Tag Archives: 80s

8 Awesome Books About The 80s

This pandemic has made me nostalgic. Something about quarantine has made me – and clearly other people I know – reach out to old friends and set up Zoom reunions to get back in touch. Seems like we’re all casting back to easier and happier times. If you find yourself in a similarly nostalgic mood… here are my favorite books about my favorite decade, the 80s. Pick up one of these and take a trip back to a really different time.

  1. VJ: The Unplugged Adventures of MTV’s First Wave: Oral history of MTV’s early days told by Nina Blackwood, Alan Hunter, Mark Goodman and Martha Quinn. From my review: “Give it a try – it’s a light but surprisingly engrossing read about a unique time at the intersection of television and music. MTV will never again be what it once was, nor will the music industry, but VJ: The Unplugged Adventures at least memorializes those bygone days.”
  2. Not Dead Yet by Phil Collins. Memoir of Collins’ life, from childhood through his Genesis and solo careers. From my review: “I thoroughly enjoyed Not Dead Yet, especially the behind-the-scenes look at the music, the bands and the touring. I am addicted to 80s nostalgia, and Not Dead Yet did not disappoint. If you were even a casual Genesis or Phil fan, I think you’ll enjoy this book.”
  3. Don’t You Forget About Me by Jancee Dunn. Woman in late thirties returns home to parents’ house in this funny novel about the dangers of romanticizing high school in the 80s. From my review: “Dunn is an entertaining writer, and the book was perfectly paced. I laughed out loud several times while reading it, and didn’t want to put it down.”
  4. You Couldn’t Ignore Me If You Tried by Susannah Gora. Detailed, juicy and insightful chronicle of the making of the great teen 80s movies. From my review: “It’s definitely a trip down memory lane, but also a compelling look at a decade of filmmaking that transformed a genre and made a permanent impact on the directors and actors we watch today.”
  5. In The Pleasure Groove by John Taylor. Memoir by Taylor, the bass player for Duran Duran who is thankfully on the other side of a bout with coronavirus. From my review: “Despite my familiarity with this fact pattern, it felt fresh and even suspenseful in Taylor’s words. I don’t know who partnered on this book with him, but it’s smart, well-written and very funny at times. Taylor is pretty honest about his flaws, especially when it comes to his drug use and self-centeredness throughout his addiction, but he is also grateful for – and even a little bit in awe of – all that Duran Duran achieved as a band and the experiences he had.”
  6. The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai. This is a beautifully written book about Chicago in the mid-80s and how AIDS ravaged the gay community there. It is not a light read, but it is an excellent one. From my review: The Great Believers is about friendship and loyalty, and how our devotion to one person or cause can have consequences in other parts of our lives. It’s a long book, one that requires attention and thought. It took me a long time to get through it, but it was an immersive and very satisfying read.”
  7. Mad World: An Oral History of New Wave Artists and Songs That Defined the 1980s by Lori Majewski and Jonathan Bernstein. I never reviewed this book, but I love it. From Amazon: “Mad World is a highly entertaining oral history that celebrates the New Wave music phenomenon of the 1980s via new interviews with 35 of the most notable artists of the period. Each chapter begins with a discussion of their most popular song but leads to stories of their history and place in the scene”.
  8. Life Moves Pretty Fast: The Lessons We Learned from Eighties Movies (and Why We Don’t Learn Them from Movies Anymore) by Hadley Freeman. I haven’t read this one yet, but it’s on my TBR and I will get to it at some point soon. It’s about “how the changes between movies in the 80s and movies today say so much about society’s expectations of women, young people and art.”

VJ: THE UNPLUGGED ADVENTURES OF MTV’S FIRST WAVE

I am 80s music-obsessed. (After all, look at the name of my blog.)  When I learned that the original MTV VJs were coming out with a memoir, I knew I had to read it. I don’t read much, if any, non-fiction, but I made a happy exception in this case.


I thoroughly enjoyed VJ: The Unplugged Adventures of MTV’s First Wave, told through the voices of Alan Hunter, Martha Quinn, Mark Goodman, Nina Blackwood, and, posthumously, the late J.J. Jackson. Those five were the original hosts on MTV when the network launched in 1981. Gavin Edwards interviewed the four and threaded together their responses to create a loose narrative detailing the six years after the fledgling network launched.

There’s lots of good behind-the-scenes scoop here – what the musicians who dropped by the studio were like; the parties and concerts the VJs attended while working for MTV; how being revered by millions of high school kids affected their personal lives. It is fun to read about how clueless they all were about MTV was when they took the job, and the impact that they – and the network – eventually had on television, music, and pop culture. The interrelationships between the five, who were were very different but quickly thrust into immediate intimacy, are also pretty interesting. They each adhered to a type – the snobby music critic, the kid, the comedian, etc. – that mostly defined them throughout their tenure together. There are some funny anecdotes about how low-rent the early days were: they rented cars to go to concerts together; they didn’t even get to watch the videos before they talked about them on air; they all shared a dressing room; and they each got a clothing budget of $500 every three months.

I didn’t have cable TV in the 80s (DC was very late to get cable and I was already in college when it finally happened), so I sadly missed the early years of MTV when some of my favorite artists were on heavy rotation. I spent a lot of this book feeling wistful for what could have been: afternoons after school watching Simple Minds, Police and U2 videos and getting to know these VJs as well as so many other American teenagers did.(Instead, I have been relegated to watching 80s videos on YouTube in my 40s after going to reunion tours at the 9:30 Club.)

If you’re still reading this review, then VJ: The Unplugged Adventures of MTV’s First Wave must appeal to you on some level. Give it a try – it’s a light but surprisingly engrossing read about a unique time at the intersection of television and music. MTV will never again be what it once was, nor will the music industry, but VJ: The Unplugged Adventures at least memorializes those bygone days.

In my next life, I want to be a VJ on MTV. (That ain’t working, that’s the way you do it…)

YOU ARE ONE OF THEM by Elliott Holt

I just finished a book that I liked quite a bit. It’s not perfect, but I thought the good was very good.

It’s called You Are One Of Them, by Elliott Holt. I picked it out because I liked the premise: Sarah Zuckerman, who grew up in DC in the early 80s (like me!) had a best friend named Jenny who lived across the street. One day, they decide to write letters to Yuri Andropov to ask for peace between the US and the USSR. Jenny’s letter is singled out by the Russian government, and she is invited to the USSR as a child ambassador to help thaw relations during the Cold War. Upon Jenny’s return to the US, she becomes a celebrity, leaving Sarah behind. But within a year, she and her family have been killed in a private place accident en route to a speaking appearance.

Many years later, Sarah receives an email from someone in (now) Russia, claiming to have met Jenny on her visit in the 80s, and suggesting that Jenny is still alive,  having defected to Russia. Sarah has to decide whether to pursue the investigation into what really happened to Jenny and, in so doing, address her unresolved issues about the demise of their friendship.

[Incidentally, about 30 pages in, there were details in You Are One Of Them that were so familiar to me that I went online to see where Holt went to school. Sure enough, she went to my small, DC private school, which explains part of why this book appealed to me so much.]

So there are basically two parts of this book – the part about Sarah and Jenny’s friendship, and the part that explores the mystery of what actually happened to Jenny. I loved, loved, loved the first part. The treachery of middle school friendships set against the dark backdrop of the Cold War was perfectly covered by Holt, down to the little notes Sarah and Jenny used to write to each other, the cruelties that adolescent girls visit on each other, and Sarah’s sense of isolation and rejection. I also enjoyed following Sarah into adulthood and seeing how she coped with her deeply flawed family and the insecurities that were ingrained from a young age.

The second part of the book was a little problematic for me. I thought that in Russia, Sarah behaved in ways that were pretty out of character. Some of the postulated theories about Jenny’s whereabouts were overly simplistic and should have had more complexity. And there is the ending itself, which has its own opacity (but which I ultimately admired). It’s hard to address the second part of the book completely without spoiling the ending, so I will leave it at that. If you’ve read it and want to discuss it, email me!

Russia plays a huge role in this book – its history, its transformation in the 90s, and the ways in which its society adapted to Western sensibilities post-Cold War. Holt has a great talent for conveying the effect of the city’s weather, architecture, and economy on the psyches of its inhabitants, whether native or ex-pat.

You Are One Of Them was my favorite book so far this summer. It’s not perfect, as I said above, but I love Holt’s writing and can’t believe this is her first novel. I will be watching carefully – “like KGB, da?” for her next one.