by Brian Wilson with Todd Gold

The most surprising thing about Brian Wilson's memoir of his life as the founder of the Beach Boys is that he is still around to write it.

A pop-music genius who wrote and produced such classics as "Help Me, Rhonda," "I Get Around" and "California Girls," Wilson drank and took drugs excessively, was tormented by doubts and demons and failed in most of his intimate relationships (while married to Marilyn Rovell, the mother of his children Wendy and Carnie, now of the pop group Wilson Phillips, Wilson was infatuated with Rovell's sister Diane).

But as Wilson and his coauthor, PEOPLE writer Todd Gold, make clear in this oddly touching biography, Brian Wilson suffered from far more than the usual symptoms of the '60s. Physically abused, taunted and consistently humiliated by his controlling father—and largely ignored by his mother—Wilson was a psychological wreck long before he became a Beach Boy. Wilson was bullied and controlled in the group too—by his brother Carl and their cousin Mike Love. (The only Beach Boy who comes off even mildly likable here is the late Dennis Wilson, who despite his rampant hedonism seemed genuinely concerned for his brother's welfare.)

Only through the intervention of controversial therapist Eugene Landy, Wilson says, has he managed to control his weight (at one point, a junk-food addiction ballooned Wilson to more than 340 lbs.), start writing music again and even do such simple things as go to the movies.

While many have questioned the clinical psychologist's pricey round-the-clock therapy methods and his later involvement in Wilson's music, Wilson sees Landy as a "business partner, teacher, adviser, manager, protector, voice of sanity, collaborator, and closest friend...all of those...and more."

Landy, Wilson apparently believes, is the one who saved him from living out an ancient Greek tragedy transplanted to a 20th-century California beach. (HarperCollins, $20)

by Pete Dexter

Nick DiMaggio, a retired pro boxer who runs a combination auto repair shop and boxing gym in Philadelphia, finds that since leaving the ring he has a hard time hating anyone. "Somehow, he had ended up understanding too much; and what he can understand, he can forgive," Dexter writes in his new novel.

Such understanding and generosity, along with graceful prose and gritty dialogue, are the hallmarks of Dexter's work. The author, who won the National Book Award in 1988 for his novel Paris Trout, brings empathy—if not always forgiveness—to the most tormented and violent of characters.

The person Nick understands most is Peter Flood, an innately decent man tied by family and tradition to an indecent life. The two meet when Peter's Uncle Phil, a corrupt union official. brings young Peter and Peters cousin Michael to Nick's gym for boxing lessons. Michael, who as an adult will hire others to do his fighting for him, typically spends the sessions watching TV. Peter enthusiastically takes to the gloves, discovering that in Nick's gym he can briefly escape a ruthless world.

Thanks to a Dexterous device—a prefatory newspaper article—readers know from the start that, as adults. Peter and Michael are doomed to die in separate mob hits. In the next 270 or so pages, Dexter traces how Peter and Michael reach that inevitable point. All in all, it's an exhilarating novel. (Random House, $22)

by Alice Elliott Dark

The plot lines of these six stories by first-time author Dark, a New Yorker, read like scripts for the now-defunct thirty something: a newly remarried painter in her late '30s is torn between her art and her desire to have a baby; an intelligent, upper-middle-class wife faces violence in her marriage; a straight woman rebounding from a love affair is frustrated by her unrequited love for a gay male friend. Self-involved and analytical, Dark's women are perfect examples of urban angst; only the occasional biting observation saves them from becoming stereotypes.

Dark is best observing small things: In the book's strongest story, The Good Listener, a teacher "remembered how it was at school when a mousy student won a prize; the triumph of the underdog imparted a feeling of solidarity to the group at large." But an overriding need to make an overt point—"Hypothesis: he needed other people. Conclusion: the people he needed, he already had"—undermines stories that would work better if they were more fragile, less obvious. It's as if Dark doesn't trust her characters to send their messages—or readers to receive them. (Houghton Mifflin, $19.95)

by Agnes de Mille

by Martha Graham

Scene from a Martha Graham rehearsal, as recalled by a dancer who had failed to please the great choreographer: "She stood behind me, grabbing my head by the hair and snapping my head back...I thought my neck had been broken, and I saw colored spots."

At other times Graham screamed, threw things and slapped, bit or scratched her dancers to get the results she was after. In return all she asked was total obedience and an almost religious devotion.

Graham was the kind of artist who seemed able to create only by turning herself into a monster—albeit a magnificent one. Colleagues and benefactors were subjected to any tantrum or wile that would keep her troupe going. In the late, rather paranoid years of her extraordinarily long career (she danced until she was 75 and choreographed right up to her death in April at 96), longtime employees and supporters found themselves banished for imagined lapses in loyalty.

Though passionately intense, Graham held herself aloof. Her one marriage—to lead dancer Erick Hawkins, 15 years her junior—ended after two years. When a friend urged her, during one of her many affairs, to make a commitment to love, she said, "If I were to take that step, I would lose my art."

Maybe, maybe not; but at least about the art there was no question. As performer, teacher and choreographer, Graham invented a revolutionary vocabulary of movement—angular, earthy, sensual—that defined modern dance in America. She made, writes De Mille with forgivable overstatement, "a greater change in her art...than almost any other single artist who comes readily to mind."

De Mille's vivid, lively account (Random House, $30) is not quite a formal biography, but it is written from a close-up perspective that will never be matched by more comprehensive future books: that of a friend, disciple and fellow choreographer (De Mille's credits include Rodeo as well as the dances for Broadway's Oklahoma! and Carousel). As an affectionate admirer, De Mille sometimes gushes, but as an informed professional, she makes cool appraisals. During the 1960s and early '70s, she writes, when Graham had captured the public imagination as an ageless physical and spiritual icon, she was in fact racked with a knee injury and arthritis, and was such an alcoholic that she was often "sodden with drink" both onstage and off.

Threatened with death, Graham stopped drinking and, past 80, emerged in her final, incongruous incarnation as a superstar, swathed in Halston gowns. She began marketing her artistic legacy as assiduously as her personality.

In her autobiography (Doubleday, $25), Graham takes herself as seriously as she expected others to. At times the reader feels he's sitting in a Graham class, at the foot of the oracle ("Theater was a verb before it was a noun," she writes). At others he feels present in a drawing room where she is holding court ("I never ask people about their religion, whether it's politics—which is a religion—or sex, which is also a religion").

Looking back, Graham seems to remember every rave review and adoring fan. She has good stories to tell (like the one about conductor Leopold Stokowski trying to seduce her), but far too many sentences start out something like, "The famous French poet St. John Perse said to me...." She is best on the symbolic meanings of her dances, and most affecting on her happy, bourgeois childhood in Pennsylvania and California. Her father, a physician interested in the ways that the body reveals character, taught her that "movement never lies," a principle that became fundamental to her.

Ultimately, writes De Mille, Graham felt she did not choose her destiny but was a vessel chosen by higher forces. "Lunatics, of course, feel exactly the same way. How does a genius know he is not a lunatic? He knows." That was the thing about Martha Graham: She always knew.

>JOHN CLEESE'S GREATEST INSULTS

From And Now for Something Completely Trivial: The Monty Python Trivia and Quiz Book, by Kim "Howard" Johnson (St. Martin's, $8.95)

1) You stupid, furry, bucktoothed gits! 2) Button your lip, you ratbag! 3) You excrement! You lousy hypocritical whining toadies with your lousy color TV sets and your Tony Jacklin golf clubs! 4) You miserable little man...do your worst, you worm! 5) You stupid, interfering little rat! Damn your lemon-curd tartlet! 6) I unclog my nose in your direction.... I wave my private parts at your aunties, you cheesy-lover secondhand-election donkey-bottom biters!

  • Contributors:
  • Sara Nelson,
  • Leah Rozen,
  • Christopher Porterfield.