Polk award is bittersweet for 'Blackwater' author

Winning the George Polk award last week was bittersweet vindication for investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill. His book, "Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army," was ignored by most major news organizations (including this one) when it was released in February 2007.

Readers found it, though, putting Scahill on the Los Angeles Times' and New York Times' bestseller lists long before Blackwater Worldwide security forces killed 17 Iraqi civilians and wounded 24 in Baghdad last September. And with debate dragging on over whether Blackwater and other security firms (which operate in numbers rivaling actual U.S. military forces in Iraq) should remain immune from prosecution, still more attention to Scahill's book is likely to follow.

"It took 17 innocent Iraqi civilians being gunned down in the streets of Baghdad for [Blackwater] to become a Page 1 story," Scahill wrote in an e-mail. "If, in any way, winning this award means that efforts to hold Blackwater and other mercenary forces accountable for their killings and other crimes will intensify, that would mean infinitely more to me than any accolades for the book."

For Scahill, a central story of the Iraq war -- one still largely underreported -- has to do with the U.S. hiring of private military contractors, with North Carolina-based Blackwater being one of the largest, to extend its reach in war zones.

These "secretive, shadow forces. . . . have regularly killed Iraqis, shot at civilians and committed crimes in Iraq over the past five years in a climate where impunity and immunity have gone hand-in-hand," said the correspondent for the Nation and the national TV and radio program "Democracy Now!" "They have not been held accountable under any legal system and continue their armed activities in Iraq to this moment."

Scahill says he's hard at work on "a pretty substantial update" of his book for the paperback edition coming out this summer from Nation Books.

-- Kristina Lindgren

What's on your reading playlist?

If you spend much of your time on public transportation reading, as I do, you may enjoy Molly Flatt's piece at the Guardian online about what she listens to to drown out the sounds of all the cellphones and jabbering around her.

Of course, books should be read "accompanied by nothing but the sweet, Mozartian sound of my own blossoming enlightenment," Flatt says.

But when you're trying to read Nicola Barker or John Banville next to some guy yelling into a cellphone, "What do you want tonight?! Pizza?! Tacos?!," a pair of earphones blasting Beethoven's Fifth is a thing devoutly to be wish'd.

-- Nick Owchar

How the dead read

Lydia MILLET's new novel, "How the Dead Dream," has been racking up its share of coverage. But what's gone largely unremarked is its membership in what we might call the Book of the Dead club -- a small subcategory of volumes that seem to suggest the dead may not be so, well, dead.

In May, Serpent's Tail will reissue Derek Raymond's "How the Dead Live," a virulent bit of British noir with an introduction by Will Self. That's only fitting because in 2001 Self stole the same title for a novel of his own, although at the time, he admits, he had not read Raymond's book.

That's not all: There's also William Greenway's "How the Dead Bury the Dead" and Katherine Bates' "How the Dead Depart," as well as what may be the earliest of all these books, Judith Johnson Sherwin's 1978 poetry collection "How the Dead Count."

Who knew the dead could be so active? Perhaps there's more to dying -- and to living -- than we might at first suspect.

-- David L. Ulin

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