The Cactus League – Emily Nemens
Farrar, Straus, & Giroux
288 Pages

In full disclosure, I was supposed to do a joint book review with Howie Balaban for this book. He gave me a copy of The Cactus League by Emily Nemens with exactly that in mind. However, his schooling life got in the way and the joint review kept getting delayed. In the meantime, I figured I could just review it now, and if he wanted to discuss it later, we could still do that. Getting his degree worked on is far more important. That, and I can sometimes be impatient.

I had been hearing about this book for some time before I read. Howie is a baseball fanatic and anything to do with it, especially books, is high on his radar….unless it is Moneyball. He drummed up a lot of hype around this book, so I was initially wary. Sometimes Howie’s hype is a bit too much and turns me off from whatever it is. In this case, he was correct, though.

Howie billed this novel as a “baseball book.” On that we will disagree. It definitely is infused with the spirit of the game, but the real subject of this book is the human spirit in several forms. It’s the stories of an aging sports agent who knows his best days are behind him, a batting coach desperately hoping the game doesn’t pass him by, and a local woman trying to get that last fling in during spring training before the players are too young to find her attractive. 

In the midst of all this, Jason Goodyear, the star player of the team struggles with living up to the expectations of being a star and a husband, failing miserably at both. He falls into vices that so dazzle young people who have nearly endless piles of money. He is easily swayed by people who are more interested in Jason Goodyear the celebrity than Jason Goodyear the man. 

This novel, in it’s coyly disjointed way, draws together the first days of spring training. I say disjointed because each chapter focuses solely on one specific member of the cast, almost ignoring the rest of the characters until they slowly start to gel towards one common goal. Having been part of a sports team back in high school, I understand that this often happens at the start of the season until everyone finally shakes off the lethargy of the off-season. I would guess that happens in professional sports, and Nemens captures that with her writing style.

In the end, this book is a lot of fun. The chapters follow the nine innings of a baseball game, and all the various, unseen parts of the game coalesce into a grand story about the very nature of humanity. This novel explores strengths and weaknesses, and the foibles that define both. Baseball is only the backstop that this story is set against, which may make it one of the most baseball stories without actually being a baseball story.

This is a fairly short book, and is easy to read. If you need a quick, fun read over a weekend, The Cactus League by Emily Nemens will work wonderfully. You get a little baseball, a little humor, and a whole lot of human spirit. As this is Nemens debut novel, I will have to patiently wait for her next novel to make its way to my local bookshelves.

Craig Bacon likes to channel Yogi Berra and tell people he likes to read books, especially books he likes to read.

Originally published on Niagara’s Water Cooler. Republished with permission.




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