Six Picks: Recommendations from the Monitor staff

National Geographic's most unforgettable portraits, cooking 'Avec Eric' on PBS, a snappy primer on money basics, and more.

Random House

A cloistered life

In the mood for good historical fiction? Get thee to a nunnery. In 16th-century Italy, explains bestselling author Sarah Dunant in "Sacred Hearts," you didn't have to have a vocation to become a nun. Girls without family, with disabilities or scars, or daughters whose fathers couldn't afford for them to marry were all dumped behind the convent walls. For some, like the novice Serafina, it's like being buried alive. But others, such as Sister Zuana, the dispensary nun who befriends the raging teen, are able to find an intellectual freedom unavailable in the outside world.

Minding your money

The PBS 60-minute special, "Your Life, Your Money," is geared toward the 20- and 30-something crowd, but this snappy primer on money basics has helpful tidbits for all ages. Hosted by actor Donald Faison, with appearances from young celebrities who relate their hard-earned financial lessons, the show is framed by solid financial guidance from money experts and is sprinkled with man-on-the-street interviews, handing out tips on everything from how to shop for a credit card to how to approach basic checking, saving, and investing. Airs Sept. 9 at 9 p.m.

For the gourmet

Recipes are all well and good for the everyday cook, but for those who aspire to be truly creative in the kitchen, superchef Eric Ripert hosts a new, 10-part food-adventure series, "Avec Eric" on PBS this fall. Come along as this four-star master trots the globe in pursuit of the perfect oyster and sublime grapes and cavorts with the farmers and fishermen who make his basic cooking ingredients possible. Mouthwatering, eye-candy abounds as do basic recipes that even beginners can enjoy. Debuts Sept. 5, check for local times.

Join three families

"Earth," the first film in the new Disneynature series and now out on DVD (Disneynature, $29.99), is a beautifully filmed documentary that follows the lives of three animal families – whale, polar bear, and elephant – and gently underscores our responsibility to the ecosystem.

Unforgettable portraits

Remember the haunting look of that Afghan girl on the cover of National Geographic in 1985? Her photo and 55 other striking portraits are on display at "In Focus: National Geographic Greatest Portraits," an exhibit at California University of Pennsylvania's Manderino Gallery until Nov. 11. For more information, go to

Monkey business

For a moment there, Arctic Monkeys looked as if they were suffering from the Strokes syndrome: a buzz band that didn't have a second act. "Humbug" ($13.98, Domino), the third album by the Brit-pop wonders, shows they're survivors, with appealing songs murky in reverb, fuzzy guitars, and grown-up introspection. Unlike the bratty attitude shown in earlier days, singer Alex Turner is proving he's a crooner in the footsteps of Morrissey; on "Cornerstone," a ballad, he sounds less as if he's lashing out than reaching out.

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