Six Picks: Recommendations from the Monitor staff

Television's 'Merlin,' an enhanced version of Sims, travelers' guide to ancient Greece, and more.

Metropolitan Opera
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Minghella's 'Butterfly'

Experience the lushly produced Puccini's Madama Butterfly, created for New York's Metropolitan Opera by the late Anthony Minghella, when it airs on PBS June 20 at noon under the "Great Performances" umbrella. This British director uses his film experience to brilliant effect, bringing the operatic tradition to home audiences with up-close-and-personal camerawork and acting from his performers.

Young scottish songster

Singer/songwriter Paolo Nutini came out of nowhere a few years ago with a debut album of blue-eyed soul that spawned three hits and established the young Scot as an artist to watch. Possessed of a life-worn voice sounding a half century older that his 22 years, he is back with Sunny Side Up, channeling the persona of an old ragtime street busker in place of the radio-friendly soul man of his debut. The music is loose, rollicking, romantic, and totally unique. It's the sound of a young man having a ball.

A wizard's story

Much storytelling ink has been spilled on the Arthurian myth, but little attention has been given to Merlin, the magician that legend says mentored the young royal until maturity. NBC's glossy, ambitious new series, Merlin, which debuts June 21 at 8 p.m., takes us back to the reimagined awkward beginnings of both the once and future king and his magical tutor, not to mention Uther, Morgana, and Guinevere.

Ancient Greece on your itinerary?

Imagine planning a journey to the Greece of 2500 BC? British historian Philip Matyszak has created a comprehensive – and deliciously hilarious – travel guide, Ancient Athens on 5 Drachmas a Day (Thames &Hudson, $18.95), utilizing all the modern categories of lodging, dining, recreation, and cultural sightseeing. Celebrity watchers are told how to spot Socrates, and there's a guide to useful phrases in Greek. Beyond the value of the guide's great historical overview, a traveler to today's Greece would derive delight in discovering how much the democratic ideals of ancient Athens have endured.

Sims sophistication

The blockbuster video-game franchise known as the Sims, the originator of the so-called "God" games in which players run their characters' lives, just got better. Sims 3, which arrived this month, now allows digital inhabitants to move seamlessly throughout a vast world, but more important, shifts the games focus from physical activities to emotional and psychological game play. Fans are handing out rave reviews and new recruits are being initiated into the pleasures of self-discovery through – gasp – a video game.

Summer Reading Stimulus Plan

For avid readers, BookSwim offers a Netflix-like service where sub-scribers "rent" a number of books per month and return them whenever – no late fees. Now BookSwim is offering a free month of books when you sign up for a summer subscription. For full details go to

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