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Believer Recommends VII

by The Editors
September 23rd, 2019

Documentary

Ronnie Coleman: The King


Vlad Yudin

Few documentaries opt to follow a top athlete into the deep winter of his career. It’s a credit to the extraordinary legacy of bodybuilder Ronnie Coleman (and probably also to a glut of Netflix funding) that this one does. Coleman, known as “the King,” was, not too long ago, the world’s greatest male bodybuilder. On YouTube, you can watch him back squat 800 pounds—for two reps. In photos, his muscle shirts hang from his traps like decorative ribbons. On stage, his back—maybe the biggest of all time—unfurls like a waxed, oiled, and spray-tanned mountain range of perfect symmetry. If Arnold’s goal, as he professed in Pumping Iron, was to balance a beer bottle on his pecs, Colemans’ could serve as a full bar. In 2005, Coleman won his eighth Mr. Olympia title. (Arnold peaked at merely seven.)

In footage from those days, Coleman is pure joy to watch. He grunts, hoots, and hisses during his lifts, the barbell visibly curved under the weight of the plates. He had catchphrases: “Ain’t nothin’ but a peanut,” he’d grunt, barely finding the breath, after finishing a set of dumbbell curls. Or, he’d yell, “Light weight babyyyy!” cheerleading himself through deadlift reps. Or, “Ain’t nothin’ to it but to do it!” Another trademark phrase, “Yeah buddy!”, labels his brand of pre-workout powder.

In the documentary, released last year, Coleman is fifty-four, and you could be forgiven for thinking his image was run through FaceApp. The stress of heavy lifting and subsequent spine surgeries have left Coleman unable to walk without crutches. He watches the news on the couch of his Texas home, swallowing fistfuls of oxycodone. He tries to keep up with his four young daughters. He preps for further surgeries. (To date, he’s undergone twelve.) Despite this, he continues to hit the gym—the same no-frills basement weight room he started in.

This isn’t as self-delusional as it sounds. Though I’ve often imagined the special tragedy of an athlete feeling her body crumble with use and age—and how it must feel to only remember such exquisite control of strength and musculature—Coleman thinks of it differently. Gains at the gym, for him, are promises for a bigger and better tomorrow, no matter what today looks like: “I’m really tiny at the moment but it’s all good because we all know muscles have memory,” he wrote on Instagram last year, after a particularly brutal surgery.

In other words, like a true bodybuilder, Coleman sees no reason to stop where he’s at. His words say it best: “In closing, I would like to say, oh yeah it ain’t over mulbuckers, once again it’s on like Ding Dongs.”

—Camille Bromley, Features Editor

Novel

A Girl Returned


Donatella Di Pietrantonio (translator: Ann Goldstein)

Donatella Di Pietrantonio’s third novel begins when an Italian girl on the cusp of adolescence is returned to her family. For the past thirteen years, she has been living in a coastal city with her cousins, whom she believed to be her real family. Life there was sandswept and charming. Her family took long walks on the beach, ate stuffed calamari and ice cream with mixed fruit. But that world has vanished. She now finds herself in a poor countryside town, with her real family, who eat bready meatballs, struggle to put food on the table, and see her as spoiled.

“The only chickens that one’s seen are cooked,” her mother tells her, after she shies away from plucking a chicken.

As the unnamed protagonist adjusts to her new reality, she finds allies in two of her siblings: Adriana, her younger sister, who is frequently beaten and wets the bed; and Vincenzo, her older brother, who she has quasi-romantic feelings for. Though she is constantly teased for it, she soon distinguishes herself in school for her ability to conjugate verbs and solve geometry problems. And yet, even as she carves a path for herself in this vexing new world, a foundational question remains: why did her old family give her away?

This is the central enigma of the novel, and Di Pietrantonio weaves it skillfully into the texture of nearly every scene. The narrator wonders if she did something to merit her abandonment. Her first mother was sick around the time she had been sent away. Was she still sick? Had she perhaps died? Her questions are simple and rational but no one seems to be able to answer them. Still, the narrator persists in her search for the truth, and as the novel approaches its compelling close, this pursuit draws her out of childhood and into the adult world, with all its messy allegiances and compromises.

—Daniel Gumbiner, Managing Editor

Cheese 
Gourmet

Vermont Seriously Sharp Cheddar Cracker Cut Slices

Cabot Creamery

What’s so tricky about slicing one’s own brick of cheddar? Nothing, really. Except when the slices come out too thick, or too thin, or—worse—translucent at one end and bulky at the other. Also, slices cut from most grocery-store blocks are too wide to line up with the edges of the modern cracker, which is usually square. You have to hold the whole thing together with an unseemly arrangement of fingers.

Enter Cabot’s Cracker Cut Slices. I admit I was skeptical when I heard the ad on NPR, but the announcer’s voice was so redolent of cracked wheat and fresh milk that I decided to give them a try. The thin plastic box features a resealable top that presses closed and peels open with the satisfaction of a ziplock. The container is sloped at one end to aid in the extraction of each of the twenty-six slices, lined up inside like a troop of pale, patient soldiers. Each slice separates from the stack with a pleasing adhesive sigh.

Many presliced cheeses flop. The Cracker Cut Slice stays stiff and, when bitten, produces a firm yet tender mouthfeel. It’s thin enough to satisfy without indulgence. The “complex, wildly intense flavors” touted by the package might be hyperbole, but the cheddar is Seriously Sharp—and seriously satisfying.

—Caitlin Van Dusen, Copy Editor

Play

Photo courtesy of Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theatre

Fairview

Jackie Sibblies Drury

A writer friend at Vulture recommended the play to me with the irresistible claim that it was the “best piece of culture he’d seen this year”—even better than Fleabag. I’m happy to report that Jackie Sibblies Drury’s work cleared that impossibly high bar for me. The 2019 winner of the Pulitzer Prize in Drama is an utterly smart, wildly ambitious, hilarious, daring, discomforting play about race in America that also does the things that theatre as an art form is particularly suited for: dance numbers, synchronicity, the breaking of the fourth wall. And yet this fails to convey what truly happens in the play (ostensibly “about” a well-to-do black family’s birthday dinner for Grandma) and how courageously and intelligently Drury and her cast, including a bravura MaYaa Boateng, go about engaging so many contemporary issues (respectability, privilege, appropriation, white gaze). I saw Fairview on a July night at Theatre for a New Audience in downtown Brooklyn and thought of other remarkable recent narrative works dealing with race in America: Paul Beatty’s The Sellout, Claudia Rankine’s Citizen and The White Card, Young Jean Lee’s Straight White Men, and of course Jordan Peele’s Get Out. And I think Fairview may stand as an even more towering achievement because of all the incredible risks it takes formally and technically. I don’t want to say too much more other than to simply implore you to go see it. You won’t be sorry.

—James Yeh, Features Editor

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