Category Archives: Joanna Walsh

Hotel – Joanna Walsh

I mentioned a few weeks ago that there was a new series of books in town which I was lusting after, Bloomsbury’s Object Lessons series. A series that intrigued me from its contents, nonfiction-cum-essays-cum-memoir (it seemed from what I gathered), as well as the covers which I just lusted after. When one of the series authors, Joanna Walsh, offered to take part in Other People’s Bookshelves – you can see hers here – it was simply a matter of time till I picked Hotel up, which I did in Foyles a few weeks ago. Any excuse to have a mooch in a book shop, any…


Bloomsbury, 2015, paperback, non-fiction/memoir, 178 pages, bought by myself for myself

There was a time in my life when I lived in hotels.
Around this time, the time I did not spend in hotels was a time I did not live. During this other time I haunted a marriage I was soon to leave. There’s no place like home, and as home hardly seemed to qualify as a place any more, I began to look for something elsewhere.

Hotel initially looks at the period in Joanna Walsh’s life when she was reviewing hotels for an up and coming website. This was also the time in her life that she was leaving her husband and the end of her marriage, naturally these two events converge and it is her that what follows trickles from and merges with another strand, Freud – but wait I have ended up a little ahead of myself. As Joanna contemplates her life back home away from home, in somewhere that tries to be a home yet never really can be (stay with me), she starts to look at hotel life from a new angle and also home life.

I found this a really fascinating look at hotels, in part because it is the total opposite of mine. I absolutely love a hotel. I could, and this is no word of a lie, be resident in them for a year or two and (as long as there were bookshops around) live quite happily. Think of that life of anonymity, of having fresh sheets everyday and a long hot bath to soak in for hours, well in the few hotels that seem to have baths now anyway. A chance to escape life and the daily chores, sign me up. Yet when your home life is anything but routine and you are anything but in it you can suddenly seem how alien and false the world of a hotel can be.

The hotel offers other overpriced toys:  “erotic” chocolates, jelly-flavoured condoms. As well as the “nostress” you can buy incense and “calming” bubble bath. The hotel sells you misbehaviour, then something to deal with the fallout, both in candy colours. There’s a pointed notice in the bathroom: “If you would like to take away a souvenir, our robes are for sale at reception.” The hotel mistrusts me. I am not surprised. There’s no right or wrong here. Despite the bedside drawer’s insistent Bible, the usual moral standards do not apply. This is my holiday, my treat. I’ve come for what I’m owed, and more.  The disappointments of my life may revenge themselves in petty larceny, but, even then, will I get what I’ve paid for?

So I was enthralled by the hotel element yet the honesty of Joanna’s writing about the breakup of her marriage is where the power of Hotel really lay for me personally. For me this year has been a year of reading, and in many ways discovering, some brutally honest writing which I am coming to respect greatly when the authors of such words write them unflinchingly and with an unflatteringly yet admirable rawness. Walsh does this here. She looks at how it feels when love has faded, she look s at the flaws of both parties, she writes about the emptiness and loneliness and also the odd liberation mixed with fear. It was during these segments that I found her at her most visceral.

Now that I no longer have you, I no longer have the kind of loneliness in which to wait for you. I no longer have to wait, but I have not yet developed the leisure to read a book. It is a different kind of loneliness. Perhaps, at first, it is worse.

Now then, I mentioned Freud earlier didn’t I? And he does indeed appear in Hotel with one of his patients Dora. And so does Oscar Wilde as do the Marx Brothers, Katherine Mansfield, Martin Heidegger, Greta Garbo and Mae West. How and why? Well I can answer the how, as the books second part (which is really all of it) is called Fragments from a Hysterical Suitcase which links to Freud.  I am slightly more confused on the why though I know I enjoyed the end result. You see the form of Hotel is one of the things that makes it so quirky, so unusual and also the kind of book you have to pay attention to and just go along with all at once. You’ll find yourself in Joanna’s head then suddenly the patient in Freud’s chair, or find Katherine Mansfield (I loved all the sections with her in, I really must read some of her work) in some kind of conversation with Mae West, or Odysseus being compared to Trip Advisor all via Walsh’s ponderings and meanderings. It is bonkers, yet somehow it works.

I haven’t mentioned style yet the way the book is formed is rather brilliant, each chapter almost having its own form or character. You have some chapters which are set in a particular hotel (the final chapter goes through 26 hotels), one told through a tour of a hotel from the lobby to the en suite of the bedroom and everywhere in between, one told through the free postcards that you sometimes get alongside a pen, one in diary form and so and so on. Experimental and rather original, if sometimes a little self conscious but it would be hard not to be with all this going on.

All in all Hotel is a very unusual work and one which you don’t come around too often and when you do they either excel or fall flat on their own faces. Books which intertwine an authors personal life, along with some essay like moments and twist in figures from history and their theories and philosophies can go either way. Yet along with Julian Barnes Levels of Life and Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk (which I will be discussing later this week) I think Joanna Walsh creates something rather special with Hotel. It isn’t going to be for everyone, it is rather more abstract and fractured than its contemporaries than I mention above, yet for those who give it a whirl there are many rewards, from the insight into hotels from another angle to the raw and moving insight of a broken marriage.


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Filed under Bloomsbury Publishing, Joanna Walsh, Review

Other People’s Bookshelves #74 – Joanna Walsh

Hello and welcome, after a small sabbatical, to the latest in Other People’s Bookshelves, a series of posts set to feed into the natural filthy book lust we all feel and give you a fix through other people’s books and shelves. This week we are in the company of author Joanna Walsh and her wonderful shelves. Joanna has put quite the spread on for us with something for everyone, so let’s all grab a glass and a nibble of something and have a nose through her bookshelves and learn more about her.

Joanna Walsh is the author of Hotel, Vertigo (UK publication 2016), Grow a Pair and Fractals. She writes for The Guardian, The New Statesman, and The National. She is Fiction Editor at 3:AM Magazine, and runs the capping @read_women, which the New York Times described as a “rallying cry for equal treatment for women writers.”

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Do you keep all the books you read on your shelves or only your favourites, does a book have to be REALLY good to end up on your shelves or is there a system like one in one out, etc? 

I have a holding system. As I review, I am sent quite a few books which go into the ‘to be read immediately’ pile, the ‘to be read later pile’, the ‘to be given away pile’ and any number of intermediate piles. I try not to put things on the shelves that I haven’t read, because it means I might forget to read them.

Do you organise your shelves in a certain way? For example do you have them in alphabetical order of author, or colour coded? Do you have different bookshelves for different books (for example, I have all my read books on one shelf, crime on another and my TBR on even more shelves) or systems of separating them/spreading them out? Do you cull your bookshelves ever?

I just made myself a new set of shelves so I can have more of my books together. I made them out of scaffolding planks and bricks and I’m not really a pro at this so the whole thing is rather unstable although the planks are bracketed to the wall at a central point. I hope they don’t fall down and kill me someday. I alphabetise – although it’s not very aesthetically pleasing. I found I had to, because I do a lot of work that involves referring to other works. I discovered that I have an affinity for authors at the beginning of the alphabet, especially authors beginning with B*, which is lucky because I often sit right under that section. Art books have their own set of shelves downstairs for reasons of size (‘B’s/’C’s  there too! Bourgeois, Carrington, Calle, Blake again…), and then journals/anthologies etc, which are not by one writer, & also things I’ve contributed to/written just because I couldn’t fit all these things on my main set of shelves.

*Beckett, Benjamin, Claire-Louise Bennet, Brooke-Rose, Breton, Blake, Baudriallard, Barthleme, Barthes, Buzzati, Bacon, Baudelaire, Bernhard, Bowles (Jane), Nicholson Baker, Flann O’Brien (should he be under O? Probably, but he obeys no laws of reason).

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What was the first book you ever bought with your own money and does it reside on your shelves now? 

I used libraries as a child. I think I bought the Penguin complete Sherlock Holmes when I was about 10. It went mouldy when there was a leak in my wall a few years ago so I had to throw it out along with some other books.

Are there any guilty pleasures on your bookshelves you would be embarrassed people might see, or like me do you have a hidden shelf for those somewhere else in the house?

The only pile I’m embarrassed about is the pile of books written by acquaintances that I might never get around to reading. (To anyone reading this who’s given me their book: no, OF COURSE I don’t mean YOURS.)

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Which book on the shelves is your most prized, mine would be a collection of Conan Doyle stories my Great Uncle Derrick memorised and retold me on long walks and then gave me when I was older? Which books would you try and save if (heaven forbid) there was a fire?

I’m not really attached to books as objects. Books should be reproducible, that’s the point of them isn’t it? It’s the writing that counts. On the other hand I do love well-designed books (I’ve designed several book covers). There’s no reason the design of electronic books shouldn’t be excellent too. All the same,  I don’t like to read e-books, but that’s because because it’s very difficult to weigh how far you are through them, and more or less impossible to take spontaneous notes: and you can’t bend them, or leave them splayed spine-up or fold them to mark a page, or read them in the bath. I do often read pdfs/epubs on my laptop when reviewing.

What is the first ‘grown up’, and I don’t mean in a ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ way, that you remember on your parent’s shelves or at the library, you really wanted to read? Did you ever get around to it and are they on your shelves now? 

I was pretty excited when I read Lord of the Rings when I was 9. I thought it was a grown-up book because it had no pictures. I got about 1/3 of the way through before I realised it had a page with some kind of runic diagram or something, and I felt cheated. I did finish it, though. I was very concerned that I should be able to finish such a long book.

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My dad was an English and drama teacher, so I read a lot of Beckett as a teenager, especially the plays. I was also really interested by The Pilgrim’s Progress because his edition had an intriguing cover. I did read that. I always anticipated that books long-deferred because they were ‘for grown-ups’ must hold some kind of secret that was so big and important that I couldn’t possibly even conceive of it. But I think there’s too much emphasis on childhood reading, that it’s sometimes sentimentalised, perhaps because for some people who don’t, or hardly ever, read books as adults, this is when they read most. I’m constantly coming across books that are THE BOOK for a while, and have at every period of my life.

If you love a book but have borrowed the copy do you find you have to then buy the book and have it on your bookshelves or do you just buy every book you want to read?

I usually put it on a wish list and don’t buy it unless I need to reference it. Having it on a list must make me feel I if I do possess it in some way. Sometimes I lend out a book, then I don’t want to ask for it back for one reason, or another. I’m more likely to buy it then.

What was the last book that you added to your bookshelves?

After they’ve been through the holding pattern thing, maybe Lucia Berlin’s collected short stories, which I may not reread very soon, and Lispector’s, which I definitely will. Apart from when I’m reviewing, I’m pathologically incapable of finishing a book of short stories. I have no idea why.

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I just bought Bolaño’s 2666, and of course that’s gone on the tbr pile, not a shelf, but it’s size is a bit daunting so I’m not sure how quickly it will get to the shelves…

Are there any books that you wish you had on your bookshelves that you don’t currently?

There are books I wish were available – like Leonora Carrington’s short stories, and Down Below, her memoir of incarceration in a Spanish mental asylum. I read this book in a university library. I am sad that such a common-or-garden-looking paperback is available only there, or via a second-hand book dealer for quite unreasonable sums.

What do you think someone perusing your shelves would think of your reading taste, or what would you like them to think?

Pseudy (post)modernist.

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A huge thanks to Joanna for taking part in Other People’s Bookshelves. If you would like to catch up with the other posts in the series of Other People’s Bookshelves have a gander here. Don’t forget if you would like to participate (and I would love you to – hint, hint, hint as without you volunteering it doesn’t happen) in the series then drop me an email to with the subject Other People’s Bookshelves, thanks in advance. In the meantime… what do you think of Joanna’s responses and/or any of the books and authors that she mentions?


Filed under Joanna Walsh, Other People's Bookshelves