown is dark, but it is ultimately hopeful. It was a poetic and poignant read that I wanted to keep reading after it was over. I know I won’t stop thinking about it anytime soon.

REVIEW: Spinning Out

When I first heard of a new figure skating-based Netflix drama called “Spinning Out,” I knew I needed to watch it. Anyone who knows me knows I’m a sucker for sports TV shows and movies, for better and for worse. Growing up, I watched Olympic figure skating religiously. So “Spinning Out” was an easy choice to binge, and it was one I didn’t regret.

The premise of “Spinning Out” is similar to many other figure skating books, movies and TV shows I’ve seen. Kat (Kaya Scodelario) is a 20-something figure skater who was training for the Olympics before an injury gave her the yips, a psychological condition where she is unable to complete her jumps. An eccentric Russian coach, Dasha (Svetlana Efremova) encourages Kat to try pairs skating instead with Justin (Evan Roderick), a spoiled — but hot — fellow skater who can’t keep a partner. A significant subplot includes Kat’s relationship with her bipolar mom and sister, Serena (Willow Shields) who has taken Kat’s place as the skating star of the family.

Though the storyline is cliché, Spinning Out has a surprising amount of depth on many issues relevant to society today, including mental illness, self harm, infertility, sexual assault, racism, family pressure, sports injuries, infidelity and homosexuality. While the first few episodes were a bit hard to get into due to the formulaic nature of this storyline, the depth of the show and the characters increased as the season went on and dove into Kat’s relationship with her family, friends and coaches. Several of these storylines were very compelling; I especially enjoyed the characters of Marcus (Mitchell Edwards), Kat’s co-worker, and Dasha.

The main thread of the show was the trauma that Kat is dealing with in the way her singles career ended, especially as someone struggling with bipolar disorder. Kat conceals her disorder from everyone except her family due in large part to the insular nature of the figure skating world — it’s not just about how you skate, but how you look. Kat believes she would be ostracized if she reveals her illness, but concealing it of course leads to more problems.

Kat’s relationship with Serena is also layered and complex. Serena has become the new golden child, a title she has a complex relationship with. The sisters love each other, but their relationship is strained due to their mom’s toxicity. As someone with a sister, though one I’ve always been close to, this storyline really resonated emotionally.

As for the skating itself, the technique wasn’t Olympic-level, but I’m saying that as someone who regularly watches Olympic figure skating, and getting multiple stunt doubles who can actually skate at that level is impractical, so I was willing to let it slip. Other than that, the portrayal of the sport was decently accurate and better than many other sports-themed TV shows or movies I’ve seen.

By the end of the season, I couldn’t put my laptop down, and I even cried a little. At the beginning I wasn’t sure about this show, but it pulled me in and by the end I was sold. The worst part of Spinning Out is that it was canceled by Netflix after one season and I agonized over the season-ending cliffhanger for nothing.

Alas, Spinning Out is still worth watching for anyone who enjoys sports-themed dramas that hit surprisingly hard.


Attending a high school that didn’t have its own sports teams, my concept of cheerleaders mostly came from what I saw on TV. White, pretty, mean. They cheered to make themselves popular or to date football players.

The recent Netflix miniseries “Cheer” flips all those stereotypes on their heads.

“Cheer” follows the real-life cheerleading team at Navarro College, a community college in rural Texas. The show’s arc juxtaposes two common sports movie tropes that aren’t normally seen together — the dominant juggernaut with a deep-seated desire to win and the scrappy, diverse underdogs who play above their means. The opening makes it clear that Navarro is a dominant force in the world of cheerleading and that their driven coach, Monica, will accept nothing less than another national title.

But these aren’t your typical teen sitcom cheerleaders. Many of Navarro’s cheerleaders are minorities or from low-income backgrounds. For some of them, cheerleading is literally all they have, and it’s that — the undeniably human stories of these athletes overcoming what life has thrown at them to come together and create something bigger than themselves — that makes the most compelling part of the show.

This show is not always pretty. Monica’s tactics occasionally border on abusive. There are a lot of injuries, and many of them are not handled properly. (It’s unclear if this is due to lack of adequate athletic medicine resources, negligence from coaches or both.) This is the dark underbelly of many sports, and “Cheer” presents it right alongside the feel-good narratives and lets you decide for yourself what you think. That was one of the more fascinating aspects of the show for me, especially as someone who is frequently around sports.

The show centers primarily on five protagonists — Lexi, Morgan, LaDarius, Jerry and Gabi — as they prepare for nationals with their team. All five are easy to root for. They all had different hopes and dreams and as the show reached its conclusion, I found myself cheering for them all to find success in their own ways. Throughout the documentary, you see a lot of footage from practice and information on how Navarro’s routine is coming, but you also get to hear the backstory of these five and see the impact that being part of the team has had in their lives.

I found out two episodes into “Cheer” that Navarro is one of only two teams in its division. Trinity Valley, the school it mentions as Navarro’s biggest rival, is in fact its only rival. The miniseries conceals this fact, but somehow it didn’t bother me as much as I thought it would. As the series went on, I found myself wondering more what would happen to each of the main team members rather than whether Navarro would win its championship. For that reason, I appreciated that “Cheer” doesn’t end with Navarro’s nationals performance. Instead, it goes on to show what happened to everyone after they walked off the stage — and not everything wraps up in a neat little bow.

“Cheer” is sports documentary meets sports movie, a David and Goliath story at the same time. Not everything is as glitzy and glamorous as the cheerleaders I saw on TV as a kid. And those things are what make the show so compelling.

REVIEW: Miss Americana

During a scene in her Netflix documentary “Miss Americana,” Taylor Swift ruminates on her impact on a generation of fans.

“There is an element to my fanbase that feels like we grew up together,” she says.

I have an inkling that I’m one of those fans she’s referring to. I’m not going to kid myself that Taylor Swift and I grew up together. She’s 10 years older than me; the two of us have always been in different stages of our lives. But as I watched “Miss Americana,” I couldn’t help but think that the two of us did go through a lot of similar things around the same time, and that the documentary — which focused on her experiences as an ambitious woman in a male-dominated world, struggling to find her voice — helped me understand not just her, but myself.

“Miss Americana” has obvious appeal for Swift fans, interspersing lots of concert footage as well as a behind-the-scenes look at the composition of her new album “Lover.” But the thing that sets it apart from a traditional concert film-slash-documentary is that it also speaks to those very same fans Swift references in the beginning, the girls who fell in love with her tales of young romance but are no longer so naïve. How do you navigate life as a good girl grown up, as a woman unsure what to do with her ambition?

That’s the question Swift answers in “Miss Americana.” The documentary focuses less on the development on Swift as an artist and more on her development as a person, making it simultaneously a fascinating look at a celebrity who has long been known for openness, a commentary on the state of ambitious women in American society and a roadmap for those very same fans who grew up with her.

In the beginning of the documentary, Swift shows us the journals she had as a kid. The scenery is very feminine; lots of pink and glitter. She tells us how she always wanted to be thought of as a good girl and always wanted to make people happy. Praise was the thing that drove her; as long as people liked her work, she had everything she needed. That worked when she was still a 20-year-old country darling, but as the documentary progresses, we see footage of her ongoing feud with Kanye West, a bout with disordered eating and media criticism — all while Swift felt like she had no one to turn to.

Like Swift, I approached my work in a male-dominated field — in this case, sports writing — as trying to please people. I glowed every time someone praised my work. I picked up extra work shifts when someone needed a person to cover. I did everything I thought people wanted, but it eventually backfired. I put so much pressure on myself to do everything right, and when things didn’t go my way, I did a lot of things I wasn’t proud of. There came a point in my life, just as there did in Swift’s, that I realized my reputation didn’t at all reflect the person I wanted to be.

The second part of the documentary explained how Swift powered through and took control of their own identity. I remember reading all the criticism of Swift as a “snake” when I was in high school and thinking that some of the criticism was valid. But I’d been a fan of hers longer than I had of anyone else, and I didn’t want to abandon that, either. In “Miss Americana,” Swift doesn’t shy from the criticism. She shows what she learned.

In one scene, Swift discusses her struggle with disordered eating — something I, too, struggled with in high school — and says she realized she’d rather be called fat than look sick. She takes us through the process of deciding to finally speak up about politics. As a woman in country music, she was told to avoid becoming like the Dixie Chicks. It wasn’t until 2018 that she realized that more important than her reputation was speaking out for the things she believed was right. She wasn’t the “good girl” anymore, and in a way, she was never going to be that. So why not use her platform for things she believed in? It was “frilly and spineless,” she said, to wish people happy pride month at her concerts but not speak out any further.

Swift also discusses her sexual assault trial and the dehumanizing feeling of the whole process. The documentary shows footage from one of Swift’s concerts, where she gets candid about what happened to her and acknowledges that she was one of the lucky ones, and that many others who didn’t have pictures and witnesses aren’t believed. She begins to use her platform to not just create her own image, but to speak out for others in similar situations, too.

“There’s this thing people say about celebrities, that they get frozen at the age they got famous, and that’s kinda what happened to me,” Swift says at the end of her documentary. Finally, she’s able to say that she’s not perfect and never was, that she knows there were times she was wrong. But the way she got through it was by allowing herself to grow up and learning to use her voice for good.

As I struggled to get past my own rough patch in my life, I thought about a lot of the same things. How do I acknowledge that I hurt people and moved on, even if they hurt me too? How do I use my voice correctly? How do I come to define my own identity as something more than just a woman in a male-dominated space. Watching “Miss Americana,” I saw someone else struggling with those same questions, and after I finished, I felt closer to being able to find the answers myself.

The experience of ambitious women in male-dominated fields is oft-discussed, but rarely shown so intimately as it is in “Miss Americana.” Going into the documentary, I expected a behind-the-scenes film that would be fun to watch as a fan, but what I got out of it was so much deeper.

REVIEW: Callisto presented by Pure Dance

A photo of Pure Dance from its Facebook page

Every dance show I’ve seen at Michigan has had its own flavor. In Pure Dance’s winter show, Callisto, there were many flavors spread throughout in a performance that was at times entertaining and at times lacked cohesion.

Pure performed eight dances and a finale, alternating between jazz and contemporary numbers with seven guest performers: a cappella group 58 Greene, contemporary company Ambiance, alternative percussion outfit Groove, jazz ensemble Blue Bop Jazz, hip-hop crew Flowdom, contemporary ballet company Salto and the ballroom dance club. All of the guest performances were good on their own, but there were too many of them for the number of dances Pure performed; it felt like the guests were onstage for a longer amount of time than the company itself. Blue Bop Jazz even opened the second half, taking the spotlight off the show’s supposed headliner.

Because of the abruptness of transitions between so many different types of performances, the show never really built up a rhythm. Still, it had its moments. I really enjoyed “Under Pressure” — set to the song by Queen and David Bowie — which Pure smartly placed toward the end of its program to ensure it was remembered. The choreography, by Libby Owen, was smart and went well with the music.

Overall, Pure’s contemporary pieces were stronger than the jazz ones, with “Under Pressure” as the exception. The jazz numbers seemed at times out of sync, but they got stronger as the show went on.

Pure did do some innovative things with lighting, staging and choreography. They frequently created a silhouette-like effect with the lighting, turning themselves into shadows dancing across a colorful backdrop. In the number “Elastic,” Pure walked out to flashing white lights, as if cameras were flashing as they strutted across the stage. They wore high-heeled boots, still managing to complete turn sequences. I appreciated the artistic risk they took in the piece, and it’s a risk that paid off. They also utilized lifts to good effect several times.

Overall, though, I wished I’d had time to truly settle in with Pure rather than seeing them constantly alternate with a litany of guest groups. In particular, Ambiance performed a contemporary number that I thought outshined the ones that came before and after.

Callisto had a lot of potential, and Pure Dance did a lot of cool and innovative things I haven’t seen in other student-run dance shows. However, the organization of the show ultimately undersold Pure’s talents and I wish I had been able to see more from them.