As a Person of a Certain Age, I often have to remind myself that no, 1990 was not 10 or 15 years ago, but (gulp) 31 years ago. While I normally love my age, embrace my silver hair, and am proud of the wrinkles around my eyes and mouth that show how much I’ve smiled and laughed, I admit that the passing of time has thrown me for a loop lately. It just doesn’t seem possible sometimes that it’s been that long; surely it was just yesterday.
I see Instagram posts about ’80s and ’90s memorabilia and cultural icons (anyone else remember Big Bopper magazine, YM, and of course the best magazine of all time, Sassy?) and am immediately wistful, losing myself down the rabbit hole of whatever account was reposted. My Spotify playlists heavily feature Tori Amos, Rage Against the Machine, Bikini Kill, The Roots, and Ani DiFranco.
Recently, with Netflix’s adaptation of Moxie, Hulu’s release of Felicity and My So-Called Life, and the reunion of the original Real World cast, I’ve been more than a little nostalgic for the 1990s. Maybe nostalgia is the wrong word, since I know that that time was surely not “the good old days,” nor was it perfect in any way. Maybe after a year of staying at home and a hyper-focus on day-to-day survival mode and just getting through, remembering parts of my preteen and teen years is a little bit entertaining. (Note that I said a little bit…my awkward phase was in full force during much — all? — of the ’90s).
If you’re also feeling some sort of way about the ’90s, I put together a small list of books set in the ’90s, as well as books that simply remind me of the ’90s or that were really big in the ’90s, or simply ’90s-adjacent.
The Black Kids by Christina Hammonds Reed
It is 1992, Ashley Bennett’s senior year of high school, and life in L.A. is good. But then four LAPD officers are acquitted of nearly beating Rodney King to death, and Ashley is suddenly “one of the Black kids.” She tries to pretend life is normal, but it is anything but: her family is falling apart, her friends are spreading rumors, and Ashley has to figure out who she is and what she stands for.
The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides
I remember when this first came out in 1993 — it may have even been reviewed in Sassy — and then when the film came out in 1999. Five sisters, beautiful and beloved by the boys in the neighborhood, die by suicide, one by one over the course of a year. The book is haunting and thought-provoking, and the movie (directed by Sofia Coppola) is definitely worth the watch.
Prozac Nation: Young and Depressed in America by Elizabeth Wurtzel
Wurtzel was a cultural icon for many in Gen X. Her bold confessional style and raw honesty were like nothing many of us had ever read back in the early ’90s: about sex, depression, anti-depressants, self-harm, and therapy. This was made into a movie, but trust me — the book is better. Much better.
Let Me Hear a Rhyme by Tiffany D. Jackson
Brooklyn, 1998. After their best friend Steph is murdered, Jarrell and Quadir don’t want to let his music disappear. So they put together a demo of his rhymes with a new rap name: the Architect. When the music gets the attention of a music label rep, things get tricky. Everyone has a secret related to what happened to Steph — will it all come out? How will they handle the success of his music?
The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
This book was first published in 1999, by an imprint of MTV Books. It’s set in the early ’90s and it follows Charlie’s first year of high school, through letters that he writes. Sex, drugs, dating and dating violence, abortion, grief, friendship, family issues — this book had it all, and its frank discussion of these issues landed it on several banned lists.
If you’re interested in a behind-the-scenes look at the history of the Riot Grrrl movement, this is the best one I’ve read yet. Based on her own experiences, research, and interviews, Marcus outlines not only the story of the movement, but of several bands like Bikini Kill, Heavens to Betsy, and Sleater-Kinney, and how the movement has influenced culture even today.
Like a Love Story by Abdi Nazemian
Okay, I’m cheating a little with this one because it’s set in 1989. But hear me out: it’s also about the queer community, ACT UP, and AIDS activism. Which was also very much a cornerstone of the ’90s. I remember learning about it in middle school, along with seeing Keith Haring’s iconic posters for ACT UP. So I’m adding this story about Reza, an Iranian boy who just moved to NYC and is scared of people figuring out he’s gay, when he can barely acknowledge it himself. He meets Judy, who is very involved in ACT UP, and they start dating…which means he has hard decisions to make that might also end the best friendship he’s ever had.