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Books in March 2015: Thailand’s Buddhist temples, Singapore in review and more

On the look-out for a promising new read? Check out our picks of brand new titles out in March…



Lilian on Life
Alison Jean Lester
Putnam | 238 pages

How I love this novel! Narrated by its 57-year-old protagonist, Lilian, each highly original chapter is both a reflection on an aspect of her life thus far – from men (quite a few of them) and sex (quite a lot of it), to family and friends, children and abortion, money and class, fashion, travel, work, depression and psychotherapy.

Really, though, it’s about love; that and the pain of loss. It’s also a subtly feminist exploration of being female – attached or alone, independent or otherwise – in the shifting and uncertain landscape of the times.

Lilian is a single woman, born in the 1930s in the American Midwest. In the fifties and early sixties she travelled to Europe, living and working in Munich, Paris and then London, before settling in New York.

“In those days,” she remembers, “you could wear the same outfit to work every day as long as it was presentable.”

In New York, she meets the love of her life, Ted (who just happens to be married). Their poignant story will stay with me for a long time.

This is the kind of book to pass on to a good friend, though you might be tempted to keep it for yourself, liberally earmarked at passages that you want to return to. Here’s my favourite:

“When I die, if I can’t have six former lovers as my pallbearers, I want six strapping gay men instead. Some will be stoically clenching their teeth and making their jaw muscles dance; some will be singing lustily with tears streaming down their cheeks.”

Alison Jean Lester’s well-crafted debut novel is by turns hilarious, provocative, thoughtful and touching, and I recommend it to you unreservedly.

Verne Maree



Buddhist Temples of Thailand, A Visual Journey through Thailand’s 42 Most Historic Wats
Text by Joe Cummings, photography by Dan White
Marshall Cavendish | 263 pages

A visual journey, yes, and the late Dan White’s photographs of 42 of Thailand’s most prominent wats, with their Buddhist artefacts, monks and worshippers are splendid; but of at least equal value to me is Thai expert Joe Cummings’ concise yet erudite text.

Have you ever found yourself wandering uncomprehendingly around Southeast Asian temples, soon tiring of the admittedly grand spectacle because, let’s be honest, you don’t really understand what you’re looking at, or its context? I know I have – and I’m pretty sure that’s what leads to that “templed-out” feeling.

Even in a more culturally familiar place (like Canterbury Cathedral, say, or a local museum), I find that paying the extra couple of pounds for an audio-tour makes the experience an infinitely more enjoyable and memorable one. Wat audio-tours are not the norm in Thailand, of course, but here’s a beautiful book that goes a long way toward filling that gap.

Buddhist Temples of Thailand not only covers the history and regional diversity of the country’s Buddhist temples, but – in its publisher’s words – attempts to “encapsulate the development of Buddhism in Thailand and its interplay with the rise and fall of empires and their temple-building programmes”. This is the second edition of this lovely, lovely book.

Vanessa Harvey



Singapore 365
Dominique Husken-Ulbrich and Amin Zainotdini
Husken-Ulbrich Books | 303 pages

One of a slew of recent publications that align themselves with Singapore’s much-fêted 50th Anniversary of Independence, Singapore 365 is a current bestseller at Kinokuniya (and deservedly so). It makes an attractive addition to the coffee table, and an excellent souvenir of Singapore – both for us who live here, and for our visitors.

Its creators have focused on the year 2013, and happily, this is just the inaugural edition of a publication they plan to reprise annually. In essence, Singapore 365 asks and answers the question: What happened in Singapore in 2013?

It starts with Highlights of 2013 – which includes a surprising comparison between prices of everyday groceries in Singapore and Malaysia (why, one has to ask, is a packet of Barilla spaghetti nearly three times the price here?), but also the year’s top books, movies, architecture and more. Then comes Viewpoints on 2013, interviews with newsworthy personalities such as Halimah Yacob, Singapore’s first female Speaker of Parliament, and Alvin Tan, director of The Necessary Stage.

But the bulk of the book is devoted to 2013 in Review, looking at each calendar month’s political, social, business, culture, sports and sustainable development news and achievements.

All this could easily have been unutterably boring. Yet it really isn’t; and that’s largely due to Singapore 365’s innovative, bold and clever design. It’s simply bursting with quirky photos, entertaining infographics and colourfully digestible maps, graphs and tables.

You have to buy this book! How else will you remember that the Workers’ Party won the Punggol East by-election in January 2013, that the Singapore film Ilo Ilo won the Caméra d’Or at Cannes in May, or that Aung San Suu Kyi visited Singapore in September?

Verne Maree