"Vandals" by Alice Munro
This is an extraordinarily deep and complex story. It is also subtle -- I had to read it several times before I understood it. Told through an older woman, Bea, who has loved a hard, cruel man, and a young girl, Liza, who was close to them both, the story is broadly about territory, nature, control, sex and rage. Most profoundly, it is about motherhood -- or the abdication of it -- and the girl's rage at the older woman for refusing to behave like a mother when the girl needs her to. "Vandals" is one of the most powerful, artistically beautiful things I've ever read.
"Under the 82nd Airborne" by Deborah Eisenberg
A deluded Blanche Dubois-esque woman travels to a war zone to visit her daughter, thinking she's about to have a vacation on a beach. Reading the story, I was reminded of an interesting definition of sin I once heard -- that it is first an abandonment of yourself. The heroine, who has abandoned herself before we meet her, is both contemptible and heart-rending, and Eisenberg moves her through a failing, chaotic world described with delicacy and a rare sense of intelligent wonder. The end is a knockout.
"Helping" by Robert Stone
The "Dirty Harry" of short stories, except nobody gets killed. A cranky Vietnam vet sick of his job as a counselor falls off the wagon while his lawyer wife is being hassled by child-abusing bikers. His wife says to hell with it and pours herself a stiff one. The writing is beautiful and masterful. The dialogue is full of ugly charm, and moral boundaries expand and contract with heartbroken, drunken senselessness. When the hero wades out into the snow with a loaded gun, we're on his side, even though, technically, he's acting like an asshole.
"Separating" by John Updike
As he meanders through chores and family functions, a father lets his children know that he and their mother are separating. What is remarkable about this story is the intense sensitivity with which it's told: The story opens in dozens of petal-like details and moments of feeling. In a very small setting, Updike creates a whole world that is by turns heartless, trivial, abundant, empty, tender, funny and deep. His acknowledgment of every character's complexity and mystery and his ability to make us feel them give the story great energy and movement even at its most quiet and somber moments.
"The Lower Garden District Free Gravity Mule Blight or Rhoda, a Fable" by Ellen Gilchrist
The story of a materialistic, indiscriminately sexual woman who dreams she's crushing the skulls of her husband's sheepdogs while her mother's sad little face peeps down the stairs. She's getting divorced and she needs money, so she's trying to pawn her wedding ring and then collect insurance money on it. She's also trying to screw the insurance man. She's irrational and she thinks awful, anti-Semitic thoughts. She's an absurd jerk and she's hilarious and she enjoys the physical world to the hilt. She's human appetite, lovingly regarded in all its buffoonery. I once compared this story to "The Lucy Show" for a disapproving undergraduate class. One of them grandly responded that he didn't read literature for "The Lucy Show." How unfortunate for him.