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Kitschy travel souvenirs absurd and outrageous

From a foot-tall, cowboy-oufitted, salt-and-pepper-shaker-holding iguana to a porcelain alligator thermometer, author searches globe for crazy souvenirs

Travel and humor author Doug Lansky is drawn to the absurd and outrageous, collecting anecdotes and photos on his websites and throwing them back at his fans in book form.

He has just released “Crap Souvenirs: The Ultimate Kitsch Collection” ($10.95; Penguin). It’s a photo homage to the tackiest travel bric-a-brac out there. You’ll see some of it at www.crapsouvenirs.com. In a recent conversation, Lansky discussed …

WHAT IT TAKES TO QUALIFY: “First, you have to define souvenir. It has to be something for sale. … The souvenir should have the name of the location on it or has to be something endemic to the place, like a pink flamingo sold in a Florida gift shop. The object could be sold at any price, but most are between $2 and $15.”

WHAT MAKES SOMETHING SO AWFUL: “It has to be comically kitsch, and that often involves a combination of two factors. A porcelain alligator is OK, but when it also has a thermometer on it and the thing says ‘FLORIDA,’ it transcends into something else.

“Another typical kitsch characteristic is a mismatch of something sacred with something mundane. Consider the pope’s likeness: Put it on anything but a religious item, and it becomes kitsch. That’s not a jab at the pope: It’s just that the contradiction of a pope talking key chain, pope bottle opener or pope perfume all become funny. Those are real items, by the way, and can be found in the book.

“The Sphinx and King Tut work the same way – like a little version of Tut’s head that’s a toothpick holder, toenail clipper or thimble. I have those! And I don’t think Tut saw that coming. …

“The basic gut test is: Does it make you cringe and laugh at the same time? By the way, there should be a word for that.”

HOW THE BOOK BEGAN: “When the ‘Sky Maul’ spoof (of the in-flight SkyMall catalogue) came out in 2006, I said, ‘This is brilliant!’ It elevated my appreciation of the humor value of kitsch items, and that spilled over into airport gift shops and became a game for me and my wife: Who could spot the worst items, hold them up and take pictures?

“I have limited luggage space when I travel, and we live in a small house in Sweden. But with photos, we could enjoy the things without them collecting dust in our home.”

HIS PERSONAL COLLECTION: “One of my favorites isn’t even in the book. (Wife) Signe brought it back from Amsterdam: It’s a ceramic Dutch windmill that holds these little cheese jobbers – fancy metal toothpicks that have a little windmill on each. It’s so over-windmilled that it’s like cake-on-cake.”

THE BIGGEST KITSCH HE’S SEEN: “It’s at a shop in Austin, Texas. It’s an iguana or some sort of lizard that was stood up – it’s about a foot tall – dressed as a cowboy and holding salt and pepper shakers in its arms.”

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