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The idea of The Great American Novel feels like an albatross around the neck of that country’s literature. Sooner or later every white middle-class male writer with any kind of reputation feels obliged to have a stab at it, usually with limited success. Eventually they think it’s time to pack away all the fun stuff like storytelling, energy and plot, and make some big state-of-the-nation address, telling people exactly how things stand in the good ol’ US of A. Interestingly, America’s women writers don’t tend to feel the obligation to grandstand so strongly, and their novels are usually all the better for that.

In the studio: Lawrence Weiner, artist

'Art, if it really and truly succeeds, is going to change other people's lives'

Dissident Gardens, By Jonathan Lethem: Book review - insightful look at radical politics in New York

Music looms large for Jonathan Lethem. In the past, citing Walter Pater's dictum that "all art constantly aspires towards the condition of music", he has said that he tries to make his prose "as musical as I can".

A 2 bedroom flat to rent in Skeldergate, York YO1, on with Mudd and Co for £1,200 pcm (£277 pw)

Property news roundup: Annual rent rises halved in 2013

Plus, the rise of the first time buyer, the importance of smell, and Generation Rent

Postcard from... Bangalore

The two sisters sat in the airport lounge, waiting for their flight to Kerala. It was delayed. They were keen to get going. Their mother had died the day before and they were going to settle her affairs. “She had a good life. She lived to 97,” explained one of the sisters. “You know what her secret was? Coconuts.”

Competition watchdog orders sell-off of nine private hospitals

The Competition Commission has ordered the sale of nine private hospitals, including London Bridge and Princess Grace, in an effort to smash the market dominance in Britain’s £5 billion private healthcare industry.

Celebrations for Bhogali Bihu or Magh Bihu, the harvest festival, have begun with community feasts and prayers
Channel 4's series claims to shed light on life on benefits for residents of the street, including Smoggy pictured here

Benefits Street, Channel 4 - TV review

No one's done much to help the residents of James Turner Street in Birmingham, now forever rechristened Benefits Street, thanks to Channel 4's controversial new documentary series. Despite – or maybe because of – the Twitter death threats, accusations of betrayal and media uproar, which followed its first broadcast, Channel 4 has defied calls for the series to be pulled. Did it hope this second episode would change some minds?

The flower of the Nymphaea thermarum, the smallest water lily in the world, is no bigger than a £1 coin

Nymphaea thermarum stolen: One of world’s rarest plants taken from Kew Gardens

The plant is one of the world’s smallest species of water lily with a flower no bigger than a pound coin

In the studio: Elizabeth Ogilvie, artist

"It is my experience of the countryside that I am trying to convey to the public"

Green surroundings, four bedrooms, four reception rooms, a garden.... and a couple of bodies buried in it

For sale: Four-bedroom terraced house, £650,000 – with previous owners' bodies in back garden

This property could be the ideal family home; situated in a leafy suburb in south-west London, it comes complete with four double bedrooms, four reception rooms, and a reasonably sized back garden. The only problem is that the previous owners are buried under the flower bed.

Donald Macintyre's Sketch: Owen Paterson, Cruella de Vil of the environment

Owen Paterson yesterday lived splendidly up to his image as the Tory Cruella De Vil, draped luxuriously in the fur of culled badgers, by pointing to other countries where once-loved species were being drastically thinned out by the authorities.

Nadhim Zahawi (right) is an adviser to the Prime Minister

Coalition policy causing 'physical harm' to countryside, claims Tory MP

Nadhim Zahawi says 'massive, irreversible damage' is being caused

First things first: Emma Townshend reveals her gardening New Year's resolutions

Our gardening correspondent's opening resolution is to tidy up. After that, she can get down to her World Cup window boxes and learning how to cloud-prune...

The novel cure: Literary prescriptions for those struggling to keep New Year's resolutions

Ailment: New Year's resolution, struggling to keep

Cure: The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

Anna Pavord's A-Z of pests and problems: V and W are for ventilation, vine weevil and weeds

A virus can be bad news – or the reason your favourite tulip is so beautifully marked, says our green-fingered correspondent

News
Paper trail: the wedding photograph found in the rubble after 9/11 – it took Elizabeth Keefe 13 years to find the people in it
newsWho are the people in this photo? It took Elizabeth Stringer Keefe 13 years to find out
Arts and Entertainment
Evil eye: Douglas Adams in 'mad genius' pose
booksNew biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Sport
FootballFull debuts don't come much more stylish than those on show here
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Life and Style
Kim Kardashian drawn backlash over her sexy swimsuit selfie, called 'disgusting' and 'nasty'
fashionCritics say magazine only pays attention to fashion trends among rich, white women
Arts and Entertainment
TVShows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Arts and Entertainment
Hit the roof: hot-tub cinema east London
architectureFrom pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
Travel
travel
News
The ecological reconstruction of Ikrandraco avatar is shown in this illustration courtesy of Chuang Zhao. Scientists on September 11, 2014 announced the discovery of fossils in China of a type of flying reptile called a pterosaur that lived 120 millions years ago and so closely resembled those creatures from the 2009 film, Avatar that they named it after them.
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Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week