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Report From Practically Nowhere (1959)

Written by John Sack and Illustrated by Shel Silverstein

While searching through the Advanced Book Exchange to see if I could get a good deal on Different Dances (which I still don't own, by the way: anyone want to help me out?) I came across this book. Now, I'd found out a whole lot about Shel and his output by this point (May 3, 1999) but I'd never heard of this particular book. So, on impulse, I ordered it and did some further research.

John Sack was born in 1930 in New York. He attended Harvard, graduating in 1951, and subsequently headed off to the Pacific to fight in the Korean War among the Army Reserves. At age twenty-two he published his first book, The Butcher (1952), an account of how mountain climbers managed to tackle Yerupaja, then the only unclimbed mountain in the Americas. The next year he was on the staff of the Pacific Stars and Stripes for most of his army career, around the same time that Silverstein was submitting cartoons three times a week for the army paper. Sack's second book, From Here to Shimbashi (1955), a humorous account of Army life in Korea, was published by Harper & Brothers soon after he left the army, following which he started writing short pieces for magazines like Harper's, Holiday, The New Yorker, and Playboy.

Report from Practically Nowhere is a collection of 13 short pieces, most of which appeared previously in Playboy starting in 1955. Each section describes Sack's descriptions and observations of a tiny country that few people (then) had ever heard of. Of course, most people are now familiar with countries like Lichenstein, Monaco, San Marino, and Andorra. Well, at least I have heard of them. But some of the others--Athos(which made me think of other lost Musketeers) Amb, Swat, and Lundy are unknown to say the least. In fact, I wonder if they even exist anymore, or at least some of them might have been renamed. In any case, this book is a travelling memoir, as Sack visits these hidden places and shows Americans (and other inhabitants of the Western World, or at least those that had access to Playboy) what they are all about.

Silverstein's contribution to Report from Practically Nowhere is somewhat subdued. The cover is his, of a man staring up, up, up at a country sitting on a hill that looks dangerously close to falling over and toppling the poor sightseer. I was somewhat surprised that in 232 pages of text, there were perhaps 20 drawings that I counted. Most of them were just direct illustration of text, but sometimes Silverstein got in a good joke; like a picture of an incredibly busy street with the caption of, "Why do I live here? Because it's quiet!". There is one particularly bizarre illustration of a nobleman staring down the length of a toilet, but I am sure that will be explained once I read the related chapter more closely.

In any case, Report from Practically Nowhere will be reprinted by backinprint.com in the next month or two. You can find out more info about the release of this book, and also about the life and career of John Sack, at his website.

After the publication of Report from Practically Nowhere, it seems that Silverstein and Sack didn't exactly stay in touch, beyond going to the occasional party or two. Later, Sack became a prominent contributor to Esquire magazine, which published some pieces that would later become the Vietnam testimonial M (1967) and the biography of Lieutenant Calley (in his own words), which was published in 1971 to a great deal of controversy, considering the touchy subject matter, as many felt Sack's book was far too sympathetic to the man who has been chiefly blamed for the My Lai massacre in Vietnam.

Two other books--The Man-Eating Machine (1973) and Fingerprint: An Uncommon Autobiography (1983) would be published afterwards, but Sack's piece de resistance was the 1993 book "An Eye for an Eye", which detailed his research into the possibility that after the Holocaust, 80,000 Germans and Poles (and possibly other nationals) died at the hands of some Jews who were acting on a vigilante mission. The book was published in haste after Sack appeared on 60 Minutes, and was subject to such controversy that it went out of print after only 4 years, and resulted in various cancellations of speaking engagements, most notably at the Holocaust Museum in Washington in 1997. Luckily, An Eye for an Eye has made its way back into print, and undoubtedly the controversy surrounding its publication and content will rage once more.

I am continually amazed by the fact that Shel Silverstein seemed to associate with people who were not only as interesting as he was but are as random a group as I have ever heard of. Of course, when one had a career spanning over 45 years and involved so many different creative outlets, one is bound to meet up with interesting people all over the place.

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